Overstreet Interview, Part 2

We’re in the middle of a three-part transcription of a conversation between our own N.W. Overstreet, perhaps Mississippi’s most prominent 20th-century architect, and A.J. Boase, the manager of the Structural Bureau of the Portland Cement Association. The interview took place at the 1940 Spring Meeting of the PCA in New York City and is reproduced with permission from the Portland Cement Association. The color photo is my own, two black and white with original captions are from the PCA article, and the Cherry Street photo is courtesy MDAH.

In yesterday’s post, we heard about Overstreet’s “country boy” background and personality, his introduction to the wonderful world of architectural concrete, and his use of this new technology in jail construction. Today, he delves into his school projects around the state, perhaps the most famous of the buildings of the firm N.W. Overstreet & A.H. Town.


MR. BOASE: Now Mr. Overstreet, people have been used to stone and brick and terra cotta through the centuries. It always seemed to me when we started out to advertise architectural concrete that we had a little problem here because we had to make the layman realize that a building could be built out of concrete. Therefore, we carried some ads in such magazines as Time, Business Week, and Fortune. Do you think that these ads helped you overcome the hurdle with your clients?

MR. OVERSTREET: Without a doubt! These ads of yours in the papers of national circulation have helped greatly. When readers see a picture of a building they seem to be interested in the architecture and if you have one that is appealing in your advertisement naturally they are attracted.

C.R. Underwood House (1938), Pinehurst Street, Jackson. Photo courtesy MDAH Historic Resources Database, 10-31-2009, by Jennifer Baughn, MDAH

If the building is of concrete they are going to investigate and find out about it. Take for instance, a little ultra-modern type residence that we built for Chester Underwood which cost about $30.000 and which you advertised. We have had letters from all over the United States for that plan, and even from Hawaii and South America. It is surprising to me what those ads do.

We started constructing our buildings with reinforced concrete footings, and we built our walls up just above grade of concrete. Then for our larger buildings for brick construction we developed the steel reinforced concrete frame, then filled the panels and veneered it with brick.

Today we believe we need not fill in those panels with tile or brick and then face them with stone or brick when concrete lends itself so admirably to a finish on a building and certainly gives more strength.

MR. BOASE: Mr. Overstreet, if I understand it rightly there are about 20,000 architects in the United States. I have always contended that they are the greatest material salesmen in the country. I suspect that when a client comes to you, you have to do considerable selling to get him to accept concrete for an exterior.

After you have sold him that idea and after you have constructed that building, is he satisfied with his buy?

MR. OVERSTREET: Oh yes. At first we did have some difficulty in selling concrete. At that time it was called monolithic concrete. I had an interesting experience with the Bailey Junior High School. There was no trouble selling the board of trustees or the school board, with the exception of one member. When we decided on concrete the brick manufacturer and the bricklayers’ union and the labor paper put out the story that monolithic concrete was some kind of a special construction that Overstreet was interested in and probably getting something out of and would need some foreign bunch of fellows to come in and build. They didn’t know what it was. We had to put out a lot of information to counteract their efforts.

In building of architectural concrete, we made a better showing in the employment of carpenters and common laborers than we could have on a brick building.

At Columbia on a school job, the board of trustees was sold on concrete, but the mayor and board of aldermen weren’t, so that job which amounted to about $130,000 had to be bid in both materials and concrete won by about $15,000. All jobs so far have demonstrated the economy of concrete.

Now we are building on a $350,000 school program at Vicksburg (see photos below and in Part 3), on which we went through the same condition as at Columbia. The results were the same. I hope I don’t have to draw any more double sets of plans to demonstrate to these folks that concrete is cheaper because it costs me money. I don’t make any money as it is.

MR BOASE: That has been a condition all over the country, but I think it is a matter of pioneering and we can’t expect to pioneer in a thing without meeting these obstacles. l have a feeling that the resistance is breaking down.

You know, Mr. Overstreet, when we started to advertise this stuff I went through all textbooks they use in various architectural schools and I couldn’t find a thing written on architectural concrete. As a result, we got up the architectural concrete data sheets. Have they been of any use to you? Do you use them?

MR. OVERSTREET: Oh yes, they have been very valuable. You know the architect who practices his profession hasn’t much time to do research work. I hope that you will continue to develop and put your findings on record for architects and engineers.

MR. BOASE: Some architects say that it costs the architect more to design in architectural concrete than it does in some other medium. Does that check with your experience?

MR. OVERSTREET: Well, it may, for this reason: When you go into architectural concrete it is necessary to design in reinforced concrete and that requires engineering skill and architects on other materials can design without this same skill. This is applicable to the small architect without engineering knowledge. So some architects may hesitate to go into architectural concrete because it requires engineering ability. If you develop simple methods and details of construction for the architects’ use the design problem is greatly simplified.

MR.BOASE: I take that to heart fully. I know just what you are talking about.

Cherry Street School (1939), Vicksburg (N.W. Overstreet & A.H. Town)–one of the few schools for African Americans built in Mississippi under the PWA or WPA. Photo courtesy MDAH.

Categories: African American History, Architectural Research, Columbia, Cool Old Places, Jackson, Schools, Vicksburg

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