Bringing Home the Romanticism of Modernism

Because I was born in the early 1970s, it’s difficult for me and others of my age to grasp the optimism that preceded us. We were born in the shadow of the assassinations and strife of the 1960s, grew up in the years of Watergate and Carter’s malaise and on through the excesses of the 1980s.

In fact, you would have to go back to the days before John F. Kennedy’s assassination to find what you might consider an optimistic era in American history. The so-called Greatest Generation had endured the Great Depression and the most horrific war in world history and emerged triumphant. American soldiers brought home their demons, to be certain, but they also brought home a sense of possibilities, the feeling that a new and better world could be created. That was certainly true in New Orleans, which was rapidly growing under a reform mayor. It was widely seen as the most forward-looking and open-minded city in the South. The significant architecture of the time reflected that.

Which brings me home. Since I first left my childhood stomping grounds in Lakeview 20 years ago, I’ve lived in a string of antique houses across the city, with the oldest being the 1840s Plauche cottage in Tremé and the newest being a 1936 split-level in Mid-City. All of those houses had an organic, romantic, neighborhood-oriented feeling to them. But I was recently seduced into a post-war home, a rather textbook example of mid-century modernism.

The beam-on-post construction supports vaulted ceilings that lead down to clerestory windows in every room. The remaining fenestration unites on the north side to capitalize on the “good” light and connect the inside of the house to the backyard. And the allocation of space favors the public areas. There’s a wide-open bowling alley of a living/dining space, which splits off into a kitchen. The living room looks out on an atrium, which provides still more entertaining space.

Back in 1955, such houses would have been considered futuristic. In certain respects they reflect the optimism of the age and a romanticism about how people should live – thus the emphasis on space for entertaining: in case you wanted to invite Frank Sinatra over for a cocktail or simply have plenty of communal space for your family.

Of course, such thinking (minus Sinatra) continues to resonate in residential architecture today. No architect tells his client, “Let’s carve up all this open living space into a series of parlors.”

I recently met with Lee Ledbetter to discuss some of the principles of modernism. Ledbetter ranks among the most significant architects on the local scene today, perhaps best-known for the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden in City Park. During our chat, I discovered we have something in common: We both live in houses designed by Tulane architecture professors back in the mid-1950s. His emerged from the pen of John E. Dinwiddie, Tulane School of Architecture’s dean at the time and an influential West Coast modernist. Like me, Ledbetter originally had lived in and loved traditional historic New Orleans dwellings. But with a nudge from a Realtor friend, he was lured into one of a cluster of mid-century gems near Loyola Law School.

The house was not in pristine condition, but why would an architect want it so at the outset? There was fun to be had in revitalizing it. To that end, Ledbetter employs a mantra: “Always be true to the architecture of the house.”

Examples of renovators’ failures to do so abound. During a recent car ride, I came upon a spectacular example of mid-century architecture in Lake Terrace – spectacular, except that someone had placed decorative shutters on either side of the windows and hung a faux-Victorian door at the front. This is akin to installing aluminum windows and vinyl siding on a real Victorian house.
 “If you don’t want a modern house, don’t buy one,” Ledbetter suggests.

That advice applies to interiors, as well. If you have terrazzo floors, don’t cover them with wood unless they’re in bad shape. Ledbetter also advises against, say, Georgian cabinets for the kitchen and bathrooms of a modern home. “Some of the biggest sins happen in the kitchens and bathrooms,” he says.

Ledbetter is known for both architecture and interior design and is no doctrinaire in either arena. In his own house, he declined to adhere rigidly to the furniture choices that have become so identified with mid-century modernism – the standbys from Eames or Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe. “That is such a yawn,” Ledbetter says. “I’ve gotten tired of seeing this completely predictable furniture by architects. … At some point, it becomes a cliché.”

Ledbetter recommends exploring the modern appointments designed by furniture designers rather than the better-known furniture designed by architects. He mentions that designers such as Billy Haines, T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, Greta Grossman and Edward Wormley produced furniture that was “often warmer” than that of the mid-century standard-bearers. “Their furniture tends to relate more to the human body than to principles of geometry,” he says.

And Ledbetter doesn’t limit himself to modernism. Although he says it would be unsettling to walk into a modern house filled with Louis XVI pieces, he likes to throw a few antiques or Oriental rugs into an otherwise modern room.

Ultimately, whether you’re bringing modern pieces into a historic house or just decorating a modern house, it is critical to think in terms of colors and materials, Ledbetter says. So it becomes critical to study up on the seminal furniture designers and what they produced and to study up on the evolution of architecture.

That way, you can know your home’s architecture and be true to it, whether it be a Creole cottage or a post-and-beam glass house.

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