Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Firon & Oil

In the late 1950s, the New Orleans-based Industrial Electric, Incorporated was the local dealer of a porcelain enamel product called Firon. Utilizing a base of 16-18 gauge vitreous enameling steel coated with acid-resistant enamel frits and oxides, Firon boasted durability, weather resistance, and easy maintenance. Its popularity was in part due to an increasing demand for color in modern buildings, and it came in a wide array of colors, with varied textures and finishes.

Curtis and Davis utilized stippled cream, blue-gray and blue semi-matte Firon for their Pan-American Motor Hotel (1957), August Perez, Jr. incorporated Blue No. 53 Firon for his Blue Plate Foods Plant (1941), and Katz & Besthoff commissioned a purple color theme for one of its drug store/soda fountains. Firon proved quite popular amongst oil companies; American, Esso, Gulf, Phillips, Shell, Standard and Texaco all used the architectural porcelain.

Images above: Industrial Electric, Inc. Brochures, Box 60, Freret & Wolf Office Records, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Hurricanes, Oil & Architecture

In February 1967, Morgan City architect Lloyd J. Guillory (born 1925) addressed the coastal region's new modernist architecture that was increasingly made possible by oil wealth:

"Architecture has always been affected by various external forces beyond the control of the architect, and here in the region of the newly formed Coastal Section of the A.I.A. there are two such forces -- oil and hurricanes. They present a challenge, either singularly or together, to test the imagination and mettle of any practicing architect. Although the oil industry has had no direct influence on architecture, as far as this writer can determine, the affluence which accompanied this remarkable industry has indeed affected our profession in this area. It has enabled us to design and erect structures which never could have been built without such wealth, as is evidenced by the Morgan City Auditorium, the largest in the country for a community of its size.

The building boom which accompanied the oil industry has also produced an unbelievable number of bad buildings, as usually occurs in any booming area. Here 'pre-fab steel' is by far the largest culprit. The lack of adequate zoning restrictions and inadequate master planning is also profusely in evidence. But, these factors make the role of the architect more necessary and definitely more challenging.

The other major force, hurricanes, had a rather negligible influence on architecture prior to hurricanes Hilda and Besty. But, after these two 150 mile per hour monsters slammed into the coast in a period of eleven months, the results dictated the future of this area in a dramatic way. The fear which accompanied these great natural disasters caused a mass exodus unequalled in modern history. We found, to our dismay, that the dangers and discomfort of these evacuations were almost as bad as staying behind to face the winds. The inadequacies of the highway system to evacuate such a large mass and the uncertainties of lodging accommodations in other cities presented great discomforts and dangers themselves. It became dramatically apparent during Betsy that with only one highway running east and west, as it does in Morgan City, there is no right way to run and be assured you are going away from the storm. If you wait long enough to make sure, you have waited too long. I mention this only to emphasize that here the architect enters into a strange and unusual role as the man responsible for the answer to this monumental problem. "

To read more, see his article "The New Architecture of Coastal Louisiana" in Louisiana Architect 6 (February 1967): pp. 9-11. The journal is available in the Louisiana Research Collection, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Rice & Tulane: Sociable Dalliance

In the autumn of 1912, William Woodward (1859-1939) -- Tulane University Professor & founder of its Architecture School -- was delegated to attend the opening of the Rice Institute. With an estimated endowment of $10 million, the fledgling institution had contracted with Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson to design the campus plan and its buildings.

When Woodward returned to New Orleans, he reported on the buildings and their architect:

"The buildings of the Rice Institute of Houston Texas are genuine marks of Architectural Art, as I found on my recent visit there to participate in the formal opening as representative of the American Federation of Arts of Washington, D.C.

Three buildings of the large number provided for on the spacious campus are completed, or nearly so, and are widely separated -- The Administration building, the Power plant with mechanical laboratories and one group for men's residence composed of dormitories and commons.

As to what style no attempt at description would be adequate without many illustrations of details, but it can be said that one feels at once that the whole has been studied and erected under the eye of an architect who could realize his conceptions in sound construction.

I had the good fortune to be taken to the Institute by Mr. Cram of the firm of Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson, the architects, and his resident assistant Mr. Watkin, and thus can say first hand that Mr. Cram has aimed to construct in the best materials for each purpose and he is best pleased, perhaps, in the placing of the bricks, which are of a mellow color, brightened by inlays of marble and glazed tiles of varying and unique shapes. The cement courses are often wide enough to give the idea of banded work.

Mr. Cram was pleased when I jestingly spoke of the 'elocution' of the facade of the men's residence before which we stood. The sociable dalliance of the banded columns of the arcade on the ground, the serene wall rising above, accented with convenient balconies and crowned with sheltering eaves appeals at once. As might be expected the hardware and fixtures are all unique and pleasingly hand wrought in many cases. To a professor, one of the points of interest is the seating of the faculty chamber which has benches facing each other across the central aisle, as in a choir. Mr. Cram's sensitive eye was disturbed by the flare of crudely colored 'near' banners, which overwhelmed his color scheme in this chamber, and which had evidently been put up before his arrival. The only address or paper on Art was Mr. Cram's paper read one night at 2:30 A.M. when his audience had been reduced to almost a state of stupor by the events of the day and night."

William Woodward. [untitled article]. Architectural Art and Its Allies 8:3 (September 1912), p. 8 . The Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries. Emphasis my own.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Birdfoot: Southwest Pass

In 1970, New Orleans architect Edward B. Silverstein (1909-1989) was commissioned to design a new pilot's station on the Mississippi River's Southwest Pass. The river pilots lodged here in order to board ships and assist them in navigating the channel that serves as the main shipping path from the Gulf of Mexico to the Mississippi River. Punctuated by jetties, the Southwest Pass is maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which monitors channel conditions and dredging requirements. Silverstein's Southwest Pass Pilot's Station, completed in 1973 and shown in the photograph above, is no longer extant, replaced by a new structure that more closely resembles an oil rig.

Read more about Louisiana's Birdfoot at the Center for Land Use Interpretation here.

Image: Unidentified photographer. Edward B. Silverstein, architect. Aerial View of the Southwest Pass of the Mississippi River, c. 1973. Edward B. Silverstein Collection, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Rising Waters

20 June 2010. An unidentified photographer recently took these images of the Devils Lake, North Dakota area. During the 1930s & 1940s (when my grandmother was a child), Devils Lake was a barren salt flat. Since 1993, the water level has risen some 25 feet, more than doubling the lake's parameters, as can discerned from a succession of Landsat images. Geologists have projected that this pattern will continue for a century, and federal, state, and local leaders are attempting to develop a series of solutions for the affected communities (1). The smoke one sees in the center image is a property being burnt by its owners; the submerged trees reflect placement of other rural properties prior to inundation. The Spirit Lake Casino, owned by the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux bands and shown in the bottom photograph, once boasted a shoreline location; now it has become an island.

(1)F. Larry Leistritz et al. "Regional Impacts of Water Management Alternatives: The Case of Devils Lake, North Dakota, USA." The Journal of Environmental Management 66 (2002): 465-473.

Images: Top: Old U.S. Highway 281; Center: Eagle Bend; Bottom: Spirit Lake Casino.

Friday, June 18, 2010


New Orleans City Planning Commission
Master Plan Public Hearing

Tuesday, 22 June 2010 - City Council Chambers

On June 22, 2010, the New Orleans City Planning Commission will hold a public hearing to consider the City Council's recommended revisions to the Master Plan (Motion M-10-186). The public hearing will take place in the City Council Chambers, 1300 Perdido Street, 15 minutes following the City Planning Commission's regular public meeting, which begins at 1:30pm.

Requests for further information on the agenda should be directed to the City Planning Commission Office at 504-658-7033.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Paper Engineering

The Smithsonian Libraries have launched a new exhibition featuring the art of paper engineering, exemplified in books with moving parts, including peep shows, volvelles, concertinas and pop-up books. Since the fifteenth century, books with moving parts have been used as pedagogical and documentary tools. At the Smithsonian, viewers may examine the structural components of over 50 pop-up and movable books that demonstrate the diverse methods designers and paper engineers use to transform two-dimensional imagery into multi-dimensional forms.

This exhibition also features two interactive videos, a series of lectures by paper engineers and collectors and an online blog:

Cuban artist Carlos Garaicoa Manso (b. 1967) designs panoramic pop-up books of cities, reconceiving modern architecture to address contemporary politics and ideologies. His work was featured in the 2007 University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum exhibition Homing Devices and can be viewed online via: On 23 August 2010, USF CAM will open a new Garaicoa exhibition, Carlos Garaicoa: La enmienda que hay en mí (Making Amends). Watch for updates on USF CAM's home page.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Modernizing New Orleans Schools 1951

Orleans Parish School Board Office of Planning and Construction. "Modernizing Another School for New Orleans' Children: Your Investment in the Future," Construction signage blueline, February 1952. Edward Silverstein Office Records, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Phrenology: Step In

Urbanologist Max Grinnell tipped me off to a fantastic new photography exhibition at Atlanta's High Museum. The U.S. Rural Electrification Administration and the U.S. Housing Authority commissioned Danish-born photographer Peter Sekaer (1901-1950) to document rural locales and workers during the Great Depression. 87 of his silver-gelatin prints, including the one reproduced above, are on display in the High's "Signs of Life: The Photographs of Peter Sekaer" through 9 January 2011.

The New Orleans phrenologist's sign boasts that she "reads your head like an open book" and "speks servel langues."

Image above: Peter Sekaer, Phrenologist's Office Window, New Orleans, 1936. © Peter Sekaer Estate

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Restoration Leads to Conservation

The Northeast Document Conservation Center (NDCC) recently reported on its conservation of a cache of vintage circus posters that had been wheat-pasted to a Colchester, Vermont residence. Over time, previous homeowners had covered the posters with new siding, thus sandwiching the 1883 circus advertisements. When the current homeowners began a restoration in 1991, they discovered the posters and gave them to the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont. NDCC specialists recommended removing the boards from the house with the posters attached and the Shelburne Museum stored the boards until funding was available for the extensive conservation treatment. To read more about the project/watch slideshow, click here.

Image above: Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont, 2010.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Outrage Revisited

In 1955, British architecture critic Ian Nairn (1930-1983; BBC photograph above) voiced his disdain for what he called subtopia, the increasing homogenization of landscape and townscape, a quest for the ideal suburbia. He proclaimed his "Outrage" as a special issue of Architectural Review. Disparaging the "death by slow decay" of post-War planning, Nairn was a modernist who admired distinctive places that were redolent with spirit.

The Guardian
's current architecture critic Jonathan Glancey has been creating a series of films (begun 19 May 2010) that follow Nairn's footsteps across the British countryside. Watch the installments here.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Fourscore and Three Years Ago. . .

New Orleans architect Allison Owen (1869-1951) wrote for The Southern Architect and Building News:

New Orleans A City of Architectural Inspiration
Note: spelling from original article maintained...

There has been a great deal written on the subject that is delightfully done, much painstaking research work accomplished, but there has also been a good deal of carelessness. Inaccuracies have here and there crept in and have been quoted from one to another until it is now hard to run the facts to earth particularly as they have been glossed over with the charm of romance until many of us feel that we prefer the traditional tale to the cold reality.

We are told that the event of laying off the infant capital of the province of Louisiana La Nouvelle Orleans occurred shortly after the ninth day of February, 1718. Bienville who received his commission on that day proceeded from Biloxi, the former capital, with fifty men to make a clearing on the banks of the Mississippi, for his prospective city, also to make arrangements for carrying on his colonial government. "New Orleans was designed in imitation of Rochefort, a fortified port near the mouth of the river Charente on the western coast of France, historical as the embarking point of Napoleon on his exile in 1815."

The earliest houses were built of hewn cypress timber, one story high with possibly palmetto thatch or split cypress slate roofs. There are a few of these cottages still to be seen outside of the swath of the great fire which swept diagonally across the town in 1788, so we can now know that nothing we find in the area from Chartres and Conti and a line from the Cathedral to Dauphine and St. Philip can be older than 1788 or 1794, due to a second fire six years later.

The one story houses that were built after the fire are described by Latrobe as follows: "These one story houses are very simple in their plan. The two front rooms open into the street with glass French doors. Those on one side are the dining room and drawing room, the others the chambers. The offices, kitchens, etc., are in the back of the buildings. The roofs are high, covered with tiles or shingles and project five feet over the footway, which is also five feet wide."

Speaking of what we call the plantation houses, we have that delightful group at the head of navigation on Bayou St. John, the Lake Port before construction of the Carondelet Canal or the Pontchartrain Rail, road, the Blanc House, the so called Spanish Custom House, and the others, old St. Simeon's School, Thomas Saulet's plantation House of 1763, the Delord Sarpy House. All with no European original that I have been able to discover. A type which I suspect developed in many of the island colonies of the gulf and the Caribbean. They breath the generous days of comfort and open handed hospitality, which must have been indeed a golden age. Lieutenant F. Wilkinson was fortunate indeed in selecting this style when he planned that splendid group at Jackson Barracks in 1833 to 1845. One of the queer characteristics of all these houses was the external stair and no internal stair.

In 1769 the colony passed under Spanish rule and from that period we find Spanish influence in the work that followed particularly in the wrought iron work of the lovely balconies. I have been unable in France to find anything so good as some that we have here. The nearest prototype that I have thus far discovered is at Palma on the Island of Majorka.

It is quite different from the spindle type of Seville and the usual conception that we have of Spanish iron.

There is this to be said of the Spanish influence: That while during the period of the Spanish domination, as it is called, the large number of officials, soldiers, clergy, etc., were Spanish, the population as a whole remained French. There was some intermarrying but it was not general and when Spain relinquished control in 1803, some remained and gave us a few great names that have survived. But the language and customs of the French did not yield. While we have the gifts of Almonaster, the old Cathedral, the Principal, which we now call the Cabildo, and the Presbytere with their heavy arches and terraced roofs are strongly Spanish, we have no Plateresco, or Chirugurisque, or what we know as the Mission style of Mexico, Texas and California. True we have our old French Market, and the old Parish Prison, now gone, with its hall for imprisoned debtors, the arches of both suggestive of the cloisters of the padres of the West, but they were done by Joseph Pilie in 1822. The chapel of the Ursulines below the city was the nearest approach we had. Arches and balconies and patios of course are Spanish, but they are also Southern French and here we have a merging of the feeling of the architecture of both in our houses along Chartres, Royal, and Bourbon, St. Louis, Toulouse, Orleans and Dumaine Streets, all quite devoid of ornament except for the iron work. In fact, I know of no architecture which depends so completely for its effect on its mass and proportion and so little upon ornament for its charm.

From 1810 on, New Orleans was favored with the services of trained architects and there still exists many lovely examples done by the talented architect Henry S. Latrobe.

Owen, Allison. "New Orleans a City of Architectural Inspiration." The Southern Architect and Building News Vol. 53 No. 6 (June 1927), pp. 31-34. Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Architect Cites Automotive Grip

As written by Glenn Fowler for The New York Times 24 June 1959, p. 48:

New Orleans, June 23 -- Automobile makers and the motor oil producers were challenged today to help the nation's cities fight their way out of an automotive stranglehold.

Edward D. Stone, a New York architect whose designs in recent years have earned him a world reputation, depicted the plight of major urban centers in the United States as the result of failure to realize that "the automobile and the pedestrian cannot be mixed."

"Since the horseless carriage is largely responsible for our troubles, and we are a country that eulogizes free enterprise," he said, "why hasn't it occurred to the great oil and automotive industries to try to resolve some of the problems they have created? Why can't they be shamed into financing studies on the planning of our towns and cities?"

Mr. Stone made his plea at the convention of the American Institute of Architects at the Roosevelt Hotel.

The designer of the United States pavilion at last year's Brussels World Fair and of many other well known buildings in this country and abroad also came out strongly for establishment of a Cabinet post in the Federal Government to deal with urban problems.

In his endorsement of his proposal, which has been made by several groups of planners, city officials and private citizens in the last few years, Mr. Stone stressed what he referred to as the imbalance in our present governmental arrangement between rural and urban interests.

"We need a Cabinet official corresponding to the Secretary of Agriculture," he said, "with outposts in every state, and with architects and planners whose task it would be to guide communities, just as the Agriculture Department's state and county agents have educated the farmer."

Mr. Stone urged architects to take the lead in promoting greater official use of planning tools. He chided them for wasting energy on intramural matters while they might better, in his view, be doing missionary work among the public at large and the country's officialdom.

If architects followed the course, he said, "we would not be wasting our effort on creating precious prototypes for our own personal satisfaction, in the midst of chaos, but rather adding individual and brilliant buildings in a well-ordered plan for our country as a whole."

He said architects themselves were to blame for what he termed a loss of status of their profession.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Documenting the Gulf Coast

As reported by John Leland for The New York Times 2 June 2010:

MOBILE, Ala. — The beaches were still open; the restaurants were still serving shrimp. Fishermen were still casting for whiting off the white sandy shores. And ads on television still proclaimed the region open for business.

But as the oil slick made its way inexorably here toward the barrier islands at the mouth of Mobile Bay, with forecasts for a swath from Mississippi to the beaches of Pensacola, Fla., sometime this week, the mood was of the last days.

“You guys are our first line of defense,” Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper , a preservation group, told about 50 volunteers gathered in a room filled to capacity. “Your job is to document what we have here that’s beautiful. BP will have to make it right.”

They had come to train as volunteer field observers, taking photographs and notes on the conditions of the shoreline before the oil arrived. Now, suddenly there was an urgency to their preparations. Over the weekend, isolated tar balls had washed ashore on nearby Dauphin Island, interrupting a busy beach holiday. “It’s starting,” Ms. Callaway said. “The first groups today took beautiful pictures of the western shore of Mobile Bay. But there are fish kills everywhere. One of our friends was on Dauphin Island when the tar ball washed up. Her 12-year-old daughter just started crying.”

Until a few days ago, some people here had hoped, perhaps unrealistically, that the winds and currents would move the oil away from Alabama’s coastal islands, where fishing and tourism dominate the local economy.

“I had townspeople calling me and saying it’s not coming here,” said Grace Tyson, who runs Tyson Realty on Dauphin Island, shaking her head. “It’s like with the hurricanes. They’re predicted but then they don’t arrive. People said, ‘Take my condo off the market.’ ”

Business is down by more than 75 percent, she said. And with the latest forecast, she added, “I’d say closer to one hundred.”

The area had gotten a few tar balls in early May but no steady flow. Beaches filled for the Memorial Day weekend.

On the coastal island of Gulf Shores, some residents who had seen tar balls near their property said that their neighbors had told them not to talk about it. Ms. Callaway said that after she had appeared on television to talk about the tar balls on Dauphin Island, she, too, had received angry responses from locals. “I had people telling me, thanks a lot, you killed our tourist season.”

Then, on the eve of the opening of red snapper season, a major event here, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expanded the boundaries of federal waters closed to fishing and the state department of public health closed the oyster beds.

“We have teams in place to clean up all that’s coming in,” said Jeff Collier, the mayor of Dauphin Island. “But this is foreign to us. I worry about our ability to keep on keeping on. I like to think that we will get less than New Orleans, but who knows? It could get that bad.”

Fishermen and businesses have already put in claims with BP and the state for lost revenue, though the big losses are still to come, said Jeanine Stewart, an owner of Burris’ Farmers Market in Loxley, where sales “bottomed out” almost immediately after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon on April 20, but had crept back up since.

“The big thing businesses want to talk about is government supplements or BP claims,” Ms. Stewart said. “They’ve advised all of us to file claims.”

At the market, the television is turned to news, and Ms. Stewart calls people in to watch whenever there is an update on the spill. “It’s that much on our minds,” she said. “We’re still lying in wait. We still have that hope.”

But for Betty Edwards, that hope was dwindling. Mrs. Edwards and her husband have owned homes on Dauphin Island since 1978, and returned even after two were destroyed by Hurricane Frederick and Hurricane Katrina. She said she was still eating local seafood five days a week. “Everyone’s really scared,” she said.

“My mother is sick and I should be with her,” she said. “I said, ‘I’m going to stay here until it’s all closed.’ It could a couple days. But it’s when, not if.”

At the training session for volunteer field observers, Jon DeJean said she felt helpless, in part because she felt BP and government agencies were not telling the whole truth about the spill. “I was angry from the start,” Ms. DeJean said, “but the frustration is growing. For weeks I’ve been feeling powerless and helpless. I feel coming here is at least a step in the right direction. It gives me the feeling of doing something.”

But Tim Helland, a kayak fisherman, acknowledged that there was not much the observers — or anyone — could do.

“We’re going to patrol the beaches, and we’ll know exactly when it comes,” he said. “But it’s still coming. I’m 62. I may not be fishing where I fish ever again.”