Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tulane's Lost Owls

Tulane University's Joseph Merrick Jones Hall, located at 6801 Freret Street, was designed by Moise Goldstein & Associates, Architects (1939-1941). Tulane School of Architecture faculty member Nathaniel C. Curtis, Sr. (1881-1953) was chief designer at the time, and created the building's dedicatory inscription and accompanying intaglio sculpture.

The structure was originally the institutional library, drawing together the combined holdings of Newcomb College and Tulane University, and named Howard-Tilton Memorial Library. Its Freret Street entranceway features carvings of historic printers' devices, including those of Plantin-Moretus and Aldus Manutius.

Moise Goldstein hired a young Nathaniel C. "Buster" Curtis, Jr. (1917-1997) to design two owls -- symbols of wisdom and knowledge -- for placement atop the entrance facade's granite obelisks. Buster drew full-sized sketches of his stylized owls, his "own idea of what an owl should look like," and the sketches were sent to Indiana, where the stone was cut.

When Buster's owls arrived in New Orleans, they were positioned atop the entrance obelisks and Mr. Goldstein escorted Tulane University President Harris to see them. Buster Curtis later recounted:

"No one was prepared for the violent disapproval and disappointment of the good doctor over those owls and Mr. Goldstein's distress cannot be expressed. That very night he arranged for a pickup truck into which the owls were loaded and just he and I, in utmost secrecy, buried those birds in the darkness of the early morning in the back of Audubon Park. I think Mr. Goldstein paid for the owls out of his own pocket because nothing was ever said again about them -- either by him or Dr. Harris or by me, but the granite obelisks are still there."

Curtis added, "It has been said that a doctor buries his mistakes and an architect just plants ivy. But is is not always that easy. . . "

Quoted matter from: Nathaniel C. Curtis, Jr. Undated typescript. c. late 1960s. Biographical Files, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

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