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Cecil (on varying the monotony)

Our friend and former department chair Cecil Elliott had a way of cutting through the academic argle-bargle (i.e., obfuscatory crap), laying bare the essence of any issue at hand. That’s one of the qualities some of us most admired in him and, simultaneously, dreaded that any one of us might be its target; if so, it wouldn’t have been without cause. I can’t recall the first time I heard Cecil make this observation — varying the monotony — but I suspect it may have been an occasion not unlike my experience yesterday during the round of second-year reviews in ARCH272.

The students had been asked to design mid-sized mixed-use buildings on one of four Moorhead-Fargo inner-city sites; to create “neighborhoods” that outsiders might also enjoy visiting. These were team projects in which each student was assigned a site probably no larger than a half city block; of including (at least) housing and some commercial activity; and of coördinating their proposals within the team. In my comments, I observed (though they may already have made those observations among themselves) there are several comparable projects in the community which could have informed their own designs:

  • Downtown Moorhead at Main Avenue and Fourth Street, an Urban Renewal area with a similar scale and program;
  • A parking lot (I was about to say “vacant” but that’s not quite accurate; vacant and empty aren’t interchangeable) east of Renaissance Hall along N.P. Avenue in Fargo;
  • The Roberts Street Commons project nearing completion at Roberts Street and Second Avenue, Fargo, again with a similar mix of apartments and retail;
  • 220 West, an apartment building at North Tenth Street and Third Avenue (which includes no commercial space); and
  • 300 Lime, occupying a half block at Eleventh Street North and Fourth Avenue (which also includes no commercial space).

These five projects span a fifteen-year period and are similar in bulk and footprint, even if they differ in program elements. And they offer important lessons to those second-year students I met Friday morning.

Nineteenth-century American cities played by a different set of rules than they have, say, since 1950, when government-sponsored Urban Renewal changed the character of our center cities and practically obliterated any rules which had shaped them prior to the Second World War. And while I use the word “rules”, there was no handbook furtively passed among owners, architects, and builders who created the colorful block fronts represented by this panoramic view of Broadway in downtown Fargo, taken about 1910. The “rules” were a kind of default, a broadly held pattern accepted by all concerned. If only we did have such a handbook.

A typical urban block front circa 1900, whether in Keokuk or Kalispell, was divided into 25-foot-wide building sites, usually set within the Jeffersonian grid of our westward Manifest Destiny. If they deviate, it is usually a reaction to topography, water courses, railway rights-of-way, or some other natural or human factor. Within this commercial cartesian grid, speculators responded to market forces (or attempted to capitalize and redirect those forces toward their own ends) with generally two- and three-story commercial fronts of brick and cast iron, accented with moderate amounts of wood and stone — depending on the community’s prior experience with fire.

Architects or builders — in the 19th century there was little practical difference between them — satisfied the client’s desire for solutions which balanced stylistic expression with reasonable economy. Brick — uniform or multi-colored; smooth and textured;  corbelled and coursed; laid in running bond, soldier courses, headers and stretchers, basket-weave and herringbone — accented with stone and/or terra cotta, and spanned with cast or wrought iron were the predominant material palette. Personal flourishes included at the very least personal or business names, dates, initials, personal, fraternal, or corporate symbols, and other ornamental touches. Floor heights varied within reasonable limits; the ceiling heights for a shallow 25-foot-wide store might differ from a deep 50-foot width, and were often guided by the length of a flight of stairs patrons would tolerate. The elements might vary, but the template remained  fairly consistent, so it’s no wonder our Midwestern cities appear to have been variations upon a theme.

Now, safely beyond the bulldozer mentality of Urban Renewal, and well within the historic preservation mindset encouraged by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, Historic District ordinances often provide guidelines for the insertion of new buildings in historic fabric, hoping to achieve some degree of compatibility. There is where we are likely to find those rules — long after the fact and perhaps only a ouija-board-induced approximation of those 19th century “rules” we’d like to believe had been in effect at the time our great-grandparents walked those streets. Such guidelines, whether government- or self-imposed, might have shaped as readily a Main Street store front or the regeneration of a place as iconic as Potsdammer Platz in Berlin, and always with mixed results.

In Cecil Elliott’s terms, they had learned how to vary the monotony.

300 Lime in the foreground and 220 West in the center distance offer contrasting case studies in “varying the monotony”.

It’s highly likely I’ll have something else to offer on this topic, so be forewarned.


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