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Emerging Modernism Architecture: Overview
Progressive architecture in Georgia between the late 1920s and the late 1950s developed in sequential and overlapping phases of modern design that historians have identified as art deco, modern classic, streamlined moderne, and Bauhaus modern or International style.
The 1920s ornamental stylists who pioneered this new direction of a popularized and more decorative modernism were frequently trained in the Beaux-Arts tradition, itself grounded in the beliefs that beauty was derived from classical order and that ornament was based on nature. During the 1930s, the Beaux-Arts tradition of classicism survived in the more bureaucratic architecture of federal, state, county, and local governments, whose buildings displayed a more restrained aesthetic sometimes called Depression modern.
On the national front, architect Paul Cret was the leading designer in the modern classic, and his Folger's Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. (1928-32), served as the model for the Georgia Institute of Technology's Heisman Gymnasium and Auditorium (1934-39, razed), a Public Works Administration/Works Progress Administration project of Robert and Company and Bush-Brown and Gailey, with Matt L. Jorgensen.
A more widespread adoption of the style was found in county courthouses throughout Georgia. This emergence from deco was evidenced in 1937 at the courthouse of Mitchell County in Camilla, followed by no fewer than four modern classic county courthouses appearing in 1939: those of Cook County in Adel, Oconee County in Watkinsville, Quitman County in Georgetown, and Troup County in LaGrange; architect William J. J. Chase clad the latter in marble. Later examples include the courthouses of Emanuel County (1940, razed) in Swainsboro; Pickens County (1949) in Jasper; and Ware County (1957, very late for the style), clad in Georgia marble, in Waycross.
Occasionally accented by art-deco ornament, modern classic buildings at smaller scale remained monumental,
The 1930s was a period dominated by the influence of industrial designers whose machines and product designs evidenced the
Greyhound Bus depots became icons of the streamlined moderne style. Savannah's depot survives and is soon to be restored, but Atlanta's depot (1940) by W. S. Arrasmith was brutally defaced by a facade modernization that made this one-time "classic" of the streamlined style impossible to detect. The depot was razed in 2005. A noteworthy and large-scaled moderne survivor, although slated for demolition, is Robert and Company's Atlanta Constitution Building (1945-48), whose limestone panel depicting the newspaper's role in Atlanta history, carved by Julian Hoke Harris, survives at the MARTA Omni Station.
The modern aesthetic
The modern aesthetic was especially intended to respond to housing needs and found expression internationally in public housing as well as in apartment towers. In Savannah, Drayton Towers is the city's best modern glass tower, which, in the context of the city's squares and against the texture of Spanish moss, also makes Drayton Towers "the building Savannahians love to hate." In Atlanta, the Darlington Apartments skirts the edge of traditional and low-scale Brookwood Hills in comparable contradiction.
An experimental effort to promote prefabricated, all-steel houses was introduced to the South when Lustron built a demonstration "Lustron House" (1949) on Northside Drive in Atlanta, which William R. Knight bought and lived in after he became a franchiser. A Westchester Deluxe two-bedroom Lustron, the Knight house encouraged others to contract for perhaps as many as ten Lustrons in Atlanta and Decatur in the early 1950s. Others are known to have been built in Albany, Americus, and Macon.
The examples of Georgia's modern architecture cited above suggest a time delay separating the birth of modern architecture in Europe in the 1920s, its appearance in the United States in the late 1930s, and its widespread adoption in Georgia after World War II (1941-45). By the late 1930s, former Bauhaus directors Walter Gropius and Mies Van der Rohe had left Europe for Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Armour Institute (later Illinois Institute of Technology) in Chicago, Illinois, respectively, and by the late 1940s their influence was being felt throughout the United States.
Mies called for a modernism reflective of modern technology and new materials, and his efforts to reduce and refine an aesthetic of steel and glass resulted in a minimalist Miesian aesthetic during the 1950s that detractors called "the corporate glass box"; admirers, however, considered Mies's buildings to be elegant and the epitome of simplicity and refinement in the modern age. I. M. Pei's Gulf Oil Building (1949) and Skidmore Owings and Merrill's Equitable Building (1968), both in Atlanta, reflect early and late examples of this steel-and-glass aesthetic. A comparable Miesian quote is evidenced in Augusta in the First Union Building (1968) by Robert McCreary, exemplary of the curtain-wall aesthetic in black steel introduced by Mies in his iconic 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments (1951) in Chicago.
One of the most notable modern buildings outside Atlanta is New Yorker Morris Ketchum's Kraft Bag Plant (later the SEAPAC Paper Converting Division) in St. Marys (1960), which lifts, above an open double-flight staircase, an abstract Miesian rectangular lobby that appears as a weightless, geometric volume hovering over a pool of reflecting water.
By the 1960s, however, architectural taste was already turning from the volumetric abstractions of the International style and Mies to the New Formalism and New Brutalism of a younger generation of designers. A self-consciously urban scale, a dominant formalism of shaped masses, and a new materiality marked the multiuse Atlanta complexes of Jova/Daniel/Busby at Colony Square (1969-75) and the pioneering work of John Portman at Peachtree Center (1961-present). When Portman's Merchandise Mart of 1961 first appeared on Peachtree Street, it was less a gesture closing this early period of "emerging modernism" as it was the beginning of more than three decades of Portman's development of Atlanta's great agora; Peachtree Center became a market/convention complex that set a model for multipurpose developments worldwide.
Robert M. Craig, Atlanta Architecture: Art Deco to Modern Classic, 1929-1959 (Gretna, La.: Pelican, 1995).
Robert M. Craig, Georgia Institute of Technology
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