In past Book Quotes, we’ve spent a few days looking at whole books that have played an important role in the philosophy and practice of the historic preservation movement or in architectural history: Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of the Great American Cities, Tom Wolfe’s blast at Modernism From Bauhaus to Our House, Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn, and The International Style by Philip Johnson and Henry Russell Hitchock, which introduced Americans to Modernism.
The next few in the quotes series will be more Mississippi-oriented and won’t necessarily be from well-known publications. But I hope they’ll be as interesting and exciting to you as they were to me when I first came across them, sitting in their neat archival files for many years waiting for someone to come along and read them again.
This week’s series will introduce you to an interview with our own N.W. Overstreet back in 1940. The interview was hosted by the Portland Cement Association at its Spring meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York and was published in the PCA’s magazine Architectural Concrete. Architectural Concrete is a treasure trove of articles about concrete as a building material, especially for Mississippi researchers, since it ran several articles about our buildings, not only by Overstreet and Town but also E.L. Malvaney and other architects that made a difference in our state.
This particular interview gives us insight not only into the technical aspects of Overstreet’s 1930s concrete buildings, but also (since we’ll never have the chance to interview him ourselves) shows us a little bit of his background, personality, and spirit.
This article is reprinted with permission of the Portland Cement Association, and I’ve divided it into three parts for easier reading.
“AN ARCHITECT REVIEWS FIVE YEARS WITH ARCHITECTURAL CONCRETE”
N. W. OVERSTREET, A. I. A. (Jackson, Miss.),
A. J. BOASE (Manager, Structural Bureau, Portland Cement Association)
MR. BOASE: Six years ago in February the term “architectural concrete” was coined. Six years ago this month I started out to compile the data for the first issue of ARCHITECTURAL CONCRETE. When it was put together I found I didn’t have a single story outside of California. I wired here and there but could pick up nothing on the drawing boards east of the Rockv Mountains.
Only six years have passed and if they never build another building of architectural concrete east of the Rockies, we have enough stories to run that magazine for four solid years and then have to turn down some of the architects that now send us their material voluntarily. We can’t say that all of the new buildings in the United States are of architectural concrete but we can say that we have made reasonable progress.
During that time there has been one architect who seemed to be getting the “feel” of concrete in buildings a little better than most of them. That was Mr. N. W. Overstreet of Jackson, Miss.
Mr. Overstreet is a good old farm boy from the state of Mississippi. He was born and raised there and went to school through the eighth grade and then, like some of the rest of us, had to quit school. He became a carpenter. Later on, being fired with ambition, he signed up at what is now Mississippi State College, then known as Mississippi A & M College and graduated in the regulation time as an engineer.
He made such an outstanding record at that college that he was given a scholarship at the University of Illinois. He attended the architectural school there and in due time was graduated as an architect. After graduation he was employed in Illinois and in the North for three or four years and then moved back to Jackson, established his office there in 1912 and has practiced architecture there ever since.
There seems to he a difference of opinion as to why Mr. Overstreet moved back South. When I inquired about it some of them said it was because Mississippi is the best fishing state in the Union and that Mr. Overstreet was the best fisherman. He is one of these fishermen that grabs a rod in one hand and a frying pan in the other and he cooks them where he gets them. Mr. Overstreet, as a matter of fact, is famous throughout the South for his ability to cook fish.
Be it said to Mr. Overstreet’s everlasting credit that at least 50 per cent of the men practicing architecture today in Louisiana and Mississippi have either been under his tutelage or in his employ and those gentlemen refer to Mr. Overstreet as the Dean and look to him for leadership.
He introduced into the South modern and functional architecture, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t know traditional and classical architecture. As a matter of fact, he has used them both many, many
times in the field. In recent years he has introduced and probably developed architectural concrete further than any other man in the South.
(Mr. Boase then showed on lantern slides and described briefly the three following structures, selected from among the many outstanding jobs by Mr. Overstreet. Tupelo Miss., elementary school: Bailey School, Jackson, Miss.: Columbia, High School. As Mr. Boase completed showing of the slides, Mr. Overstreet came
to the platform.)
MR. OVERSTREET: When I was notified that I had been selected I said “No, sir, I don’t want to appear before an audience. I am an architect. I get nerved up.’ But I finally agreed to be here. I think more of cement since I have seen you fellows, this representation of intelligent and fine looking men. l wish to goodness l had a cement post and reinforced at that, to hold me while I talk.
MR. BOASE: Mr. Overstreet, when did you design your first architectural concrete job?
MR. OVERSTREET: Well, Mr.Boase, about 1934.
MR. BOASE: How many have you built since then?
MR. OVERSTREET: We have built about 20.
MR. BOASE: Twenty buildings?
MR. OVERSTREET: School buildings, courthouses, some residences and some jails. Reinforced concrete of high compressive stress, around 3,600 lb., has practically revolutionized the design of jail buildings. Before we
applied concrete to jail buildings the cells were lined with tool-proof steel, which was very expensive, and you know down in Mississippi we haven’t much money. It is not a question of what you can do in architecture; it is a question of how economically you can design, save money and get your requirements within your appropriation, so we are always figuring some way to save a dollar and give our clients
as much as possible.
For jail building construction, using concrete of 3,600-lb. compressive strength and putting in steel rods, with tool-proof steel rods in small detention windows, that leaves only the cell doors to be fabricated with tool-proof steel. I don’t know whether you fellows know or not, what a job it would be to go through 3,600-lb. concrete, get to these steel rods, break them and continue going on through. In my estimation, it is better than tool steel and certainly it is a whole lot cheaper. We have built about seven jails.
MR. BOASE: You told me one time that those buildings cost in the neighborhood of $2,000,000 and one of our boys figured up that if each architect in the United States had used each year as much concrete as you have, the production of cement would have to be increased about one-third to take care of the architects alone.
Mr. Overstreet, architects are always talking about an architectural medium. As I get that thing it is a material with which they can express their thoughts in the exterior of the building. In other words, as I sec it an architect is somewhat of an artist. He says, “I think I see” and then he builds a building and he wants me to see what he is thinking. Is that a correct definition of an architectural medium?
MR. OVERSTREET: Yes, sir, it is, but a building must be fireproof, termite-proof, structurally solid and still be beautiful. Concrete lends itself to all of these requirements.
MR. BOASE: Then Mr. Overstreet, would you say that architural concrete is a good medium?
MR. OVERSTREET: I will have to admit that before all these folks here.