Beautiful Public Buildings Preserved on the Plains

My wife and I recently took a motorcycle trip with some friends through parts of the Great Plains Region.  We saw a great deal of Nature’s beautiful handiwork from glacier-created lakes in western Iowa to the sacred pipestone quarries in western Minnesota, to sweeping expanses of grasslands that once teemed with buffalo (more correctly referred to as the American bison).  These natural wonders caused us to park the bikes and spend some time exploring.  What I didn’t expect, however, was experiencing that same sense of awe and appreciation over some man-made wonders!  Even more amazing, the buildings that gave us pause were county courthouses from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

rock county minnesota courthouse luverne minnesota

The Rock County Courthouse, Luverne, MN.

The first courthouse that pulled us in was the Rock County Courthouse in Luverne, Minnesota.  According to their website, “[This] three-story Romanesque building was built in 1888 of Sioux quartz rock mined from a quarry located in nearby Blue Mound State Park (one of the natural wonders I mentioned earlier).  It was renovated to its current condition in 1988 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.”

This beautiful building adorns a square two blocks north of the main business district.  Next to it, and also built with Sioux quartz, is the Veterans Memorial Center.  The Veterans Memorial building houses the Chamber of Commerce/Visitors’ Information Center and Brandenburg Gallery (home to many original works by National Geographic photographer and native son, Jim Brandenburg) along with a Veterans Museum (with artifacts and videos covering the Civil War to WWII).  We spent an entire morning feasting on these two beautiful architectural wonders and their historical and cultural contents.  View Slideshow of Both Buildings

Our other courthouse stop was about two hours south and east in the city of Spencer, Iowa.  The Clay County Courthouse has some similarities to Rock County’s.  Both buildings have a reddish hue, and both buildings feature a dome or tower with an open viewing area beneath their domes.  Like many buildings from this era, they also feature quality workmanship and beautiful architectural details.

Courthouse Clay County Iowa

The architectural styles, however, are different.  Clay County’s building, built twelve years later (begun in 1900), is Classic Revival while Rock County’s is Romanesque.  And unlike the Rock County Courthouse that still houses county offices, the Clay County Courthouse is only used for court cases and related judicial offices.  Since no cases were being held at the time we were there, we were able to tour the building and see the beautiful interior details such as stained glass windows, decorative ceilings, wonderful woodwork details, tile floors and other architectural touches that are often missing in today’s buildings (or are not done with the same quality of craftsmanship or materials).

There are several takeaways here.  Both these communities care about preserving the past.  Also, quality of craftsmanship, quality of design and material quality equal sustainable buildings that can still be functional and beautiful more than one hundred years later.  Finally, beautiful architecture is not confined to major metropolitan areas.  View Slideshow

Fort Worth Architecture

I recently had an opportunity to spend some time walking through the Sundance Square area of Fort Worth.  This is a unique area and well worth a visit.  Whether your interests are cultural, architectural, historical, gastronomical or shopping and entertainment, you can’t go wrong in Downtown Fort Worth!  It is one of the best downtown walking areas in the country; it even has its own website, www.sundancesquare.com.

The cultural attractions are many.  The one that most impressed me was the Bass Performance Hall.  Completed in 1998, the hall features just over 2,000 seats.  It also is an architectural wonder with its European Opera House style looks. The amazing trumpeting angel sculptures that adorn its facade are truly breathtaking!

The architectural style is mixed and runs from 19th Century cattle-town chic to Art Deco to modern.  Some of the buildings I found most interesting include the Sinclair Building (Art Deco, with its Mayan influences) to the restored brick buildings including the Knights of Pythius Hall and the Jett Building (supposedly haunted) with its Chisholm Trail mural.  The Ashton Hotel, a beautifully restored, Italianate style building with wrought iron balconies, decorative brick and stone is the only building of this style in the Fort Worth area.  Not only perfectly preserved on the outside, the interior speaks volumes about the elegance of earlier times.

Many famous Western figures spent time in Fort Worth including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as well as the rest of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang.  This is where the famous picture was taken that led to their having to flee the country.  The spot is marked on Main Street where the photo was taken.  Others known to have frequented the area include Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and gambler, Luke Short (there is an historical marker on the building that housed Luke Short’s casino).

Many excellent restaurants and bars dot the area including Mi Cocina (great Mexican cuisine) and the Flying Saucer with its elevated outside seating area.  You will find something to excite any appetite from pastry to pasta to el pollo.  There are also many unique boutiques, shops and art galleries in the Sundance Square area where you can find anything from Western wear (the Retro Cowboy) to reproductions of famous Western art by such luminaries as C. M. Russell and Frederick Remington (Sid Richardson Museum).  Original Russell and Remington art is currently on display through May 13, 2012.

One final, and I think, bittersweet memory of Fort Worth’s historical and cultural importance is the Hilton Hotel.  Located at the southern edge of the Sundance Square area, it was the site of JFK’s stay the night before he was assassinated.  The hotel was then called the Hotel Texas.  The morning of the assassination, Kennedy delivered a speech in the hotel’s Crystal Ballroom.  Currently, a memorial to JFK is being erected across from the hotel’s main entrance.

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“Rude” Is A Four Letter Word – Civility Is A Sustainability Issue

Is it just me, or are manners an outdated concept?  Has the civil society gone the way of the dinosaur?  I was actually surprised the other day when I was thanked by a restaurant employee.  The surprising thing is that it seemed like such a unique event that I was actually taken aback!  Has our society really gotten to the point where courtesy surprises us?

Maybe it’s my parents’ fault; I was actually raised to say “Please” and “Thank you!  As a Boy Scout, I had to memorize the Boy Scout Oath that contained the phrase, “To help other people at all times,” and the Boy Scout Law that stated that a scout was “Trustworthy, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, etc.”   Are these concepts outdated and unnecessary?

In school I was taught to say, “Joe and I are –”  Now it seems that every statement involving one’s self and someone else begins with a personal pronoun associated with the speaker, “me and her are –.”  Besides being poor grammar, I believe it reflects the sad truth that we have become of society of “Me first!”  My needs are the most important, and as long as they are always met, you won’t have a problem with “ME!”  I think we see this phenomenon at all levels of American society, beginning at the top.  We have a government that has almost ground to a halt because no one can compromise.  It’s a philosophy of “My way or the highway.”  This was certainly reflected in last summer’s battle over raising the debt ceiling that ultimately led to America’s credit rating reduction.

We demand respect rather than living a life that is deserving of respect.  We bully others into acknowledging our positions rather than taking the time and effort to prove our point.  We are self-righteous about our positions or lifestyle or looks and publicly mock anyone who doesn’t look like us, speak like us, or fawn on us.  Witness the TV and radio talk show hosts that constantly mock and ridicule public figures.  Shows like Saturday Night Live and cartoons like The Simpsons are based on the premise of mockery and protected by the mantra, “It’s only humor.”  People post hateful things about others on Facebook, and kids are driven to suicide by digital hate campaigns.  The TV is awash with ads featuring half-truths about political rivals and rules and regulations political action groups dislike.

Are we doomed to a presidential ticket featuring Bart Simpson and Snooki?  Is it too much to ask for oncoming drivers to use turn signals so we know whether or not we can proceed at an intersection?  Do we need to “flip off” or honk at other drivers because they aren’t going the speed we want them to go?  Do we have to be on our cell phones as we shop, drive or sit in a theater?  Rather than building communication bridges, has technology really built walls of isolation?

Our kids are schooled each day by the people they see on the street, TV, and Internet and listen to on the radio.  An anonymous author once wrote, “Children are natural mimics who act like their parents despite every effort to teach them good manners.”  It’s not what we tell them to do that sticks; it’s what they see us do the molds their behavior.

Maybe I am overreacting, and if so, I apologize!  However, I think we would be a happier, more productive society if we learned to consider the feelings of others when making decisions about what we say or do.  So back to the restaurant employee.  As a businessman and as a consumer, I learned something from her simple application of courtesy – I will do business with that restaurant in the future, and I will support businesses that are respectful of their customers.  Every customer deserves a personal, courteous response from a real person, not computerized voices suggesting which buttons to push in order that you might reach the right digitized response to your question.  That’s not customer service!

Bigger Isn’t Always Better

The airwaves are rife with political news, and it got me thinking about getting the message out.  Like many things, money pushes message.  The quality of the message and the quality of the product (or person) are not necessarily equal to the amount of time we get to see or hear about the product (or person).  Simply being the biggest or most talked about is no guarantee of quality.  Bigger isn’t always better.  I think if we could ask Goliath, he would probably agree.

How many products have dominated the market simply because the company pushing them had an almost unlimited marketing budget.  How many times have we purchased something from a company based mainly on brand awareness only to find that the item fell far short of our expectations.  Bigger doesn’t always equal better!

Business history is filled with products produced by large companies with huge marketing budgets that fell flat on their face.  Examples can be easily Googled, but for the sake of time, I’ll provide a few just to jog your memory.  Who can forget the Edsel, ENRON, the unsinkable Titanic, the Betamax tape format, Pan Am, Polaroid and Kodak, and most recently, the many banks and mortgage lenders that just about sunk our entire economy.

So why do the most advertised or most talked about products or political candidates often win the day?  Most of us are just too lazy to go after the facts!  We put way too much faith in the popular media, and way too little time into research.  There may have been a time when we could be excused for this approach, but now with so much information at our fingertips, we can, with modest effort, compare big companies and their products to their smaller competitors.  We can do the same with political candidates.  With apologies to the X-Factor, “the truth is out there!”

Dress Before Dinner!

My mother was a graduate of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.  Knowing that I have an interest in Frank Lloyd Wright, she gave me her latest St. Olaf magazine and pointed me to the article on the last page entitled “Nothing but Scrambled Eggs.”  It was an account of the famous architect’s only visit to the campus on January 8, 1936.  Like so many things associated with Wright, it was punctuated by the unique!  What follows is a synopsis of the author’s (Jeff Sauve) article along with my personal take on several incidents.

Wright had come to Northfield to give a lecture.  Accompanied by his personal assistant, Gene Masselink, they had checked in at a local hotel.  However, Wright found the place “not fit for human habitation,” so they promptly checked out and headed for the St. Olaf campus.  I am not sure what their next plan was, and the article doesn’t provide any insight, but while they were admiring the recently constructed campus art studio nicknamed the “Art Barn,” the ran into a math professor who directed them to the home of the designer of the studio, professor Arnold Flaten.

Upon arrival at the Flaten home, they were promptly invited in and given accommodations for the evening by Mrs. Evelyn Flaten.  It didn’t take long for the first “Wright moment” to occur.  Shortly after being shown to their rooms, Masselink asked Mrs. Flaten, “Mr. Wright wishes to know if you prefer him to dress before dinner or after dinner?”  The nonplussed Mrs. Flaten shot back, “Before dinner!”

Since the recently arrived guests were a total surprise, there wasn’t much food in reserve.  There were, however, enough eggs to serve omelets with bacon.  Upon being served, Wright declared, “How did you know that eggs and bacon are the favorite food of architects and the best food to eat before a lecture?”

Shortly after dinned, Wright and Masselink, left for the lecture.  It was, however, a very short trip!  For those of you not familiar with January in Minnesota, it’s usually snowy, icy and cold.   Add that to the hilly terrain of Northfield and the St. Olaf campus, and you have the perfect mix for accidents.  As Wright’s car backed down the steep driveway, it slid out of control and into a snowbank.  Wright climbed out of the car, walked back to the house and took a nap on the couch, leaving the problem to his assistant and professor Flaten.

Once the car was dug out, the group headed for the lecture hall, and once again, the car slid into another snowbank.  And once again Wright took a short nap while Masselink and Flaten dug out the vehicle.  This reaction seems almost metaphorical to me.  Wright’s world was peppered with problems, some of them, like the 1914 fire at Taliesin, can only be described as horrific.  But Wright always seemed able sublimate the negatives and move on.  I am not sure whether or not it’s an admirable quality, but it does seem to be characteristic of the famous architect.  Eventually, the three men made it to the lecture hall, and Wright delivered his message to a large crowd.

As was his style, Wright didn’t mask his opinions.  His message was on organic architecture, and he suggested that maybe Americans couldn’t understand that kind of building because, although Americans were well-educated, “too many young people have been made into scientists and not into artists.”  This comment aligns with another of my beliefs about Wright; he never let science, math and engineering get in the way of his designs.  Although beautiful to the eye, many of then had serious engineering flaws.  A perfect example of this is the famous Fallingwater house, where his cantilevered decks began to sag almost as soon as they were finished and ultimately cost millions to repair.

The last “Wright moment” occurred shortly after the lecture.  Upon completion of the talk, Wright was introduced to several of the esteemed guests in attendance.  One of them, college president Lars Boe, asked the architect about his thoughts on the beautiful Gothic architecture that is the dominant theme of the St. Olaf campus.  Once again, Wright’s brusque manner adorned his response. “As far as the architecture of your campus is concerned, you’ve got one building, and that’s the Art Barn (Flaten’s building).  What you’ve got up here is nothing  but scrambled eggs.”

An interesting man, isn’t he?  If you want to read the article in its entirety, you’ll find it here.  (based on Jeff Sauve’s, article “Nothing but Scrambled Eggs” from St. Olaf Magazine, Fall 2011)

Wright's Park Inn Hotel Roof Line

Architecture, Environment and H2O

What do you get when you combine environmental awareness, educational opportunities and historical understanding – The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium!  Located on the banks of the Mississippi River in Dubuque, Iowa, the facility is a mecca for those interested in all things aquatic.   My wife and I had a chance to explore it when we spent a day in Dubuque during a recent fall motorcycle trip.

The center consists of two main buildings as well as an assortment of boats and other outdoor learning stations and is located in the old Ice Harbor area on the west bank of the Mississipi River near downtown Dubuque.  The first part, the William Woodward Mississippi River Center, opened in 2003.  Designed by EHDD Architecture of San Francisco, the structure houses multiple aquariums and exhibits.  According to EHDD’s website, the client wanted a structure that fit with the 19th Century riverfront and industrial architecture of the city.  Local materials like limestone and wood frame windows were chosen so the structure would blend seamlessly with the surrounding buildings.

The new portion of the facility (seen on the left side of the photos 1-3 below) was combined with the old Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works factory (the low-slung structure at the right in photos 1-3).  At the time of its closing in the 1970s, the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works company was the second-oldest ship builder in the country.  During its operational life, the company built everything from steam-driven riverboats to naval sub chasers and mine layers.

Inside the main facility are eight aquariums with fish, amphibians and reptiles from all ecosystems along the 2,552 mile-long Mississippi.  There are also many historical displays to explore.  You can step inside a riverboat, explore life on a flatboat, and view the natural habitat of the Mississippi on a boardwalk trail; these are just three of the many educational opportunities available to visitors.  There is also a hands-on learning center with a touch-tank and many animal specimens.  You can even partake in outdoor environmental presentations like a river otter show and step aboard a real Mississippi riverboat, the William M. Black, as well as a tug, the Logsdon.

In 2010 the Diamond Jo National Rivers Center was added to the campus.  While the original facility, the William Woodward Mississippi River Center, is primarily focused on the Mississippi, the National Rivers Center designed by Christopher Chadbourne and Associates, deals with a wide variety of aquatic environments from oceans and seas to other major river systems and waterways.  There are four saltwater aquariums, one of which is the 32 by 15 foot, 40,000 gallon Gulf of Mexico aquarium.  This giant aquarium contains sharks, rays and moray eels.  There are also many historical displays covering everything from Native Americans and Voyageurs to famous people associated with river transportation and exploration.

We were impressed with the number of environmental displays in the National Rivers Center and of the abundance of environmental information.   One interesting fact I discovered was how much water can be saved by using a car wash instead of a hose; a car wash can cut water usage in half!  The Center is also a research facility, the National River Research Center, dedicated to learning more about the science and history of rivers.  There is also a library of books, paintings, documents, photographs and manuscripts of America’s river history.  One final feature of the new Rivers Center is the 3-D and 4-D theater.  Museum goers get a break on tickets to the films, but you do not need to buy a museum ticket to see them.  You can purchase tickets for the theater only.

If you are in the Upper Midwest, a trip to the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium complex is a “must-see” opportunity for all ages.  Make sure you set aside at least a half-day, and I believe, you will find things to see and do there even if you choose to spend an entire day.  And, as an affiliate of the Smithsonian Museums, you can be sure that you will receive a high-quality learning experience.

 

Prairie Jewel – Wright’s Park Inn Hotel

I had the opportunity to take a tour of the newly renovated and recently reopened Park Inn Hotel last week.  If you have been reading this blog over the last few months, you are aware of my intense interest in this project.  Until last week I had little direct knowledge on the interior of the hotel.  I had been amazed by the beauty and detail on the outside on my earlier visits; however, the work done on the inside is simply stunning!  A walk through the hotel is like stepping back in time 101 years. (See Slideshow at Bottom)

Originally, the hotel occupied the west end of the building; the east end was occupied by the City National Bank.  If you view the building from Central Park (across the street and directly to the north), it is fairly easy to see that there are two distinct structures.  The dividing point, known as the “waist,”  juts inward at the mid-section of the entire structure.

The Park Inn Hotel is the only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright designed hotel in the world.  Not only did Wright design the building, he also designed the stained glass windows and interior pieces like the barrel chairs and the Mercury statues in the Bank/Ballroom.  Since the renovation was an historical renovation, the rework had to model the original as closely as possible.  One of the most difficult challenges was returning the bank portion back to its original two-story height.  This area had been changed into a three-story structure (see three-story photos compare to renovated bank photos) to accommodate a variety of businesses, and turning it back to the original two-story configuration was a real engineering challenge.  Another huge task involved all the stained glass windows.  Some had to be located (the large Skylight Room window was found in a Mason City home and the owners donated it), many had to be restored, and some had to be reproduced.  Fortunately, an artist capable of the restoration work was nearby.  John Larsen of Clear Lake restored or re-created 62 stained glass windows for the project.  Old photos and Wright’s drawings were consulted to aid in reproducing period furnishings such as carpet and furniture, and some original items were used as models for reproduction pieces such as the Mercury statues in the Ballroom.

So what’s original and what isn’t?  The original items include:

  • skylights in the Ballroom and the Skylight Room
  • art glass in many of the rooms and the hotel lobby
  • some of the bathroom floor tile, as well as the floor tile in the main lobby and Skylight Room
  • wood flooring, stair railings, louvered guest room doors and some of the paneling, doors, transoms and safe frame in the Law Office
  • donated Stickley pieces in Law Office are period
  • copper facia and much of the brick as well as the polychrome tile on the exterior
  • the Historic Suite is in 1910 configuration
  • clerestory window grill work (some original grill work was found in a nearby community where it was serving as a residential fence)
  • cement urns on balcony outside Ladies Parlor

Items that were reproduced include:

  • the Mercury statues in the Ballroom (one original was found and the owner allowed it to be used as the model for casting)
  • the Mezzanine balcony (the original failed within ten years and was removed)
  • the Law Office library table
  • exterior light fixtures and the Bank grill work on entry door
  • clerestory windows on Bank section
  • the ground floor cement urn at the entry into the Waist portion of the building
  • the barrel chairs were reproduced from Wright drawings.
  • billiards table is original period piece but was not original to the building

Things that have been changed, added or modernized:

  • the number of guest rooms – originally there were 40 some guest rooms; now there are 27 guest rooms (now includes third floor of bank)
  • an elevator and some new railings and ramping for accessibility and safety
  • new heating, plumbing and electrical
  • very few original furnishings remained; designers had to find correct styles of period furniture; carpeting had to be designed and manufactured
  • guest rooms now have individual bathrooms

I was fortunate to have Scott Borcherding as my tour guide.  Scott, of Bergland + Cram, was the Interior Designer on the project.  Scott was an excellent tour guide, and I gained many interesting insights about the building, others involved, and about Wright himself.  One piece of information that I found extremely interesting is that Wright completed his design in 1909 and shortly after began his affair with Mamah Cheney.  Because they ran off to Europe together, construction of the hotel and bank complex was actually supervised by Wright’s associate, William Drummond.

I am signing off for now.  I have much more to say and show about the Park Inn Hotel project, but it will have to wait until next time!  (You can learn more about the project at Wright On The Park.)

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