Monday, October 27, 2014

From Oakland to New Orleans

In February 1946, Andrew Jackson Higgins, Jr. announced to Dallas businessman his latest venture, the development of an inexpensive solution to America's post-War housing shortage. Invented by Oakland, California architect Maury I. Diggs (1886-1953) in 1941, the ferro-enamel product could be utilized to build a house in three days for as little as $3,000. Higgins' research department further experimented with the product, trademarking it as Thermo-namel. The heat-fused porcelain enamel could be shipped to a building site and erected on a standard foundation. Thermo-namel sheets of equivalent size were then spaced apart to form a wall.  Once this sheathing was up, another Diggs innovation, a cellular concrete that Higgins trademarked "Thermo-con," was poured into the space between the Thermo-namel sheets.

Higgins claimed that Thermo-namel could be customized for any floor plan or color scheme, and that this flexibility would silence any objections to prefabricated construction. He felt his product could be used to build anything from garden furniture to skyscrapers. Seeking to attract Texas investors, he proclaimed the insulating Thermo-con to be "tornado-proof, earthquake-proof, dust-proof, vermin-proof and fireproof." Higgins hoped to build a $1 million plant in Dallas that would be exclusively geared towards providing affordable housing for veterans.

A national steel shortage forced Higgins to abandon Thermo-namel and instead promote Thermo-con as the means of delivering homes to the masses. The earliest Thermo-con homes were built in New Orleans, designed by Sporl and Maxwell.

Read more:  "Higgins Proposes $3,000 Homes of Steel and Enamel." Dallas Morning News 14 February 1946.

Image above:  Designing for the Thermo-Con Cellular Concrete System. New Orleans: Higgins Inc. Thermo-Con Division, Undated. Circa 1950. Architectural Trade Catalogs, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries. Digitized via the Internet Archive's Building Technology Heritage Library.

Friday, October 24, 2014

1948 Cornice Collapse

On April 28, 1948 at 12:20 a.m., a series of old brick and concrete cornices attached to shops located at 526-28-30-32 Royal Street collapsed due to heavy traffic vibrations. The cornices were approximately three feet high, one foot deep, and extended some 60 feet from side to side. When they crumbled, they destroyed the iron balconies and some of the plate glass windows below them. Vieux Carre Commission architect-inspector, Walter Cook Keenan, appeared on the scene to take photographs and spoke to Times-Picayune reporters:

'The mortar used in constructing the buildings was of very poor quality and some of the buildings 200 years old have mortar in them which has never dried. You can pick it out with a lead pencil.'(1)

Eye witnesses reported a noise that sounded like an "explosion" prior to the collapse. No injuries were reported.

This week 808-810  Royal Street experienced a more catastrophic collapse and is currently being demolished (above).

(1)"Collapse of Cornices Laid to Vibration, Houses' Age." The Times-Picayune 29 April 1948.

Images above:  Walter Cook Keenan, photographer. 524-530 Royal Street.  30 April 1948.  Walter Cook Keenan New Orleans Architecture Photographs, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries; K. Rylance, photographer. 808-810 Royal Street. 26 October 2014.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sixteenth Street Canal

We recently came across this photomechanical reproduction from 1898 that shows the milling operations of the New Orleans Cypress and Lumber Company, formerly the McEwen and Murray Sawmill. The operation was located in the square bounded by Cambronne and Dante Streets, the new basin and the Sixteenth-Street Canal. In November 1897, one of the McEwen dry kilns containing 5000 feet of lumber was destroyed by fire. The McEwen mill was owned by the New Orleans Cypress and Lumber Company and began operating under the owner's moniker by 1898.

In February of that year, the plant sustained significant tornado damage. The roof of the machinery room was completely blown away, exposing the engines to the elements. Other surrounding structures also sustained damages. Mount Olive Baptist Church was completely torn apart, its timber scattered into the nearby swamp. Workers' houses adjacent to the mill were "prostrated" and twenty families were "rendered homeless."(1)

The mill sustained catastrophic damages in July 1899, when a massive lumber fire swept through the plant. Yard number 2 contained some 8,800,000 ft. of clean and undressed cypress ready for shipment. A strong southeast wind spread the fire very quickly and despite the response of six steam engines that drew water from the canal [now renamed the Seventeenth-Street Canal], the yard was lost. The owners, represented by Captain and Mrs. R.A. Scott, and F.G. Tiffany of Lacrosse, Wisconsin, filed a $150,000 claim with the Pescaud insurance agency.(2)

(1) "A Little Cyclone Sweeps the City." The Daily Picayune 20 February 1898.

(2)"A Lumber Fire." The Daily Picayune 16 July 1899.

Image above:  New Orleans Cypress and Lumber Company, Ltd. Advertisement from Official Directory of the Southern Pacific Company and Atlas of Lines for Use of Shippers and Buyers. Chicago: Lanward Publishing Company, 1897-1898. Louisiana Research Collection, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

NOLA Benchmarks

In 1910, the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board established a new system of permanent benchmarks that replaced a temporary one. The older system had consisted of 6" galvanized iron boat spikes driven horizontally into the city's trees at a height 30" above the ground. This system proved perishable and the board decided to establish permanent benches consisting of granite monuments weighing approximately 200 pounds that were set into larger blocks of concrete.

Assistant engineer C.B. Adams spearheaded the modernization, selecting sites in public squares, major thoroughfares and parks. All elevations indicated on the benchmarks referenced Cairo Datum taken from the old Metairie Ridge Stone, which had been set in 1869 on the lake side of the Rampart Street neutral ground on the lower side of Canal Street.

New Orleans surveyor Guy Seghers retained the board's publication, Pocket Edition of System of Permanent Bench Marks for the City of New Orleans (31 December 1910) and revised it as certain benchmarks were voided or if elevations significantly changed. Benchmark 46-B, set April 1910 in the drainage pumping station at the intersection of Florida and Jourdan Avenues, originally recorded an elevation of 24.217, but Seghers noted a corrected elevation of 22.55.

Seghers' Pocket Edition includes a complete inventory of all the 1910 benchmarks, as well as a locator map.

Map and Regulation Bench Mark above from:  Pocket Edition of System of Permanent Bench Marks for the City of New Orleans (31 December 1910). New Orleans: Sewerage and Water Board, 1910. Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

Monday, October 20, 2014

NEW! J. Herndon Thomson Finding Aid

The Southeastern Architectural Archive (SEAA) recently completed processing its J. Herndon Thomson Papers. The collection consists of a small number of photographs, prints and drawings associated with Tulane University architect and educator John Herndon Thomson (1891-1969). Drawings reflect architectural education at Cornell University during the second decade of the twentieth century. Photographs pertain to the 1930 Frans Blom expedition to the Yucatán Peninsula.

Read more here.

Image above:  Dan Leyrer, photographer (attr. to). Market. Uxmal, Yucatán. January or February 1930. J. Herndon Thomson Papers, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

Architect and preservationist Richard Koch also visited the Frans Blom expedition in the Yucatán Peninsula during the early 1930s, and created a voluminous set of photographic negatives during his trip.  These images are housed in the SEAA's Richard Koch Papers and Photographs.

Richard Koch, photographer. Market Scene. Unidentified town. Mexico. Circa early 1930s. Richard Koch Papers and Photographs, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

Friday, October 10, 2014

NEW! Morgan Whitney Finding Aid

The Southeastern Architectural Archive recently finalized the processing of its Morgan Whitney Louisiana Architecture Photographs. The collection consists of platinum prints created circa 1890-1910.

Morgan Whitney (1869-1913) was a member of the prominent New Orleans banking family, who studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and became an accomplished photographer, still-life painter and musician. An early automobile touring enthusiast, Whitney was able to access the state’s rustic roads to photograph plantations in Ascension, Jefferson, Landry, Natchitoches, Orleans, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. James, St. John the Baptist and St. Martin Parishes. He tended to utilize the platinum print process, which was very popular at the turn of the century. His photographic works extensively documented Louisiana’s antebellum buildings and monuments, and some were later incorporated into the Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress) and Tulane University School of Architecture’s Vieux Carré Survey.

Image above: Morgan Whitney, photographer. St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church, 1210 Governor Nicholls Street, New Orleans. Circa 1910. Platinum print. Interior, detail.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

At Large in the Archive: Frank's Island Ledger

Tulane University Libraries recently acquired contractor Benjamin Beal's ledger documenting Benjamin Henry Latrobe's ill-fated Lighthouse for the Northeast Pass of the Mississippi River. After the Louisiana Purchase, the United States government appropriated funds to build a grandiose navigational beacon at one of the river's mouths.  Massachusetts sea captain Winslow Lewis was awarded the building contract and sent Benjamin Beal to oversee construction. Latrobe visited the site in April 1819. An early season hurricane battered the island three months later. Lighthouse officials were so concerned by damages that they requested an expert assessment. Major Joseph Jenkins, then constructing the New Orleans Customs House, inspected the site and recommended new construction.  After Congress received Jenkins' report, Winslow Lewis was hired to demolish the tower  and build a new lighthouse according to his own design.  The resultant "Mississippi Light" was first illuminated on 20 March 1823.

Keeping the seasonal workers -- who spent hurricane seasons in Boston -- was no easy task. According to the ledger, some were discharged, some refused duty, some stole a boat and "absconded" and some were too drunk to perform their duties.

Architect and preservationist Samuel Wilson, Jr. (1911-1993) was fascinated by the lighthouse.  In November 1934, Wilson and his fellow Sea Scouts visited the crumbling ruins and took photographs. Later Wilson conducted archival research in Washington, D.C. and developed measured drawings for the structure. His records are included in the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) deposited in the Library of Congress.

Wilson's scrapbook -- retained in the Southeastern Architectural Archive -- records his personal account that was never submitted to HABS:

"Far down North East Pass, once the principal pass of the Mississippi river, now long abandoned, stands an ancient brick tower as abandoned as the pass itself. Strange tales are told of this old ruin by the people of Pilot Town, tales of ghostly figures, uttering piercing shrieks and waving signals of distress from its crumbling top, figures which on closer examination proved to be giant snakes licking out with huge tongues to seize low flying pelicans, to devour them at one gulp as they utter their last agonized cry. Other snakes are said to have been so large that it required ten minutes for their great length to pass the doorway.

"It was to this desolate spot by automobile motor launch and pirogue that the Bienville went in November, 1934, and brought back photographs and data which are now filed in the Library of Congress with the records of the Historic American Buildings Survey. Of course, the fantastic snake stories were proven false, although large snakes hibernating [sic] in inner crevices of the walls. The true story of how this tower came to be here and why and when it was abandoned is as interesting a narrative as any of the wildest tales now told of it in Pilot Town."

Image above:  Benjamin Beal. An Account of the Time Building the Lighthouse on Frank Island, New Orleans. New Orleans.  1818-1823. Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.