Arthur Q. Davis: New Orleans, Meet Mid-Century Modernism

1 Dec

New Orleans Rivergate Convention Center (now demolished). Photograph by Frank Lotz Miller. Source: Southeastern Architectural Archive.

The Times Picayune reported today that Arthur Q. Davis, a giant in Southern modern architecture, died this week in New Orleans at the age of ninety-one.  Davis was one-half of the successful New Orleans-based architecture firm of  Curtis & Davis, an office he opened in 1946 with his Tulane School of Architecture classmate Nathaniel “Buster” Curtis (1917-1997).  Curtis & Davis were lauded in their day for their large-scale New Orleans commissions, which included the Superdome (completed in 1975) and the Saarinen-inspired Rivergate Convention Center (completed in 1968, now demolished).  They were also internationally-recognized and sought-after architects of bold mid-century government structures including the American Embassy in Saigon (1966), the Steglitz Medical Center in West Berlin (completed in 1968), and the James F. Forrestal Federal Building in Washington, D.C. (completed in 1969), just across Independence Avenue from James Renwick’s Smithsonian “Castle.”

The New Orleans Public Library just after its completion. Photograph by Frank Lotz Miller. Source: Southeastern Architectural Archive.

For all their huge commissions, it’s their smaller structures that really sing to me.  My old boss, architectural historian Dr. Karen Kingsley, first introduced me to C&D’s more accessible work around New Orleans (Karen is now editor of the Society of Architectural HistoriansBuildings of the United States series and is author of the awesome volume on Louisiana architecture).  There are so many great C&D buildings around New Orleans but the best really has got to be the New Orleans Public Library (1956-1958), part of a mid-1950s Civic Center development that moved the city’s local government offices out of the Greek Revival style Gallier Hall on Lafayette Square into a new series of tall Latin-American Modern-inspired office blocks.  C&D’s three-story library, a glass and steel box wrapped in a tight aluminum mesh, is a little rough around the edges today but is still the beautiful jewel box C&D intended it to be.  Another of their great New Orleans structures, the Thomy Lafon School (1954) was torn down earlier this year ( I discussed the school here almost a year ago).

Curtis and Davis’s creative partnership ended in 1978 but they both continued to do great work into the 1980s and 90s. Davis notably designed the aqua-colored New Orleans Arena (completed in1999), not my favorite building granted but the money and interest brought in by the Arena and its silver shiny C&D-designed neighbor, the Superdome, are today credited with helping in the city’s remarkable post-Katrina comeback.

Interior of the New Orleans Public Library. Photograph by Frank Lotz Miller. Source: Southeastern Architectural Archive.

For three decades,  Arthur Davis and Nathaniel Curtis helped shape what “modern architecture” meant along the Gulf Coast.  They championed modern building design in a city that was and is still fiercely attached (with very good reason) to the architecture of its past.  I’ve never thought, though, that Curtis and Davis turned their backs on New Orleans’ traditional Creole architecture. Instead I believe they expanded on the excitable spirit of their hometown and helped New Orleans see itself as it was in the mid-twentieth-century: a cosmopolitan capital of immense economic and political power, a center of the century’s booming oil industry, and a international port city perhaps more vital to world commerce than it had been in the nineteenth century.

Arthur Q. Davis' Guest House at his home in New Orleans. Photograph by Frank Lotz Miller. Source: Southeastern Architectural Archive.

New Orleans became a mature American city in the twentieth century, whether it was ready for it or not.  Arthur Davis helped craft what that maturity looked like and brought new layers and new ideas to the city’s already-vivid architectural landscape.

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