Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Book Review: Henry Howard – Louisiana's Architect

Contributed by Michael Rouchell 
founding member of the Louisiana Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art

The architecture scene in Antebellum Louisiana was dominated by three practitioners, James Gallier, James Dakin and one lesser known architect, Henry Howard. The Forward to the book by S. Frederick Starr describes why Henry Howard ended up being the lesser known architect. While Howard was a workaholic, working up to 18 and 20 hours per day, and working what is almost like two distinct architectural practices, one in the city and one in the country, Gallier was able to take time out to publish his autobiography and the book American Builder’s General Price Book and Estimator. Much has been written about Gallier, and James Dakin, who was from New York and apprenticed with Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis, had his biography written by architectural historian Arthur Scully Jr.

This book is the long awaited biography of Henry Howard, and is intended to set the record straight on some works by Howard that, until now were thought to be by an unknown designer, or worse has been misattributed to Gallier. Jewell’s Crescent City Illustrated, which was published in 1873 to promote the city and its thriving businesses and industry during reconstruction, omitted Belle Grove Plantation among the list of works that Howard submitted. The original hand-written manuscript that Howard provided for Jewell’s Crescent City Illustrated was discovered by Victor McGee, the great-great-great grandson of Howard, in a large trunk in the attic of his mother’s family home of Seven Oaks Plantation in Westwego, along with other papers and files belonging to Howard. The manuscript was word-for-word what was published, except that Belle Grove was omitted from the list of Howard’s projects. Howard’s manuscript, in its hand-written form, is featured as an appendix in the book. 

Pontalba Plan by Gallier
For many years the Pontalba Buildings lining the up and down river sides of Jackson Square were attributed to James Gallier. The story goes that the Baroness Pontalba, after inheriting her father’s property and wealth, and after returning from France, hired Gallier to design and build the two large apartment buildings, but early into the project had a falling out with Gallier, hired another builder, and sought the advice of Howard. Howard was asked to provide a schematic design utilizing what foundations were already built, and rather than letting Howard take over, the baroness used Howard’s schematic design in combination with Gallier’s specification, but with Gallier’s name struck out. It is fair to say that the plan is by Gallier and the façade is by Howard. A drawing in the book of the proposed façade by Gallier looks nothing like what was built; the drawing does not indicate the three pediments that give the building it tripartition, and the Gallier’s dormers flanked with brackets were not built. Nonetheless, Gallier still attributed the work to himself, and so for a long time was thought to his.

Pontalba Buildings

The discovery of Howard’s files prompted Samuel Wilson to curate an exhibit of Howard’s work at the Tulane School of Architecture, and later in 1977, James Brantley would encouraged Victor McGee to write Howard’s biography, and then offer to collaborate with him on this book. Later, Brantley’s architectural photographer wife, Jan White Brantley would also contribute. Therefore, this book is the 4 decade-in-the-making work by the three, but would be finally completed after the death of McGee in 2007, and Jan White Brantley in 2008. 

This book chronicles the solo practice of Henry Howard, and later his brief partnership with Albert Diettel and Henry Thiberge. It begins with his upbringing in Ireland, apprenticeship with his father who is also an architect, his architectural influences located within Ireland at the time, his immigration to America via New York City where he became employed as a picture frame maker, his relocation to New Orleans where he became a carpenter, a stair builder, and eventually began his practice in architecture. The book also provides a detailed description of each project as they were commissioned and compares various projects to some of his earlier projects to demonstrate design characteristics and similarities. Some characteristics of Howard’s work included locating the stair within its own space off the main entrance hall, a later fascination with asymmetrical plan arrangements, and the location of the kitchen within the volume of the main house, which was thought to be a fire hazard at the time. The book also chronicles the prosperous times of the Antebellum Period, the interruption of the Civil War, and the struggle of resuming an architectural practice during Reconstruction. Changes in style occur during Howard’s practice, starting with the Greek revival and transitioning into the Italianate style.

Carrollton Courthouse circa 1895
The book also emphasizes Howard’s attention to detail, particularly with specification writing, and features a copy of one of the hand-written pages of Nottoway Plantation’s specifications in the Preface, as well as a comparative on Howard’s specification vs. others. 

Carrollton Courthouse
Color photographs by Robert and Jan White Brantley are featured for all extant works, along with numerous vintage photographs. In addition drawings, lithographs, watercolors, and other illustrations are provided, particularly where there are no known photographs for such works as Windsor Plantation, which was left in ruins by a fire in 1890. The vintage photographs are helpful because they show subtle changes to buildings that have been made over time. For example, a photograph of the Carrollton Courthouse taken in 1895 shows the original front entrance, and shows that all the windows once had pediments over them. Perhaps some preservation sensitive developer will purchase this currently unprotected landmark, replace the Victorian front door with something matching the original, and restore all the missing pediments.

Indian Camp Plantation 1917
A current photograph of Indian Camp Plantation shows that original wings are missing their parapets when compared to a vintage photo taken in 1917, and perhaps most significant is the John T. Moore house in the Lower Garden District now has two story front porch, whereas the vintage photograph shows a small cantilevered balcony at the second floor only. 

Indian Camp Plantation

Finally, at the back of the book is a catalog of all works arranged by the year they were built, and includes the owner’s name, the name of the architect (Howard by himself or with one of his later partners, Albert Diettel or Henry Thiberge), the builder if known, documentation of its attribution to Howard, and has a cross reference to the pages in the book where the building is more fully discussed. The catalog also has brief description of each project, thumbnail photographs if it is still extant, and drawings, watercolors, lithographs or other illustrations if found for those that no longer remain. Still, there are a number of Howard’s works that have not survived, and have no surviving photographs, drawings or documentation as to what they look like. 

This book is a must-have for anyone who is interested in Louisiana’s historic architecture and plantation houses in particular. It is also ideal for anyone who has an interest in classical architecture and its practical application in Louisiana’s setting. 

Contributed by Michael Rouchell 
founding member of the Louisiana Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art

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