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 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.
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.