Does this mean you hate it, Miss Ada Louise?

I took the opportunity over the holidays to get back into my reading schedule and finish books that I had started during the dog days of summer. One of those was Ada Louise Huxtable’s recent compilation of her decades of essays as architectural critic with the New York Times and more recently with the Wall Street Journal. The book is called On Architecture: Collected Reflections on a Century of Change, and I highly recommend it for its concise yet visually oriented language and clearly argued opinions. Last year, I read Paul Goldberger’s On the Rise, and I found I like this type of book because it gives me a good feel for how buildings were viewed in the moment, not with years of hindsight and comparative research to change opinions.

The rear overlooks the Old Fort Bayou and a pool.

Anyway, here I am happily reading through and I come to the essay on Bruce Goff, published February 8, 1970 in the Times, on the occasion of the first major retrospective exhibit of Goff’s work, held at the Architectural League on Sixty-fifth Street. It made me so happy, because as you might remember I’m a big fan of our own little piece of Goffdom, the Gryder House in Ocean Springs. I didn’t necessarily expect to see any commentary about the Gryder House, but I looked forward to reading Huxtable’s view on Goff and his work in general. I wasn’t disappointed on the latter point:

Bruce Goff is a phenomenon, part of an indigenous American tradition of the unspoiled, romantic, land-loving loner that the [Architectural] Review has labeled the American grassroots mythology. This fascinates Europeans and embarrasses Americans. The architects who complete their concrete and steel bank buildings with hard-edge abstraction are made a little uneasy by a man whose tastes run to rusticity, orientalia, peacock feathers, and pink plastic. When he is published by American architectural periodicals, the tone is uncomfortable and ambiguous (p. 300).

But then I see the word “Gryder” coming up in the narrative, and I get a little excited:

The Price House, a chef d’oeuvre of untrammeled, sybaritic fancy in gold-anodyzed aluminum, nylon-carpeted floor and walls, goose feather ceilings, and hanging plastic ‘rain,’ is super-G0ff. Lesser-Goff or pure disaster can be seen in the realization of the sketch for the 1960 Gryder House in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Here execution turns impossible flying curves into chewing gum and a precisely poised inverted cone into Dairy Queen (p.301).

!!!!!!

To paraphrase Admiral James T. Kirk in The Wrath of Khan, “Don’t mince words, Miss Ada Louise, tell us what you really think!”

Not just “disaster” but “pure disaster”? Hummfff!

I guess I’m just not enough of a critic (I remember Robert Ivy’s comment  in his SESAH keynote that the house might be “hard to love”), but I love love love the house, and I frankly don’t really understand what turning “flying curves into chewing gum” has to do with anything. Perhaps Huxtable herself falls into the same class in which she places modernist architects: uncomfortable with the sheer relish, the whimsy, the fun, Goff shows in his buildings, including the Gryder House. Eastern architecture critics may not like that mid-America, and particular Deep South states, might be perfectly comfortable with whimsical fairylands, buildings that seem only childish to minds that (to themselves) are more sophisticated.

I wonder if Huxatable still considers the Gryder House a disaster 40 years later, or if her opinion would change if she actually visited the house? I’m glad that the house has owners who love it enough to repair it after Katrina flooding, and while I hope that the architectural establishment comes around, I guess really it’s Mississippi’s house and we can love and treasure it if we want to, chewing gum or not.



Categories: Architectural Research, Cool Old Places, Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina, Modernism, Ocean Springs, Recent Past

11 replies

  1. I wonder if the excitement of having a Bruce Goff structure in Mississippi clouds your judgement of whether it is a great design. I am not the greatest fan of this particular Goff structure, but I do like Bruce Goff’s work.

    In this case I wonder if your love of the Gryder House is because of its looks or because of its location. I will give you an example. I am from the Florence/Muscle Shoals area of Alabama (so I am a foreigner to you Mississippians). Florence contains the Rosenbaum House, the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in Alabama and a classic Usonian design. This house, while interesting in its own right (as much for its failures as a building than for its design), is nothing compared to Wright’s Prairie work; yet, discussions with the many of the architecturally savvy in the Shoals area would make you believe that the Imperial Hotel, the Robie House, or Fallingwater were located in Florence, instead of the Rosenbaum House. I merely wonder if you would place the Gryder House in the same pantheon as the Bavinger House, Price House, and Pavilion for Japanese Art because it is in Ocean Springs or would you temper your praise of the Gryder House if it were located in Mobile, New Orleans, or Pensacola. While Goff was more inclined by regionalistic tendencies than Wright, their work still falls into the “placeless” realm that modern architecture both occupies and clings steadfastly to. I cannot speak for Goff with the Gryder House but Wright did not care that the Rosenbaum House was built in Alabama; it would have been the same design anywhere as he never set foot in the state before, during, or after its construction.

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  2. Well, you have a point that I probably give Mississippi buildings more benefit of the doubt than someone from NYC or any bigger place would, because I think not only critics but architectural historians haven’t looked beyond the eastern and western seaboards enough to see the rest of the architectural picture and maybe I overcompensate.

    BUT I do have two disclaimers: first, I’m not a native Mississippian (I say to my shame), having spent only about a third of my life here. In fact, I am one of that endangered (and dangerous) species, Native Floridian, so I might be inclined to give Pensacola more benefit of the doubt than I should. Second, I have done a fair amount of traveling, have been to both coasts and lots of the Midwest including Chicago, and I do try as much as is within me not to be naive or provincial in my outlook.

    I do think I would love the Gryder House as much if it were anywhere else. I don’t attempt to say this is the best Goff or even among the best, because I haven’t seen all of his work in person. I have seen Gryder in person, and actually at a time in my life when I didn’t know much about Goff (the house made me want to learn more about him), and I loved it for its sense of delight. Rather than using steel and concrete and terrazzo to make us all feel disciplined and serious, Goff used it to make us feel a sense of limitless possibilities. One very respected critic’s opinion is that that is a disaster–I disagree.

    I totally take your point about local boosterism. We need to take that with a grain of salt when we see it in others, and try not to slip into it ourselves. There are Mississippi buildings I don’t care much for, but I just don’t feel the need to spend time on them here on MissPres–there’s too much else to talk about–and when I do have to say something mean, I make an admittedly half-hearted attempt at politeness, just like a native Mississippian would :-)

    I also agree with you that the Gryder House is “placeless,” in the sense that it could have been built anywhere, although I would add the caveat, “anywhere near water” because I just can’t see it in an inland place. For some reason, large bodies of water do tend to bring out the fanciful in us.

    But couldn’t you say the same (with caveats) about many architectural styles? Tudor Revival? Italianate? Greek Revival even? I know, I know, wash my mouth out with soap! Wouldn’t Longwood, one of our most iconic Mississippi icons, be just as beautiful in Indiana, New York, Pennsylvania (except it wouldn’t be surrounded by those amazing live oaks dripping with Spanish moss)?

    FLW didn’t visit our own FLW house here in Jackson either–guess he didn’t like the South too much? I understand Fountainhead isn’t his greatest work, but I’m still proud it’s here, and proud that it’s been loved by its owner(s).

    Thanks for pulling me back from the brink of boosterism–you obviously have seen more Modernist icons than I have, so I’ll trust you to jump in whenever I threaten to go off the rails :-)

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  3. Yikes, that comment was way too long–it’s hard to keep track in this little box. Sorry!

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  4. You make excellent points about other styles being placeless. However, Greek Revival and Italianate styles varied by region. The South’s expressions of those styles are grandiose to display wealth and, for a more practical reason, 16-foot ceilings keep a house cool in the summer. Porches and grand colonnades were also a cooling measure; they became rooms where one could spend the day when it became too damn hot to be inside. That being said, acanthus column capitals are as naturally Southern as Marcel Breuer. In some ways, Art Deco is the last architectural movement that respected and utilized regional differences. While invented in France by those who rejected Beaux Arts Classicism, Art Deco became a vehicle for such “Southern” expressions as the Jackson War Memorial Building.

    I can be accused of boosterism when it comes to southern architecture (specifically when it comes to the architecture of my home state). That is simply what I was trying to question. It probably has to do with your statement about how architectural scholars have ignored the South.

    I am not sure if you are aware of this organization; however, if you want to know more about Bruce Goff and his works, go to the Friends of Kebyar website. Their journals are a must have for Bruce Goff and organic architecture fans.

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  5. I had never heard of the Friends of Keybar website until I was doing some research after Robert Overstreet died last summer. I guess it makes sense that he would be mentioned there since he worked with Goff for a couple of years before heading out to the West Coast.

    I guess as much as I love Art Deco, I don’t see it as respecting regional differences any more than pure modernist buildings do. Unless by “Southern” you are referring to the classical motifs in the War Memorial Bldg? Couldn’t then New Formalist buildings, like the Gulfport Library, also fall into the category of respecting regional differences? After all, they brought classicism back into the architectural mainstream (I know that purists hated it, but still, a lot of NF buildings dot our landscape), and I can completely see a Southern mansion like Dunleith in the Gulfport Library with its massive colonnade.

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  6. There are some southern details in the War Memorial Building (such as the Magnolia leaves on the Auditorium doors). The open courtyard plan with the colonnade is what strikes me as more “Southern” than anything else, although, in the structures I have seen with this type of courtyard, it is usually in the back, not the front. Art Deco buildings could fall into a type of hybrid regional style while still within the general appearence of a placeless building. Likely, if the War Memorial Building was built in another area, there would be different motifs with possibly a difference in the arrangement of the building. That is conjecture, but in modernist buildings that have been constructed since the Art Deco period, the motifs and design of the building would be the same anywhere; that is not conjecture.

    I have never seen the Gulfport Library in person. However, I am very familiar with the Regions Bank in downtown Starkville, which could be considered New Formalist. Both buildings borrow from antebellum Southern architecture. I like that bank building, but it could be improved with more windows on the side and back facades. I am not a modern architecture purist, so I like the work of Edward Durell Stone (his later, non skyscraper work), Arthur Q. Davis, and similar architects better than pure modernists such as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and their descendants. However, Bruce Goff usually has both groups beat with his designs.

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  7. I’m with you in not being a purist–I like the pure modernists in small doses and find their view of humanity to be seriously limited. I really like curves, and granted the whole world would be somewhat chaotic if everything were curved, but on the other hand, too many strict, straight lines gets seriously boring. How about Morris Lapidus? Did you catch the article in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Dec 2007? It was called “I am a Modernist: Morris Lapidus and his critics”–Lapidus saw himself as a modernist and couldn’t understand why The Purists scorned him. I’ve never been in any of his buildings but the pictures make me love them.

    I like New Formalism too, when it’s kept at a somewhat human scale. I really like Gulfport Library, obviously, but the thing that’s interesting about it is the use of textured materials and non-classical details. The patterns in the wall surfaces almost harken back to the pottery artists on the Coast earlier in the 20th century, although I don’t know that that is the inspiration.

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  8. Hi I enjoyed reading the above remarks between you (EL) and W. White, who I know.
    Just realized that this took place 4 years ago. January 2010.
    I love the house for it’s self. There is nothing else like it. No small or large neighborhood’s where all the house’s look the same except for size, as in two bedrooms or three. Or one plan is 850 SF another 1200 SF
    etc.
    It’s not the greatest or worst it just is it’s own self.

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  9. I live in a the personal home of Dean Bryant Vollendorf. He is a disciple of Goff and has a true blend of style between FLW and Goff. I am trying to learn more about my home. Dean died in 2008 and the home sat in estate for some time. I want to restore it to it’s original luster. Have you heard of Dean? Can you or your followers share any info? I have been a FLW fan since I was in Jr. High and have been to Falling Water 5 times admiring his work when by coincidence I stumbled on to this home The previous owner never know who Dean or FLW were. I was blessed in finding it.

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    • Forrest, you should contact the Friends of Kebyar. It is a group dedicated to the preservation and practice of Organic Architecture in the “style” of Bruce Goff. Vollendorf was, I believe, a founding member. I never knew Vollendorf, but it is highly likely that my friend David Milstead knew him for many years (David met Bruce Goff, as well).

      Friends of Kebyar Journal Number 29 is on Vollendorf, with photographs and his commentary on various projects. The journal features what is likely your house: Mustang I, Vollendorf’s personal home in Norman, Oklahoma.

      You should contact the Friends of Kebyar. I am sure members who knew Vollendorf would be glad to speak to you about his work. Perhaps you might even join us as a member. Membership is open to anyone who appreciates Organic Architecture and the work of Bruce Goff and those influenced by him.

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  10. Thanks so much for responding. With folks like yourself I feel I will be able to dig deeper into his work. I have contacted The Friends of Kebyar .and proud to say that we have that edition on our coffee table at home. There have been several of the disciples to reach out to me and provide a few pics, christamas cards with the house in all its glory, and articles .
    I’m interested in Mr. Milstead. It’s always a pleasure to communicate with those who appreciates the art that a home can be. As an exterior designer of hardscapes I follow the Organic style of making objects feel as the belong in the environment they are placed in.

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