The benefit to constantly looking for architectural history books to add to my library is that I never know exactly what I will come across next. In this case, it is a (rather beat-up copy) of Small Homes in the New Tradition by François C. Morand. The book was originally published in France by Editions Albert Morancé in 1957. Thankfully, since I cannot read French (sacre bleu!), my copy is the English translation reprinted by Sterling Publishing in 1959.
Small Homes in the New Tradition is an unusual Mid-Century Modern home book for a couple of reasons. First, it is a European perspective of North American architecture. Second, by design, the book ignores the big name architects of the 1950s, focusing on younger architects. Excerpts from the introduction gives the reader an overview of this book’s different perspective:
“In this book, we were concerned not only with seeking out the present trends among young architects in a young country; we have also endeavored to present a collection of photographs showing living conditions in an immense continent, reaching from Quebec to Mexico…
“Without concern for tradition, or perhaps oblivious to it, these new countries have sought a new architecture which has no rule other than living comfort. From this effort and research were born original plans and harmonious designs…
“We have devoted ourselves to assembling, in one collection, original and little known works where young architects of talent have contributed a new account and new ideas. The reader will perhaps be surprised at not finding here the names of the most famous architects: Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Richard J. Neutra, Eero Saarinen….We have omitted them for several reasons: their works have already appeared in numerous publications and besides, their influence is apparent in some of the examples which we have presented… Furthermore, the careers of these masters appear to have reached their peaks; they now seek only improvement in detail of positions which may still, in our day, seem revolutionary, but which, in reality, date back many years.”
Of note is a paragraph describing the American building ethos from a European perspective.
“Americans do not build for eternity. Their aspirations are limited in time, and aim above all at the satisfaction of their immediate desires. This attitude should be taken into consideration when judging some creations of this new country, and in the following pages we shall attempt to crystallize some of these characteristic and dominant ideas.”
I cannot say that I disagree with the author’s assessment. But, if Monsieur Morand thought American architecture had an ephemeral nature in the 1950s, what would he think about the matchstick buildings being cobbled together today?
The author’s desire to showcase younger, less well-known architects is seen in the ones chosen for the book. For a book about ephemeral buildings, Morand’s selection of architects has a timeless quality. Some are completely obscure or out-of-favor today, having fallen out of fashion decades ago. However, most are coming back into prominence after decades of their work being ignored. The American architects featured in the book are a dream team current Mid-Century Modern enthusiasts would swoon over: John Lautner, Paul Rudolph, Harwell Hamilton Harris, Alden B. Dow, Carl Koch, Ulrich Franzen, Eduardo Catalano, William Wurster (Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons), Blaine Drake, Kenneth Kassler, Peter Blake, Anshen & Allen, John Yeon, Mario Corbett, John Lyon Reid & Associates, William Oglesby, and most importantly for Preservation in Mississippi, Robert Overstreet.
Robert K. Overstreet has been discussed occasionally on Preservation in Mississippi, most notably upon his passing in 2009. However, unlike his father, the dean of all Mississippi architects, Robert Overstreet spent very little time and executed very few designs in his home state of Mississippi before leaving for California (with a soggy period in Seattle in between). Based on biographical information he provided for a 1984 Friends of Kebyar journal issue, Overstreet only spent three years practicing in Mississippi, sandwiched between his training with Bruce Goff and his departure for the West Coast and interrupted by Korean War service. The few buildings he designed in his home state have met that most ignominious end – demolition. Out of nine constructed designs, four have been demolished, three have unknown fates, and only two are confirmed extant: Kolb’s Cleaners in Fondren, Jackson and Champion Lodge, a “weekend cottage near Jackson, Mississippi.”
Champion Lodge was Robert Overstreet first built design. It is a radical one today, much less in 1949. The lodge’s rural location likely prevented much gawking or commenting about its “strangeness” (a common thread in most of the South’s cutting edge residential designs throughout the 20th Century). Champion Lodge established a motif that Overstreet would develop throughout his career, an angled, jut-out expanse of glass. The prominent angle of the Champion Lodge’s screen and glass porch and lounge area can be seen expanded in his later Italian Cemetery Mausoleum Chapel in Colma, California.
Although Robert Overstreet’s work was/is ignored and unappreciated in his home, he had enough positive outside architectural press to spread word of his early Mississippi work across the Atlantic Ocean to France. In fact, I know of no other book from the 1950s that featured any of Overstreet’s Mississippi buildings (though a more knowledgeable reader than I could possibly find another). Champion Lodge does not seem to have been featured in any other publications, and its coverage in Small Homes in the New Tradition is both scant and somewhat mysterious. It is only three pages long (the shortest American design, though some Mexican designs are only two pages) and has no credited photographer, some of the only photographs in the book which have no photography credit.
In the end, those are minor complaints as this is a rare contemporary publication on one of Mississippi’s most pioneering and overlooked Modern houses by an architect whose unique designs have almost completely been erased from the state.