In Memoriam: Roy Harrover (1928-2016)

Roy Harrover at Yale, 1953. Photo by Orchidglass, wikimedia

Roy Harrover at Yale, 1953. Photo by Orchidglass, wikimedia

In my readings around the Internet, I found the sad news that Memphis architect Roy Harrover passed away on December 13 at the age of 88. Harrover never practiced in Mississippi; he was a Memphis-based architect from 1955 until his retirement in 2000. However, Harrover did design three projects in Mississippi that have made it onto the MDAH HRI: Falcon (Negro) School complex, Lambert (Negro) School complex, and an addition to E. L. Malvaney’s Marks School, all three in Quitman County. Plus, his influence on the architectural landscape of Memphis is so undeniable that every reader of Preservation in Mississippi has noticed it, likely without realizing that one man was responsible for so many prominent Memphis structures.

Roy Harrover was born in Dayton, Ohio but raised in Nashville, Tennessee. Although too young to fight in World War II, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps after the war. That service time to qualified him for the G.I. Bill, which he would use to attend Yale School of Architecture, studying under longtime professors Vincent Scully, King-lui Wu, and Louis Kahn. Harrover graduated first in his class and spent roughly two years post-college as a designer for Yale School of Architecture dean Paul Schweikher. In 1955, Harrover decided he wanted a change and to establish his practice somewhere other than New Haven. In a 2011 feature, “Modern Man,” for Memphis magazine, he explains how he chose Memphis.

“I grew up in Nashville, and considered moving back there,” he says, “but they were too dedicated to Colonial architecture. Atlanta was just too big, so I made a short list of cities — St. Louis, Dallas, others — and finally decided this town could use more modern architects. At the time, the only other fellow here who was doing modern buildings was [A.L.] Aydelott, who had designed the campus of Christian Brothers College, and I decided Memphis was promising.”

From his arrival in Memphis to 1960, Harrover was partner in the firm Mann & Harrover with William Mann and, initially, associate Leigh Williams. As in most architectural partnerships, there is a division of labor between design and business. Mann & Harrover was no exception, with Mann primarily handling business and Harrover as lead designer (Williams, according to Harrover “basically wanted to design redwood residences” and quickly moved to the West Coast).

The Quitman County school projects were early works for Mann & Harrover, part of their initial struggling years trying to get the practice established. Again, from the Memphis magazine article:

“It was slow going for a while. Bill was from Forrest City, and mostly all we did were cheap schools in Arkansas and Mississippi. The flat roofs were just bar joists and fiberglass, and in the summer, the tar would leak through the seams and drip down in strings on the desks.”

Based on the dates for Falcon and Lambert schools, the impetus behind their construction would be the School Equalization Building Program undertaken by the State of Mississippi from 1946-1961, particularly the final phase of it from 1956-1961. Arris: The Journal of the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians published a very interesting article in 2005 by MDAH chief architectural historian (and occasional Preservation in Mississippi commentor) Jennifer Baughn titled, “Education, Segregation, and Modernization: Mississippi’s School Equalization Building Program, 1946-1961.” In it, she writes how young architects like Mann & Harrover (though they are not mentioned specifically) were able to support their practices (nominally in Mann & Harrover’s case) through a large school building boom and the simultaneous end to local school boards being supplied standardized school plans by the state School Building Service.

Baughn describes the final phase of school equalization from 1956-1961 as characterized by large numbers of schools constructed for African Americans.

“These schools were larger, better designed, and better equipped than any single school previously constructed for blacks in Mississippi. They embodied the best that progressivism and modernism could offer, and the buildings were as close to the level of ‘separate but equal’ as they had ever been.”

It is telling that by the late 1950s, the best schools ever constructed for African Americans in Quitman County were still (in the opinion of the architect who designed them) cheaply and poorly constructed boxes that rained tar inside during the long, hot Mississippi Delta summer. Lambert School is the longest lasting of Mann & Harrover’s work; it is still in use as an elementary school, while Falcon School is a concrete pad, meeting its demise sometime before 2014 (quite sometime before based on the ruined pad and vegetation).

Those small school projects, while an excuse to examine one of Mississippi’s most interesting intersections of social and architectural history, were barely mere blips on the radar in Roy Harrover’s career.

In Memphis, Harrover designed arguably the most iconic, most visited non-Graceland buildings in the city. The list of his projects could run and run but only a few will be mentioned here. First, Mann & Harrover designed the Memphis College of Art in Overton Park in 1959, with its Edward Durell Stone inspired New Formalist columns and concrete screen.

Memphis International Airport, photo courtesy FlyMemphis.com

Memphis International Airport, photo courtesy FlyMemphis.com

Next, came Memphis International Airport. The terminal is the most formal of New Formalist works, nothing but columns, this time so called “martini glass” columns forming what Harrover referred to as “an Egyptian temple complex,” fitting for Memphis and much more useful than the Memphis Bass Pro Pyramid Shop Arena. Harrover saved costs on the terminal by consulting with Eero Saarinen while the latter was constructing the terminal at Dulles International Airport. Harrover’s terminal opened to wide acclaim from local boosters, dedication speaker Adlai Stevenson, and architectural critics with Progressive Architecture magazine honoring it with a National Design Award and The American Institute of Architects awarding it the National Award of Merit. It was the last work for Mann & Harrover, as William Mann died of lung cancer in 1960, before the terminal’s completion and well before he reached is fortieth birthday.

Although Harrover designed numerous well-known Memphis buildings throughout the 1960s and 70s (his most brutal of Brutalist University of Tennessee Child Development Center immediately springs to mind), his final design for this post is his crowning achievement and the one he spent eight years working on, from his 1974 design to its 1982 completion. Harrover designed Mud Island, specifically the Riverwalk and River Museum (not the blandness of Harbor Town farther to the north). Local reaction was/is mixed at best to Mud Island but that is balanced out by overwhelming admiration from architects and positive reactions from tourists. That includes the highest praise from me, since I (and all regular MissPres readers and contributors) know how special a Mississippi River Basin Model is and would certainly jump at the opportunity to be able to visit another one besides Harrover’s at Mud Island (here’s to the efforts to make that happen by the Friends of the Mississippi River Basin Model).

While architectural styles come and go and tastes change, Harrover’s buildings have maintained their critical popularity. The book Memphis: An Architectural Guide, likely the most acerbic AIA-style architectural guidebook ever published (and perhaps not coincidentally my favorite), covers several of Harrover’s buildings, all described as some of the best examples of modern architecture in Memphis. Unusually for modern buildings constructed in the 1960s, Harrover’s designs appear to be well liked with almost no major works demolished. Let us hope that does not change.

Most architects, unless they pass away at a young age, live to see their buildings abused and/or demolished and their designs critically and popularly regarded as déclassé. Roy Harrover passed away last week one of the rarest of architects, one who lived a long life with numerous prominent designs, but whose buildings were still used and generally respected throughout his life.

Roy Harrover at Memphis International Airport, photo courtesy FlyMemphis

Roy Harrover at Memphis International Airport, photo courtesy FlyMemphis



Categories: African American History, Architectural Research, Asides, Delta, Preservation People/Events, Recent Past, Schools

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13 replies

  1. Interesting about the school design part! Baughn’s article on the school equalization projects in Mississippi is an excellent source and definitely a must read. I will need to do my homework on Mud Island, though. Other than having heard the name, that is all I can say about it.

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  2. This is a great post about an architect who deserves full celebration. His edifice for the Memphis College of Art is an exemplar of mid-cen design.

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    • You’re right! I hadn’t been familiar with the building until last night when I was searching around the internet for images for this post and saw pictures of it. All the ones I found had some copyright protection on them, so I didn’t use any in the post, but for other readers, it’s worth searching out.

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  3. Thanks for bringing Roy Harrover’s life and career back for us.

    I first saw Falcon School in May 2002 while doing my survey of historic schools that formed the basis for that Equalization article. It had only recently been vacated, as I recall, and it was still mostly intact. One interesting interior feature I’ve never seen before or since was that the hallway walls didn’t reach the ceiling, leaving large running transoms that had no glass in them. In these pre-A/C schools, transoms provided a nice breeze through the building, but that large of an open space seemed like it would created a problem with sound penetration into the hallway and other classrooms. My last visit to the building was in 2010, and it was almost impossible to photograph from the outside since it was so overgrown. Here are a few of my pictures from that trip.

    https://1drv.ms/i/s!Ah-rC6jzJCjO7AClvvF43aspN3H

    https://1drv.ms/i/s!Ah-rC6jzJCjO63pjO2_1f5_PdwVW

    https://1drv.ms/i/s!Ah-rC6jzJCjO7AClvvF43aspN3Hq

    https://1drv.ms/i/s!Ah-rC6jzJCjO619XCdw7GedQbO-c

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    • At least there are a few photographs of it. Due to the deterioration, demolition, and/or vandalism, it is difficult to make out the school’s design in those 2010 photographs. According to the Memphis magazine article Harrover “donated his archives — thousands of blueprints, photographs, letters, renderings, and articles — to the Special Collections Department at the University of Memphis Libraries.” Next time an enterprising MissPres reader is in Memphis, he or she may want to check out the Harrover collection.

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    • …and mostly all we did were cheap schools in Arkansas and Mississippi. The flat roofs were just bar joists and fiberglass, and in the summer, the tar would leak through the seams and drip down in strings on the desks.” I

      “Cheap schools”?
      My father was part of that boom in school construction from the late 1940s into the mid-1960s… submitting successful roofing bids to general contractors Currie & Corley in Raleigh and D.S. McClanahan & Sons in Columbus. It is true that the mission of this “equalization” construction program was to provide inexpensive school buildings that were designed for function, not form. It was never the intent to provide iconic black “showcase schools”– Eureka School comes to mind– in every rural county.

      I never saw the “poor construction” alluded to; I saw concrete floors, cement block walls, steel roofing trusses with Tectum roof decks that were overlaid with a layer of coated, roll roof felt followed by hot, mopped-on coal tar pitch and either slag or pea gravel providing protecting from UV. Such was the design of the colored school in Crawford which was built in the 1950s and was still standing until demolished last year, but subjected to unabated vandalism for the past thirty-years.. It was built on this Buckshot clay(Yazoo clay) area and I cannot even remember a crack in the brick veneer.

      You observed that the walls in the hallways of the schools that you visited, did not reach the ceiling, and that this could create a problem with noise. The Tectum deck provided the noise dampening qualities associated with partial open-bay construction.
      During this period, land- poor Mississippian were funding the building program; our State legislature and governor didn’t have the oil revenues that the Progressive Huey P. Long had in building that state’s roads bridges, schools and universities. Amazing how Mennonite school children can be schooled at home or in “tin- pan” office trailers and end up with a college-level education after completing the seven grade curriculum… and then “ace” the GED tests given at the EMJC Mayhew campus.

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      • Perhaps if your father’s company had constructed the schools Mann & Harrover designed, then Harrover would not have referred to them as cheap. The schools your father worked on sound as if they did not rain tar inside classrooms during the summer. As always happens, then and now, different construction companies look at the balance between bottom line and construction quality differently. Some are farther on the bottom line side and build cheap schools that rain tar. Others are farther on the construction quality side with “concrete floors, cement block walls, steel roofing trusses with Tectum roof decks.” It is too bad Monroe County did not appreciate the solid school your father built in Crawford. Schools of that era are too frequently seen as disposable and are being replaced or abandoned at an alarming rate. In the not too distant future, Equalization Schools may be as rare as Rosenwald Schools, which were also indiscriminately abandoned and/or demolished for decades.

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  4. As always happens, then and now, different construction companies look at the balance between bottom line and construction quality differently. Some are farther on the bottom line side and build cheap schools that rain tar.
    The pejorative label that my father used to describe those folks was Guttersnipes. For sloppy carpenters, he reserve the label Jake-leg…not to be confused with “Jackleg” carpenters.

    My father tutored under my maternal grand father who had gone to Los Angeles, California in 1913 to attend a sheet metal fabrication school, and had worked under the masters there for a year before returning to Hattiesburg. His proudest work is the copper-clad Bennett Auditorium Dome on the MSC campus, which he completed in 1929.Claude Bennett was the president of MNC. Claude Bennett and my grandfather were cousins. It was sad to see the greenish-blue oxidized copper work hauled off to Shemper’s Scrap Metals when the Dome was re-roofed five-years ago.. I wonder where that scrap metals money went? When my father re-roofed the First United Methodist Church in Columbus –1957 to 1958– I was able collect enough lead-coated copper to pay cash for a 1958 Indian Tomahawk motorcycle.

    My grandfather’s business required highly-skilled labor to apply and repair the standing-seam and Spanish clay tile roofs that can still be seen in and about Hattiesburg. I don’t recall any contractors within a hundred-mile radius of Hattiesburg that could perform this work. But as you have written, all that changed with the coming of flat roof construction which about anyone with a pickup truck, asphalt kettle, sheet metal brake, an extension ladder and cheap farm labor could go into business. It was what my father called “cutthroat competition” that brought about sloppy construction work and dishonest contractors.

    But isn’t it the Architect’s purview to inspect and to ‘pass’ on the construction work after completion to see that the work met specifications before the prime contractor is paid?

    http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-jak1.htm

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    • To your last question, I believe it depends on the job. I have a friend who has been a practicing architect for forty years. Sometimes, he just creates a series of building plans with all the proper building code work for a project and delivers those to the client. End of job (unless some change is needed). Other times, he creates the plans, talks with building officials, supervises the general contractor and sub-contractor, etc. It depends on the job and what the client is willing to pay. It even varies with different government entities. He is doing a fire station currently. All he is doing is the plans, which he will deliver to the city and be done with. But he did a series of storm shelters a couple of years ago where he visited the job sites several times during construction.

      I know about the craftsmanship required to maintain tile roofed houses. I live in Nitrate Village No. 1 in Sheffield, Alabama, which is a World War I housing development of stuccoed masonry houses with Ludowici French tiles roofs (with the exception of the school, which is Spanish barrel tile). Another friend of mine repairs these tile roofs. He has been trying to get me to join his repair work up on one of those roofs for years. Not. Going. To. Happen. Ever.

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      • My grandfather was awarded a contract to repair the Spanish barrel tile roof atop the Old Federal Building– across the street from the Forrest Hotel in Hattiesburg– in 1939. As my father was to descend the roof deck, he accidently placed one of his hands on a piece of lumber that someone had placed next to the extension ladder, in effect, he pole-vaulting to the ground. He suffered a broken bone beneath the knee.This was in the winter of 1940.

        I recall that some of the buildings on the post at Ft. Benning, Georgia were, too, Spanish barrel tile roofs with stuccoed masonry walls. I had attended a surplus property auction there around 1998, and on the sale were approximately twenty wooden crates of unused Spanish barrel tile that went “dirt cheap.”

        The new Hattiesburg Library was plagued with a leaking Spanish clay tile roof which made the interior look like that of a Hudson’s Salvage Store building.

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    • What was the name of your father’s construction company?

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  5. Burkett Sheet Metal Works at 121 Newman Street, Hattiesburg, Phone 260. It was sold to Robert Odom in 1955.We moved then to Crawford and my father opened a new business in Columbus as Gentry Roofing and Sheet Metal Co..

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