How Paul Rudolph gave Vicksburg a Brutal piggyback

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.

Paul Rudolph comprehensive reference resource library website header.  Claire T. Carney LibraryUMass Dartmouth.  accessed 03-19-2013

The Paul Rudolph comprehensive reference resource library website header. Claire T. Carney Library, UMass Dartmouth. accessed 03-19-2013

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.

East Elevation of remodeled Fredella Village Apartments from Vicksburg Re  Survey 2007 2 Locust Street East side S to N

East Elevation of remodeled Fredella Village Apartments from Vicksburg Re Survey 2007 2 Locust Street East side S to N

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.

"Slum tenements in the Negro section of Vicksburg, Miss. were razed to make room for Fredella Village"  Building Block Houses, Life Magazine Oct. 18, 1968. From books.google.com accessed 03-18-2013

“Slum tenements in the Negro section of Vicksburg, Miss. were razed to make room for Fredella Village” Building Block Houses, Life Magazine Oct. 18, 1968. From books.google.com accessed 03-18-2013 [ed. note: This photo is looking west across the site. Do you see the old courthouse cupola in the photo?]

"The 28 apartments are each composed of an upper and lower section.  Each section was transported to the site intact and stacked "piggy-back" by cranes.  It took less than two weeks to put up the whole village up"  Building Block Houses, Life Magazine Oct. 18, 1968. From books.google.com accessed 03-18-2013

“The 28 apartments are each composed of an upper and lower section. Each section was transported to the site intact and stacked “piggy-back” by cranes. It took less than two weeks to put up the whole village.” Building Block Houses, Life Magazine Oct. 18, 1968. From books.google.com accessed 03-18-2013

“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:

MASS,

WEIGHT,

✓ STOLIDITY

I think the Fredella Village Apartments met those criteria when they were new.  How about you?

Aerial view of Fredella Village Apartments.  bing.com maps accessed 03-19-2013

Aerial view of Fredella Village Apartments. bing.com maps accessed 03-19-2013

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.



Categories: African American History, Architectural Research, Cool Old Places, Historic Preservation, Modernism, Vicksburg

23 replies

  1. It being 1968, of course the “slum tenements” that were razed had windows on all sides, and front porches with large overhanging eaves and chairs for socializing, and probably some type of fireplace. Nice new apartments to be sure, but a demonstration of mid-century hubris about energy usage and disregard for the social fabric and cultural traditions.

    Like

    • During this era “Technology” did seem to be the answer to poverty. By ’68 Pruitt Igoe was in deep trouble. This might have led HUD to focus on smaller scale complexes and larger size of the individual units.

      Like

  2. Somehow the original darker siding (at least it looks darker in the LIFE photo) does make the buildings appear larger in scale if not in size,,,more like big chunks of dark boxes contrasting with a lighter background…that seems to me a little brutalist. If the whole complex is now sheathed in a light colored material, it seems to lose that perception.

    Like

    • Yes the change of the siding has a huge adverse effect on this style of architecture. The horizontal lines of the plastic siding actually made it look smaller for some reason. Its such a big change it took me a moment to notice the change of the windows and the inclusion of a pitch roof.

      Like

      • The easy way not to think about ecological or emotional needs and the cultures that underlie traditions, or vernacular knowledge, is to slap on a pitched roof and ersatz siding and call it history. Doing so must qualify as historical authenticity, right? Isn’t it curious that Rudoph’s buildings were the ones with wood and not vinyl siding, and screen doors and windows that would truly ventilate the houses’ interiors?

        Like

        • Without understanding the environment and clients needs can a building be most effective? In reading about the project I did learn that Rudolph probably never visited the site nor did he even know about its topography. The extensive regrading was the most expensive and time consuming part of the project.

          While I don’t know anything about the buildings development, my guess is that the plastic siding and pitch roof were failed attempts to make the building “maintenance free” rather than attempts to make the building appear historical.

          Like

      • Wow. I didn’t catch those either. Is this a public or private complex?

        Like

        • The F. Y. Dabney Foundation was the original sponsor of the project and HUD supplemented the construction with the Experimental Housing Program and the rent through the Rent Supplemental Program. I don’t know if the Dabney Foundation still owns the apartments or if the apartments still qualify for rent supplement.

          Like

  3. “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.”

    The lesson also appears to be that whatever you build in Mississippi on your way to “making it”, Mississippi is going to destroy what you made soon enough. IS there a social fabric or cultural tradition connected to the mindless embarrassment someone wrought upon Rudolph’s original buildings?

    Like

    • I will say that my comment was made tongue and cheek. Obviously there are many architects who have “made” it with out having a Mississippi project. I think there is an American social and/or cultural tradition of abhorring “old” and idolizing “new”.

      Like

  4. “…modular project constructed with units similar to children’s building blocks …” or for a more visual mental image, think of the hotels from the MONOPOLY board game. HA! You know those modular-looking duplexes and apartments recently built in Starkville and visible from MS 25 and U.S. 82 highways? Yep, we call ’em Monopoly houses.

    Like

  5. Fascinating! Two notes:

    1. In the photograph showing construction of the modular units, the transporter is one of the unusual heavy lift machines built by Marathon Letourneau, probably designed for their shipbuilding and oil rig construction projects. Occasionally one would be rented for use at the Waterways Experiment Station when a heavy list was needed.

    2. “Government Services Center” in Boston is Boston City Hall. I vaguely remember the controversy when it was erected in 1964-1965. People hated it then, many still hate it. It leaks perpetually. Concrete spalls in the New England climate. To make way for the bricked plaza, a large area of 1700s and 1800s commercial buildings was torn down. This was the old Scollay Square, affectionately known by locals as Squalid Square. It was a mess, but it was authentic. That was the era before historic preservation entered the US consciousness. Not far away, the ghastly Southeast Expressway had been rammed through the city only a decade before, cutting off the historic North End-Little Italy from Scollay Square and the rest of the City. Ironically, this may have saved the North End from the scourge of developers. Anyway, today Boston City hall still stands, the Southeast Expressway has been torn down and replaced by the Big Dig, and Little Italy is really trendy..

    Like

    • Thanks! Very interesting thoughts

      1. Is the heavy lift machine similar to a fork lift? In the photo it looks like the modular unit is being hung from the bottom of the “forks” and there is the top of another lift seen at the far end.

      2. Paul Rudolph’ s 1971 Government Services Center is different from Kallmann McKinnell & Wood’s 1968 Boston City Hall. The Government Services Center houses Health, Education and Welfare Services for the State of Massachusetts. But you are correct about the destruction both buildings intrusions caused. The National Historic Preservation Act had been passed by 1966 but both complexes were funded by Local and State funds so the law could not protect the historic places that used to be here.

      Like

    • Wow I didn’t realize that Letourneau built the Overland Train. That is some serious heavy equipment!! Thanks for Identifying the lift!

      Like

    • Kodachrome, I believe you live in Vicksburg…do you know if these buildings were in what was considered to be an African-American portion of town? Could these buildings have been tagged by white residents as what was known as “the projects”? I ask because this could perhaps have something to do with the structures’ “re-imaging”.

      Perhaps flat roofs on residential buildings (except motels) were considered odd and thus ugly, or even “Northern/Yankee”.

      Or perhaps these two ideas are components of a larger cultural phenomena, that of disregard for the “other”.

      Like

      • The HUD case study document XM 1 Fredella Village, Vicksburg Miss. stated “the city is pockmarked with small slum areas which may be a block or less from the central business district or from the homes of the city’s middle and upper income groups”. It also states that the units replaced “a Negro slum”. The Life Magazine article described the area as “the Negro section of Vicksburg”. But none of the documents I read indicated that the complex was specifically for any one race and was only generalized as being housing for low-income families. The structures removed look to date to the late 19th or early 20th century and was likely home for African Americans that worked as servants for the nearby middle and upper class whites. I think that this complex was the start of what we now refer to as “Section 8” housing.

        I know flat roofs are tricky up north because they have to be designed to carry a snow load.

        One interesting discussion that was brought up on the “Meet Modern Jackson” tour was, if I understood correctly, that during this time African Americans were favoring modern architecture because of it’s rejection of historical motifs that they associated with their oppression.

        Like

  6. Ben, it’s the perpetual lack of education and exposure to anything beyond the state line. It’s difficult to appreciate art when you, and everyone around you, have never been exposed to it. Mississippi has, among all the states, the largest percentage of residents that have never ventured beyond its boundaries. Never.

    The Grand Tour had a purpose.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: