Six Degrees of Sullivan

Despite the fact that this is my Summer of Sullivan, I have failed to mention the man for the last two weeks. Today, I will do my best to weave him into a Chattanooga narrative, “six degrees of separation” style.

Ah, summer at last! I got a late start as I don't officially mark the beginning until my summer teaching gig is up. Aside from my work as a consultant, I’m an adjunct at UTC where I teach Introduction to Architecture (essentially an architecture history survey) in the Interior Design department. The life of an adjunct is not an easy one, but teaching is one of the great joys of my professional life. The purpose of the class is to introduce non-majors to concepts of architecture, to the evolution of the built environment, and to notable buildings and their designers. One of the great things about teaching this class is that I’m constantly reminded of the role that time plays in architecture and in our cities. The other benefit is that lecturing about what makes buildings great is making me a better critic (and perhaps a better designer, but that’s debatable).

While we’re on the topics of UTC and architecture, the office building that the university acquired from the State has been in the news recently. It appears that the National Trust has decided that this one of the nation’s top ten endangered buildings. (Yes, I’m going there. Please note that this is two weeks on the trot that I am writing about controversial community issues. Let’s just hope that this week’s hate mail is less asinine than last). You might ask: How in the world will he connect UTC and the current controversy regarding the state office building with Louis Sullivan? Well, sit right back and watch in awe as I weave this masterful six-degree tapestry of connection (or something like that).

The watershed event in Sullivan's career was the World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Not only was this was a pivotal point in Sullivan's career, but in American architecture as well. Sullivan was an ardent voice that the exposition was the opportunity to create something special- an opportunity to showcase a uniquely American architecture. Unfortunately, Daniel Burnham, the HMFIC, was of a different mind. It was decided that all of the buildings in the exhibition would be designed in the Beaux Arts style. This was imminently more doable, as that style was essentially a common language among the architects selected to participate. In our big moment on stage, we tried to show the Europeans how cultured and refined we were by designing buildings that looked European. Ironically, the only building that received European acclaim was the only building that wasn't Beaux Arts- Sullivan's Transportation Building (aka, the Golden Door).

At that time, the preeminent American Beaux Arts designers were also the first big architecture firm in the country- McKim, Mead and White. They designed the Agricultural Building for the Columbian Exposition. The firm was incredibly prolific, and count among their master works the Boston Public Library and Rhode Island State Capitol. Perhaps heir most famous building, however, was New York City's Pennsylvania Station.

Penn Station was built in 1910 on two blocks in a hard to define neighborhood in Manhattan (let’s call it GarmentDistrictChelseaMidtownWest). The handsome building was considered an architectural jewel. In time however, this grand dame of a station lost some of her luster. With the rise of the automobile, the decline in rail traffic, and exorbitant maintenance costs, the station was considered by many to be obsolete. In this age of Urban Renewal, a proposal was made to modernize the station by razing the existing building, moving the station underground, and constructing a modern events venue (Madison Square Garden). A number of concerned architects and citizens fought valiantly to save the station, but with no legal recourse, the city and developers were free to act as they deemed fit. The historic station building was demolished in 1963.

While the preservationists lost this battle, Penn Station became a rallying point and the groundswell of support for the protection of historic buildings gained momentum. This momentum eventually led to the creation of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. This act enabled the National Register of Historic Places- an official list of buildings that the government deems worthy of preservation. To be nominated for the register, a building must be at least 50 years old, and have some form of significance in one of the categories of event, person, design/construction, or information potential. The register is largely symbolic, but it does provide the mechanism for some financial incentives. The National Historic Preservation Act serves to bolster the efforts of preservation groups such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has to come to Chattanooga to tell us that UTC’s  State office building is one of America’s Top Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places. Thus  connecting our cast of characters in six degrees: Sullivan > White City > McKim, Mead, White > Penn Station > historic preservation > National Trust for Historic Preservation > UTC/Chattanooga/State Building. Thank you very much.

That connection made, I offer my two cents:

Does the fact that State building has survived for sixty years mean that it should remain in perpetuity? One perspective gained in teaching is that sixty years is a blink of the eye in architecture. Many of the great buildings in the world took more than sixty years to construct! The building is handsome enough, and its footprint has some density (which is unfortunately offset by the surface parking lot). The stone on the base of the building is nice. Aside from those two concerns, however, the most compelling argument for saving the building is that it is sixty years old. I have a hard time accepting that a building should be saved simply because it is “old”, when “old” is younger than half of the people I know.

Is there anything architecturally significant about the State building? The stone on the base is nice, and the relief above the door is nice. The building as composed, however, is decidedly ordinary. It is not a particularly good example of its Deco style. The structure is not innovative or creative. It was not the scene of any historic occurrence (other than being the place where I once filed for an LLC). It is not associated with anyone famous. Despite the claim from the Trust, I don’t think it is considered a “showpiece in Chattanooga’s skyline”. That is to say I'm not totally convinced that saving the building at all costs should be a forgone conclusion.

The question of whether the building should be saved is more pragmatic: what happens to the site if the building is removed? Determining whether or not it makes sense to lose the building hinges on what the trade is. I have it on good authority that the University had a hard look at retrofitting the building to accommodate residential use. I understand that structure and the dimensional layout precludes that possibility. The fact that some buildings built in the last century do not lend themselves to adaptation is sad but true.

Regardless of whether or not the building is razed, the community should hold the university accountable for the prudent stewardship of the site. The site should be no less dense that it currently is, the level of quality of whatever is built should match or surpass that of the current building (none of that EIFS dorm bullshit), whatever is developed should make a positive contribution to the community, and those sumptuous materials should be salvaged and reused in a way that is of visible benefit to the community.

To be clear, I am not necessarily advocating for the demolition of the State building. I do not believe we should go around indiscriminately demolishing buildings. I am, however, open the possibility that demolition and redevelopment could produce a better result for both our University and our community. The subject should be open to debate- and in that process we shouldn’t let any person or institution in our community be bullied by outsiders from D.C. (That said, we should totally beg, plead, cajole or coerce the folks in Tallahassee and Cincinnati to keep their buildings.)

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