The other day I was surfing the Society of Architectural Historians Digital Resources webpage scoping out all the neat links. When checking out the pages I always keep my eagle eye out for Mississippi connections. So I was very excited when I looked at the Paul Rudolph collection at UMass Dartmouth and lo and behold, I saw that he had a project in Mississippi.
Although he was born in Kentucky during 1918, Rudolph grew up in Alabama and graduated from Auburn University’s Architecture School. In 1940 he moved on to the Harvard Graduate School of Design to study with Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. He left Harvard to serve in the Navy during WWII, returning to receive his Harvard master’s in 1947. He took over the helm of the Yale School of Architecture as its dean in 1958, shortly after designing the Yale Art and Architecture Building, a Brutalist structure often considered his masterpiece. He stayed on at Yale for six years until he returned to private practice. Rudolph did some really wonderful work in Florida that seems worlds away from his New England work that is Brutalist in both name and appearance (see the photos examples of the Government Services Center in Boston, Mass. juxtaposed with the current condition of the Mississippi work below). I assumed that the Mississippi project would have been on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a spill over from the coastal Florida work. So imagine my surprise when I saw the structures are in Vicksburg.
The Rudolph-designed Fredella Village Apartments are a modular project constructed with units similar to children’s building blocks designed by Rudolph. Fifty-six modules creating 28 housing units were manufactured in 1967 at the Vicksburg plant of the Magnolia Home Manufacturing Corporation, and erected in eight days during December 1967, at 1205 China Street, Vicksburg. Magnolia Corporation, as they were also known, was the second largest manufacturer of modular buildings in the United States at the time. These two story units are arranged in the footprint of a bungalow court, with the units following a London townhouse plan; two rooms on each floor with the stair going up in the center of the units. In a feature entitled “Building Block Houses” in the October 18, 1968 issue of Life Magazine the following images and text appeared lauding the modular construction of the apartments.
“The building block technique was used successfully by Magnolia Homes, which manufactured the units … to rebuild a slum area in Vicksburg, Miss. Tenements and shacks were cleared away and replaced by two-story units. Called Fredella Village, the townhouse-type development is meant to house low-income families who pay $115 for a four-room apartment. The possibilities of building block houses have attracted a pair of prominent and imaginative architects. Paul Rudolph, ex-chairman of Yale’s Department of Architecture, has been experimenting with them for a dozen years, trying to adapt them for use in crowded urban areas where the need for inexpensive house is most urgent.”
The idea was to create a low cost housing unit that could be created quickly and efficiently. In theory this plan and design could be executed anywhere. How Rudolph and Magnolia Homes got hooked up to build public housing in Vicksburg was not explained but the outcome produced some interesting results. Truth be told I am sad to see that the buildings in the “before” image were destroyed rather than restored. But this is a case where the replacement design has more architectural significance than the removed structures. In Suzassippi’s great post “Beauty in Brutalism” we talked a little bit in the comments about what constituted a “Brutalist” building: are Brutalist buildings limited to concrete construction or can they vary from the “béton brut” terminology? In 1967 the United States Department Housing and Urban, Housing and Home Finance Agency released the HUD 3rd annual report which described the construction and materials of the Fredella housing project.
In Vicksburg Miss., a new construction system called “piggyback” housing, using production methods of the mobile home industry, made possible the manufacture of 28 living units in 17 days and their erection in 8 days. The units are mass-produced, trucked to the site, and stacked one on top of the other by large cranes. The Vicksburg project, known as Fredella Village, is sponsored by the nonprofit Frederick Y. Dabney Foundation. It consists of 28 low-income townhouses that were produced at a cost saving of 15 percent below standard construction, with further savings anticipated as the system is perfected. … The project occupies a one-acre in-city site and replaces a number of shacks. While demolition and site clearance were underway, the housing units were manufactured, in two sections each, at the Vicksburg plant of the Magnolia Homes Manufacturing Corp. The units have a cedar plywood exterior and a specially developed interior wall finish of the U.S. Gypsum Company. The lower level contains a living room and kitchen-dinette. The top half includes two bedrooms and bath. Storage space is provided on both levels, along with electric appliances and heating, range, oven, refrigerator and water heater.”
This report reinforces the idea that the purpose was to create low cost housing that could be created quickly and efficiently. While HUD could have engaged any number-crunching efficiency expert they brought in one of the most brilliant and artistic architectural minds of the time. So if the master of American Brutalism builds a wood frame, cedar plywood- clad complex, I think it’s safe to say that the Brutalist style is not limited to raw concrete. Let’s run through the checklist Lester Walker outlined in American Homes just to make sure.
A Brutalist structure is designed with the following in mind:
I think the Fredella Village Apartments met those criteria when they were new. How about you?
A 2007 re-survey done by the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation remarked that the plastic siding was put on the building within the past few years. Who knows, hopefully the cedar plywood siding is still lurking under its shrinky-dink wrapper. Some day these apartments might get restored and a little commune of too cool for school modernists will have a swell pad in Vicksburg. I think this goes to show that you don’t really make it in the architecture world until you have a project built in Mississippi.