Thursday, February 26, 2009

Samuel Wilson's Quest

During the late 1950s, New Orleans architectural historian Samuel Wilson, Jr. participated in a coordinated effort to develop a national architectural archive system. Based on an initial proposal from Mrs. Eric Mendelsohn to develop an American architectural museum, a small group of architects convened informally to discuss such an endeavor and how it related to architectural archives. A preliminary program was developed and presented to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Executive Committee in late 1955. The AIA then organized a Joint Committee on Architectural Archives consisting of members from the AIA, the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH), the College Art Association (CAA), the American Historical Association (AHA), the American Association of Architectural Bibliographers, the Association of State and Local History, the Library of Congress and the National Park Service (NPS). The committee hoped to establish a means of preserving this nation's architectural records for future study and sought funds from the Council on Library Resources (established by the Ford Foundation) to determine the best methods for collecting, storing and servicing such records in both original and surrogate formats.

Wilson's committee stated the problem:

"Although ideally the architectural history of a country should be written in the main directly from its buildings, in practice this is not feasible. Buildings are subject to destruction all the time, they are immovable and have to be examined in situ, and many details are either not easily ascertainable or else have been greatly changed.

Consequently, it is necessary to rely in large measure on the written documentation of the building -- drawings, specifications, correspondence and printed contemporary descriptions. The drawings, however, offer peculiar problems of storage, cataloging and servicing in bulk, which must be satisfactorily resolved. Of even more importance is determining what should be saved since practical considerations of cost and space obviate the possibility of saving all such records." (undated, c. 1957)

Information gleaned from "Architectural Archives Problems/Investigation Committee." Box 3, Samuel Wilson, Jr. Papers Collection, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

Ninety-Nine Actions

The Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) has assembled a new exhibition, 99 Actions: What Can We Do with a City, which documents contemporary projects around the world.  Many of these projects focus on making use of abandonned and blighted properties, recycling and sustainability. Visitors to the exhibition's website are encouraged to comment on each project's ingenuity.  Some favorites are:

#9 Oranges Lead Nocturnal Walk (Fallen Fruit, California & New Mexico, USA)

#17 Tide Map Restores Public Beach (Los Angeles Urban Rangers, California, USA) -- Congrats, Nick!

#67 Wood Makes People Big as Cars (Hermann Knoflacher, Vienna, Austria)

#83  Sheep and Lambs Eat City Park (Department of Park Management, Turin, Italy)

New Orleans is represented by the award-winning #71  Vietnamese Farm Feeds New Orleans, a joint project of New Orleans East Residents, Mossop + Michaels Landscape Architects, and Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation.   

If you want to submit your own ideas, check out the guidelines here.  WARNING:  Deadline is approaching soon!!!!

New Orleans Business Archive: Roberts & Co.

Roberts and Company placed this advertisement in the Soard's New Orleans City Directory of 1879. They offered a wide assortment of windows, blinds and doors, as well as columns, floorings, moldings, newels, caps and balusters. At the Paris Exposition of 1867, it was Roberts sash and cypress doors that went into the award-winning demountable Louisiana Cottage I mentioned in an earlier post. At the Hamburg and Altoona (Germany) Exhibitions in 1869, the company singularly represented the U.S. door and sash industry. Although the building trade was the company's focus, it was not its only enterprise: the New Orleans Mechanics' and Agricultural Fair of 1869 gave accolades to Roberts & Co.'s Ten Pins and Ten Pin Balls set.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

At Large in the Library: Birdfoot

A new arrival to the Tulane School of Architecture Library and the Special Collections Division's Louisiana Collections is the Center for Land Use Interpretation's exhibition catalog, Birdfoot: Where America's River Dissolves into the Sea (Los Angeles, first edition, 2008). GB1227.M6 B57

The small-format book, published by CLUI with support from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, documents the fragile alluvium southeast of New Orleans. Read more about this 35-mile stretch of the Mississippi in the Center for Land Use Interpretation's Spring 2008/Volume 31 Newsletter here.

Above: Exhibit postcard, Birdfoot: Where America's River Dissolves into the Sea. Los Angeles: CLUI 2008.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Walker Evans took this photograph in March 1936, labeling it "Negro House/New Orleans, Louisiana." The location of the multi-unit wooden structure is unknown as there do not appear to be any discernible street numbers. The box columns and louvred shutters are typical New Orleans features. The nitrate negative resides in the Library of Congress [digital id cph 3g01793].

I recently came across the copy print below in the SEAA's Miscellaneous Photographs Collection as "unidentified." It seems fairly certain that it was taken just moments before the LC image; the fellow in the wheelchair having departed the porch in the later photograph. The General Outdoor Advertising Company's brand new Heinz billboard in the SEAA photograph is quite a contrast to the battered tenement.

Photographs housed in the SEAA frequently represent individual structures in a portrait-like fashion, any sense of surrounding context out of the camera's frame. Researchers' inquiries often have us wishing we had more representations of vistas, street scenes, the urban context for the structures. Sometimes we do, more often we don't.

Image upper: Walker Evans. Negro House/New Orleans, Louisiana. March 1936. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Image lower: Walker Evans. Unidentified street/New Orleans, Louisiana. March 1936. Copy print (presumably from an LC negative). Miscellaneous Photographs Collection, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Opening Soon: In-Situ

The Museum of Modern Art's Department of Architecture and Design has announced a new exhibition opening in April.  Titled In-Situ: Architecture and Landscape, the show presents a series of projects from MOMA's collections that center on relationships between the built environment and its natural surroundings, projects such as parks, homes, cemeteries and urban developments.  To read more, click here.

In a similar vein, the National Building Museum recently opened an exhibition focused on architectural projects dotted along Norway's Public Roads Administration's Tourist Routes.  In conjunction with Detour: Architecture and Design along 18 National Tourist Routes in Norway, the National Building Museum screened the 2003 film, Schultze Gets the Blues, largely set in Louisiana Bayou country. Watch the trailer here.

On the west coast, the Museum of Contemporary Art launched Dan Graham: Beyond which includes his Homes for America (1966-1967), developed from Kodak Instamatic photographs Graham took while traveling by train through New Jersey suburban tract housing developments.  Science fiction writer and contributor to MOCA's related exhibition catalog Mark Van Schlegell will be speaking at MOCA on March 8th at 3 pm.  He was recently asked in an interview, "Why is so much contemporary science fiction inherently about Los Angeles?"  Read his answer here.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Looking Forward/Looking Backward

How to represent architecture of the future?  Would you look to Los Angeles?  The structure most frequently utilized as a setting in science fiction films is actually the oldest extant commercial building in L.A.'s central city (Broadway and Third Street).  Designed by George H. Wyman for real estate millionaire Lewis Bradbury, it was completed in 1893 and was inspired by Edward Bellamy's novel Looking Backward 2000-1887 (first edition 1888), which describes a utopian building of the future as "a vast hall of light, received not alone from the windows on all sides but from the dome, the point of which was a hundred feet above. . . the walls [. . . ] in mellow tints to soften without absorbing the light which flooded the interior."

Wyman incorporated gold and rose-hued glazed brick, golden oak, yellow tiles, brown terra cottta and rose marble to evoke California's warm natural light.  Cast iron balconies diminish in scale as one approaches the clerestory, thus exagerrating the interior height.  To read Charlie Jane Anders' piece on the building's appearance in SF places (not just utopias), click here.  To read the building's 1977 nomination for National Register of Historic Places status, which includes a (now dated) bibliography, click here.

My thanks to Texas A & M Science Fiction Curator Hal W. Hall for the information!

Image:  Marvin Rand, photographer.  Bradbury Building (304 South Broadway, Los Angeles, CA, 1893). HABS photograph CA-334-12 taken 1965.  

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Olivetti Showroom in Switzerland, 1957

I recently posted information about the former Olivetti Showroom on Canal Street that is now threatened by the LSU/VA Medical Corridor Development. Yesterday, I came across a wonderful 1957 photographic reproduction of the St. Gallen, Switzerland Olivetti Showroom. The picture credits are spartan, so I don't know who designed it. Olivetti does maintain a historical archive in its hometown of Ivrea, which is available to researchers on a limited basis.

The Museo dell'Architettura Moderna di Ivrea has amassed a wonderful collection of Olivetti typewriters, some of which are assembled chronologically on its website. At left is the first Olivetti typewriter,Model 1, designed by Camilo Olivetti in 1911. The idea for the M1 came to Camilo after a visit to U.S. factories in 1908.

Image upper: Olivetti Showroom, St. Gallen, Switzerland, 1957. As it appears in G. Prölss, Schriften für Architekten (Stuttgart: Karl Krämer, 1957), p. 76.

Image lower: C. Olivetti, M-1, 1911. Museo dell'Architettura Moderna di Ivrea. URL: Viewed 05-02-2009.

The Wimawalas Part II

In a September post, I reported on the plight of the self-proclaimed "Wimawalas," who in August of 1950 were fighting to save their neighborhood from the wrecking ball. The Magnolia Housing Project (aka Louisiana Project 1-10; later renamed C.J. Peete) Expansion was planned to cover the area that was home to shotgun houses, tenements, and a number of small churches.

New Orleans landscape architect William S. Wiedorn planned the drainage, lawns and plantings according to the Public Housing Administration's Low-Rent Housing Bulletin (31-10-1950) Division 25: Lawns and Planting. His planting scheme included Live Oaks, American Elms, Yaupon, Fern Bamboo and Bermuda Grass.

Additional information about the Magnolia Extension may be found in a number of collections housed in the Southeastern Architectural Archive: Koch and Wilson Collection and the William S. Wiedorn Collection.

To read more about American federal housing, see:

Davis, Sam. The Architecture of Affordable Housing. Berkeley, CA: U California-Berkeley Press, 1995. ARCH NA 7540.D38

Newton, Norman T. Design on theLand: The Development of Landscape Architecture. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press for Harvard U, 1971. Multiple locations, Tulane University Libraries.

Radford, Gail. Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggle in theNew Deal Era. Chicago: U Chicago Press, 1996. HTML HD 7293.R28
Sanborn Insurance Company, Detail of Wimawalas Neighborhood, 1909 Map of New Orleans, vol. 4 (with corrections to 1933). Sanborn Fire Insurance Atlases Collection, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Architecture in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

I recently purchased an old copy press of unknown manufacture, possibly made in New England, circa late 1840s- early 1860s. These presses have frequently been adopted by bookbinders and paper-makers, their original function forgotten. Most bankers' offices would have included presses such as these, for they served as a means of copying documents.

Architects had long lamented the need for time-consuming handcopying of documents such as deeds, conveyances and charters. According to the Journal of the Society of Arts, the British architect Christopher Wren took out a patent in the seventeenth century for a polygraph instrument, a device which could write with two pens at one time (Rhodes & Streeter, 16). The duplicate would thus be created simultaneously with the original. Certainly, early polygraph devices informed the creation of the Leroy Lettering Set, discussed in an earlier post.

James Watts, the progenitor of copy presses such as the one represented above, advertised a large press in 1811 for specific use "copying the outlines of plans, sections, and other Architectural and Mechanical Drawings." His device required placing a dampened heavy paper on top of the original large-format drawing; after applying pressure, a transfer/reverse drawing was created. In 1892 Knaffl offered a copying ink comprised of pyrogallic acid, cupric sulfate, ferric chloride, and uranium acetate of "special value to architects and engineers, since, without moistening the original drawing or the copying paper, it yields copies of such sharpness that the finest lines of the original are reproduced. To be sure, the ink is rather expensive, but that is of little importance, since from drawings, buildings, plans, etc. executed with it two or three copies can easily be produced." (Lehner, 95) With Knaffl's architectural ink, no damping was required: drawings and plans executed with the ink were transferred to a sheet of bristol board (heavy, smooth paper) after being placed under a smooth wooden board upon which books were evenly distributed for three to five days.

To read more, see:

Andrew, James. "The Copying of Engineering Drawings and Documents." Transactions of the Newcomen Society for the Study of the History of Engineering and Technology 53 (1981-82): pp. 1-15.

Lehner, Sigmund. The Manufacture of Ink. Philadelphia: Henry Carey Baird, 1892.

Rhodes, Barbara and William W. Streeter. Before Photocopying: The Art & History of Mechanical Copying, 1780-1938: A Book in Two Parts. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1999.

Sugarman, Jane E. "Observations on the Materials and Techniques Used in 19th-Century American Architectural Presentation Drawings." The Book and Paper Group Annual 5 (1986). URL: Viewed 03.02.2009.

Underwood, John. "On the History and Chemistry of Writing, Printing, and Copying Inks, and a New Plan of Taking Manifold Copies of Written and Printed Documents, Maps, Charts, Plans, and Drawings." Journal of the Society of Arts 5 (1857): pp. 7-8.

"Wren's Copying Instrument," Journal of the Society of Arts 47 (1899): p. 886.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Ambassador of Schools

Charles R. Colbert's role as Supervising Architect and Director of the Office of Planning and Construction for the Orleans Parish School Board (1949-1952) ultimately resulted in the creation of his award-winning Phillis Wheatley Elementary School, 2300 Dumaine Street, designed in 1954. Utilizing his own appraisal scheme, he considered this project to exemplify the very highest quality of all his professional work. The building won the Top Award from the The School Executive "Better School Design Competition" in 1954 and was shown by the U.S. State Department in Berlin (1957) and Moscow (1958) as part of its foreign relations programming. Omer Blodgett published an article about Wheatley's elevated truss system for Progessive Architecture in August 1958. Earlier that decade, Colbert's battle with the parish to embrace modernism for its schools was chronicled by Architectural Forum (February 1951).

Colbert (1921-2007) was born in Oklahoma, studied architecture at the University of Texas, went on to study naval architecture at the University of Michigan, and received an M.S. in architecture at Columbia University. He taught architecture at Tulane University from 1947-49, later leaving New Orleans to reorganize Texas A & M's architecture program (1956-1957) and accepting appointment as the Dean of the School of Architecture at Columbia University in 1960, a position he held until 1963.

His firm brochure, circa 1971 emphasized:

"Enviable indeed is the man who can point to his buildings with pride to say:

This is where I raise my children.
There is where my children are educated.
This is where I conduct my business."

[Image above:
Colbert Lowrey Hess Boudreaux Firm Brochure, circa 1971. "Colbert, Charles" Biographical File, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries. Photograph by Frank Lotz Miller].