“First, What kind of life was lived in this place, that is, Why and how did its builders build as they did?
And second, what rules with general validity and applicability did they follow?”
Carroll William Westfall, Learning From Pompeii.

Monday, August 15, 2011

An American Search for Urban Unity: Alexandria Louisiana- Part Two

A previous post detailed the planning and antebellum growth of the city of Alexandria, Louisiana. By the 1850s the prosperous city took part in a new national emphasis on the heritage of democracy among the Greeks. The new buildings were part of the confident building of civic buildings utilizing details and forms associated with the Greek Revival movement. The story continues with the conclusion of the Civil War:

The war ended in almost complete catastrophe for the town. Most of the antebellum public buildings, along with the rest of the town, were burned during the retreat of Union troops in 1864. The two decades following the war were lean, and a new, plain, courthouse was not provided until 1873. In the words of a recent historian of the city: Cloaked in an atmosphere of lethargy and defeatism, the town was not drained, and it had no waterworks or sewer system. Livestock roamed at large on the unpaved and largely unlit streets, which were obstructed by numerous ditches and not clearly designated by signs. There were no banks, and concerns vital to regional agriculture—such as cotton compresses, oil mills, and machine shops—were nonexistent. However, Alexandria’s location in the middle of Louisiana and the rich timber resources surrounding it had enabled it to attract two railroads [Spletstoser, Fredrick Marcel. Talk of the Town: The Rise of Alexandria, Louisiana and the “Daily Town Talk”. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2005]. The population had risen to 1,800 by 1880.

The post-war depression eventually came to end as new mercantile and industrial capital entered the region. The increasing success of the region’s agriculture and a timber boom in the early twentieth century led to an almost complete remaking of the town. New commercial buildings appeared along the city streets and spread back three blocks from the river to form a dense downtown commercial district. While many of the buildings were modest, traditional commercial structures with a narrow plan and an unadorned front, owners of some new structures added classical details on the lower and upper stories, often in pressed or cast metal, to add dignity to the structure and a positive contribution to the streetscape.

Rapides Opera House

Among these new buildings was a splendid new theater, unfortunately demolished in the late twentieth century. According to the National Register nomination, The Rapides Opera House is a brick 3 story building set in the old central business district of Alexandria. It has floor seating (seats replaced) and one balcony (original seats), which makes for a total seating capacity of approximately 800. Built of brick and steel, the building has a type of exterior articulation which was common to many of Alexandria’s grander commercial buildings at the turn-of-the-century. Features include Romanesque sets of round arch windows with continuous label molds, Doric pilasters, and brick rustication above and below the second story [National Register form].

The buildings gradually formed a continuous wall along both sides of the central streets. Third Street, which had replaced the river as the principal route through the locality, increasingly became the chief commercial avenue. The downtown grew to include, as did most American cities, a tightly organized but flexible set of lots. A lack of planned alleys in the original design, which permitted an initial flexibility in building placement, led to a structure of dense blocks with courtyards and passageways provided as needed. The buildings tended to face the numbered east-west streets.

Churches, most of which made use of Gothic Revival decorative forms, were located off the original plat. The first church was a Catholic chapel. In 1832, by which time the parish was known as St. Francis Xavier, the church was rebuilt on a new site east of the main part of the city, at which time it was the only religious structure in the town. The church relocated to its current site west of the central city in 1897. In 1910 it was elevated to cathedral status. Emmanuel Baptist Church moved to the city from nearby Pineville in 1897. The first St. James Episcopal Church was built in the antebellum era and burned in 1864. The parish relocated to its present site east of the downtown area in 1874. The present building was built in 1926.

Joseph Bentley and E.W. Zimmermann arrived in the area about 1892, originally hailing from Pennsylvania. Bentley, in particular, proved to be a major power in the redevelopment and growth of Alexandria. The men founded the Zimmerman Lumber Company and the Enterprise Lumber Company, businesses that eventually controlled tens of thousands of acres of virgin pine forest in the region. In 1903, a huge sawmill was built near town by Enterprise Lumber. Bentley provided strong economic and aesthetic leadership as the town grew. He materially assisted in setting architectural standards and improving the urban form. Architects were summoned from New Orleans and other regional cities to assist in implementing an expansive vision for the town’s future.

In the first decades of the century, a series of important new structures were added to the city, as part of a consistent architectural and urban project to complete and perfect it as both a destination and a place to live. The era was one in which architectural and general education prepared citizens to expect a substantial expenditure on public and institutional buildings such as post offices, government buildings, churches, lodges, and schools and the important commercial buildings, such as hotels and theaters, which served a significant role in the life of a community. The effect of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago on American urban planning was considerable. The movement known as the American Renaissance invigorated American planning and resulted in a full-blown and self-confident kind of classical architectural expression.

In the new American Renaissance, as in previous periods of classical expression, the elements of architectural expression were used to augment and express the community’s political order. Much of the large-scale form and detailing was based in architectural pattern books, but by the early twentieth century classically trained professional architects were available throughout the nation. As was the case throughout American architectural practice, architectural elements were often applied without close regard for their historical basis. Designers regarded the value of the ability of architectural forms to express the community’s structure as more important that any historical reference. The three basic classical orders, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, were present in their full variety, in their Roman and Greek forms. The hierarchy of the orders as understood in the western tradition was used to emphasize the city’s internal order. In contrast, religious buildings in the city utilized details and forms ultimately derived from European Gothic sources. This change from the traditional American provision of related classical forms for all public buildings suggests that the religious component of civic life was increasingly distinguished from its political and commercial elements.

Rapides Parish Courthouse, 1904. Corinthian

A new H-shaped courthouse was built in 1904 on the historic courthouse square. The Classical Revival-style structure utilized, as was appropriate for the most important government structure in the city, pilasters of the most elaborate of the three basic orders of architecture, the Corinthian.

Hotel Bentley, 1907. George R. Mann, architect.

Alexandria City Hall. Ionic with dome.

An important group of buildings of similar style, color, and materials were constructed in 1907, giving a consistent tone and feel to the growing city and radically improving its civic image. The most important new buildings were the Hotel Bentley and the new City Hall. The structures were apparently both built by the F. B. Hull Construction Company of Jackson, Mississippi. The company moved to Alexandria in 1907 for the time needed to construct several major buildings. The Hotel Bentley and the new City Hall were located in dramatic relation to one another with an eye to improved civic amenities. The City Hall was built in the center of a square towards the western end of the downtown section. With its four facades and central dome it provided a powerful center to a green urban park.

Three sides of the square were filled with conventional commercial buildings, but the entire west side was filled with the enormous bulk of the Hotel Bentley. In the words of the National Register nomination: “The Bentley Hotel stands as probably the only major commercial example of the turn-of-the-century Renaissance Revival architecture and of Beaux Arts axial spatial planning in central Louisiana. It shows a remarkable degree of high style sophistication for the area and for a time when commercial architecture was largely a matter of applying conventional detail to a conventional shell.” The architect was George R. Mann of Little Rock, Arkansas. The cost of construction was $750,000, including the furnishings.

Both buildings were built of matching cream-colored brick with stone trim and both featured corresponding Ionic columns. The City Hall had four matching porticoes and the hotel was provided with a dramatic, long, deep-shadowed colonnade between two projecting wings. The Ionic order, the second most elaborate of the classical orders, was probably selected as appropriate for such important secondary structures in the city’s expanding urban fabric. A Confederate monument occupied one corner of the square.

Rapides Bank Building, 1898, façade added, 1914. Tuscan/Doric.

First National Bank. 1919, Emile Weil, Architect.

In 1911 Joseph Bentley became president of the First National Bank and in 1919 the bank built the town’s first skyscraper, a ten-story bank building near the southeast corner of the square. The bank tower was also classically detailed with Ionic pilasters and built of buff brick with stone trim. In addition, the most classically correct building in the downtown area resulted from a refacing of the 1898 Rapides Bank in 1914 with an elegant Doric façade melded to the paired arches of the original building. As the National Register nomination explains: “Of Alexandria's somewhat depleted stock of turn-of-the-century commercial buildings, most depend upon an unstudied accumulation of brick pilasters, brick arches, and corbel tables for their articulation. The Rapides Bank has considerably more pretension than this. It has a fully developed classical facade with four colossal . . . columns, an entablature and balustrade which are more or less correctly proportioned. Moreover, with the one exception, which is the enormous Bentley Hotel, the Rapides Bank is the most classically refined and pretentious commercial building in Alexandria.

The Alexandria Public Library, 1907. Crosby and Henkel, architects. Greek Doric

Another significant building dating from 1907 is the Alexandria Public Library. Funded with matching money from Andrew Carnegie, the new library is classical in style. It utilizes massive Doric pilasters (antae) to support a complex entablature and features Greek-inspired details. Like the other public buildings from this period, it is built of buff-colored brick. Interestingly, the library was placed away from the downtown on the square originally intended for literary and cultural purposes, but held by the city and used for a courthouse and jail at the time. Doric, used for the banks and the library, was the plainest and most economical to build of the three classical orders and indicated the buildings’ more modest stature within the city’s hierarchy of buildings.

Calvary Baptist Church, Corinthian

Houses of worship, which often made use of Gothic Revival decorative forms, began to participate in the new classical consensus are located off the original plat. Calvary Baptist Church was founded in 1921 and was housed behind a wide Corinthian temple front built of beige brick. A second temple built in 1908 for the city’s Jewish population by Congregation Gemiluth Chassodim, featured beige brick, a central plan crowned with a tiled dome, and a highly ornamented projecting temple front. The architect combined Ionic columns with a Doric entablature featuring alternating triglyphs and disk-shaped ornaments called paterae. While the new civic architecture provided an irresistible pattern for new public buildings, the Baptist and Jewish congregations may have chosen classical rather than Gothic forms, in part, to de-emphasize the inherent challenges of these newer arrivals to the conventions of local culture.

Jewish Temple, 1908. Ionic

By the second decade of the twentieth century, the area along and adjoining Third Street had become a cohesive downtown with a varied and sophisticated building stock. Citizens centered their lives around the neat and colorful downtown. Department stores and specialty shops vied for business. The simple grid of the city, punctuated by the several green public squares, successfully borrowed the cosmopolitan air of the great Eastern and even European cities. Classically detailed cast-iron electric streetlights in some location gave a cohesion and elegance to the city in keeping with the “Great White Way,” a name for the brightly illuminated main streets installed in towns across the nation in the years after the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Third Street looking North, 1920

Masonic Temple, 1927. Herman J. Duncan, architect.

Bolton High School, 1926. Favrot and Livaudais, Architects, New Orleans

The Masonic Building of 1927 and the classical façade of Bolton High School (1926) added to the complexity and dignity of local urban expression. The Masonic building is a delicate and almost Regency essay in Neo-classicism. According to the National Register nomination, “the high school “is Rapides Parish's largest and most imposing example of the neo-classical tendency of the early-twentieth century known as the ‘American Renaissance.' Exemplary features include the building's quiet lines, severe classicism, and five-part pavilion articulation. . . Bolton's local preeminence as an example of the "American Renaissance" is important for Rapides Parish. This style was regarded in its day as representing the maturity of American architecture. It was generally thought that American architecture was at last taking its place with the architecture of the older countries of the Western World. So, taken in this light, Bolton can be seen as the most urbane and sophisticated early-twentieth century building in the parish.”

U.S. Post Office

In the 1930s, a new US Post Office and Federal Courthouse was built using the popular Art Deco version of “Stripped Classicism,” emphasizing the respect afforded the increased role of the Federal government in regional affairs.

As the twentieth century progressed, Alexandria lost its position as a great regional trading center. The Southern economy lagged and the city saw few new buildings, certainly none of the caliber of the structures built during the confident years at the beginning of the century. As the automobile increasingly dominated thinking about transportation and development, the downtown area suffered from neglect and abandonment. From a high water mark at the middle of the century, when the city reached its apogee from an urban design perspective, it began to fall off rapidly. Classicism lost favor as measured against the new trends towards “modernistic” and “International style” architecture. Few buildings using the new architectural vocabulary reached the level of quality found among the earlier classical buildings, which now seemed hopelessly old-fashioned.

The present parish courthouse was built on a new location in 1940. The elegant 1904 courthouse was demolished in 1957 after years of neglect and the courthouse square purchased and built upon. In the 1960s, the elegantly detailed centrally planned city hall was demolished. The city government infilled the under-utilized but potentially urbane square on which it was sited with a large new city hall in the “Brutalist” style, executed in formed concrete.

City Hall with urban park to the east and Hotel Bentley beyond

The losses in the urban fabric during the second half of the twentieth century was immense. The city’s open squares were lost and there was no longer a vantage point from which to view the façade of the Bentley Hotel. A need for parking resulted in the demolition of many buildings and a resultant “snaggle-toothed” and incomplete streetscape. Front Street lost its character and all its historic buildings with the gradual enlargement of the levee along the water’s edge. The city lost a visual connection with the water. In 1969, no longer able to compete with newer alternatives on its original terms, the Bentley Hotel closed.

As soon as urban decay and demolition became apparent, in Alexandria and across the nation, city leaders began to search for solutions that would re-invigorate historic downtowns. What happened in Alexandria mirrors what went on in countless locations. The city commissioned a series of studies, master plans, and government-sponsored interventions, each based in current planning concepts that changed as the years passed. The Hotel Bentley underwent a series of renovations and opened and closed without any long-term success.

A new convention center, Holiday Inn motor hotel, and parking garage, all of indifferent design were built to reposition the downtown as a tourist and visitor destination. Like the new city hall, the convention center, connected by a pedestrian skyway to the Hotel Bentley, was placed without regard to the city’s grid or the historic urban layout. Traffic was redirected and some roads closed or built over. In more recent years, a new emphasis on parks and river access and a series of local festivals have been used to attempt a return of traffic and prosperity to the downtown area.

In spite of all this the city has largely failed to respond to the various surgical and prosthetic operations improvised by local and regional authorities. One reason is the obliteration of the architectural and urban amenities that made Alexandria a unique and appealing place.