PMR - June 10, 2019
Errol Barron, just after graduating Yale’s School of Architecture in 1967, had an interview to work in Paul Rudolph’s office. He intended to stay for one year, but ended up being there for 7—and working on some of the most interesting projects of that era. Below, he shares his memories, insights, and assessments of Rudolph, and we are grateful to him for permission to publish this unique text.
Mr. Barron is an architect, artist, and writer living in New Orleans. A graduate of Tulane and Yale, he is Favrot Professor of Architecture at Tulane University and architect for the Ogden Museum, the Salvation Army Center of Hope, and other innovative projects in that region, California, New York, and Greece.
He has exhibited his paintings and photographs since 1980 in several museums and galleries, and his works are in the collections of numerous museums and private collections. He also served as the Artist in Residence on the Isles of Shoals Marine Research Laboratory, run by Cornell and the University of New Hampshire.
Errol Barron was awarded the Medal of Honor by the Louisiana Architects Association of the AIA, and is a former winner of the Gabriel Prize, and is a Fellow of the AIA. His paintings, drawings, and observations are published in four books—including, most recently, a book on the architecture of Tulane University titled "Tulane Observed.”
By Errol Barron
P M R. These initials (for Paul Marvin Rudolph) were used in the office to refer to the man known to me as Mr. Rudolph. He was born in Elkton, Kentucky in 1918, a short distance from Murray, Kentucky, the home of my mother and her family, the Sparkmans. In southwest Kentucky, the region held a mythic status for me being the site of my mother’s childhood and that her two brothers, Will and Matt and a sister Peggy. Though there was a town in Murray and Elkton, the area was mostly farm land and the life on these farms was idyllic - or so it seemed. The considerable story telling skills of these two uncles fueled my imagination with tales of life on the farm and of exploits in the surrounding woods.
The stories had a particular allure as they were set in a time and place that had more to do with the distant agrarian past than the present or certainly the future that we have come to know. Though I was raised in a professional household, my Father was an architect, with only marginal links to this agrarian world, my imagination was fueled by my experiences of hunting and fishing and the stories of these activities some 50 years before. Never mind that these exploits had little to do with providing food for the table, what mattered was the call of the “forest” and the non urban that persists today in an almost inexplicable affection for a pre industrial world of country music, tawngy accents and a general loathing of sophistication.
PMR’s father was a Methodist minister and as we were raised in the Methodist church, a common background was at work in our relationship however unspoken. PMR went off to college (Auburn) and then to the US Navy where he sat at the next table to my Father’s future partner, Joseph M. Brocato at the Brooklyn Navy Yards. They were friends and I heard many stoires about this talented young friend of Mr. Brocato when I worked in my Father’s office in the summers of 1958-1963. My mother also had met Mr. Rudolph at a regional AIA meeting in Biloxi Ms. In 1958 and she described him a charming and handsome young architect full of ideas and beautiful small buildings he had designed in Florida.
These two personal connections were noted to Mr. Rudolph during a job interview I had with him after finishing my March degree at Yale in 1967. I had called his office for an appointment hoping to work for him for a year before returning home to work in the office of Barron, Heinberg and Brocato in Alexandria, Louisiana for a year – I stayed 7 years.
Mr. Ruldolph was very cordial, asking “how is Joe?” and then after an interview and a review of my material said, rather surprisingly “when can you start?” I began the next week after negotiating for a room in a stately run down upper east side town house in exchange for work. The house belonged to a John Boogearts, an architect who had worked for my Father, and bought for about $50,000 - today worth millions.
Karen, my wife to be, a recent graduate of Vassar, got a job at Farm and Ranch Vacation Guide, a small magazine promoting agro tourism, a source of continued amusement to us even today. She lived at the Roberts House, run by the Presbyterian Church, for young professional women as in that day, young unmarried people did not always live together.
Rudolph’s office on 58th street was on the top floor of a typical row house out of which he fashioned a labrynthian space of many levels and floating planes creating precarious work spaces, ledges for magazines and benches and the main conference table that doubled as a landing of the stair leading to Mr. Rudolph’s work space at the very top of the space. He created this space( and the conference room) by raising the center section of the roof some 15 or 20 feet to bring in light and create more work levels.
In the rear of the 4th floor was the drafting room of about 8 work stations perched on boxes that contained the tubes of drawings of completed projects. To gain access to this storage one would walk under the drawing boards above and we were obliged to step across this gap to get to our desks. Occasional falls occurred!
It was a lively unorthodox, slightly dangerous environment but a delight to work in. There was just enough head height under the slope of the original room to make the space usable.
My first assignment was to assist Constantine “Connie Wallace”, the job captain, in the construction documents for the Interama Pavilion for the so named fair in Florida, a North and Central American project meant to stimulate commerce. Many other architects, Louis Kahn included, were enlisted. The Rudolph project was a delightful concoction of elliptical pavilions sunk into a sloping concrete floor under a curving sun shade roof - it was never built. I remember the enthusiasm for this project was so high that we worked to complete the drawings on Christmas Eve of 1967.
The next project for me was one of those small projects that I think PMR took to give the youngest people in the office, such as me, something to do. It was a dentist’s office on Central Park south in a large building developed by Bernard Spitzer whose young son became the notorious Eliot Spitzer of New York fame. The office was for Dr. Nathan Allen Shore, a celebrity dentist who specialized in correcting dental mal-alignments thereby curing all manner of other ills. He was known for trading dental work for artwork and had amassed an impressive collection of sculpture and paintings. Through his art connections he crossed the path of Mr. Rudolph. Rudolph concocted a plan of circular rooms meant to be ergonomically sensible such that the unintended effect when viewed in plan was a mouth of teeth. I did a card for the Shores on clear vinyl that resembled a dental negative that the Shores and Mr. Rudolph laughed at in a positive way.
There were several more projects in my remaining 6 years at the office, the Burroughs Wellcome Pharmaceutical Headquarters in the Research Triangle Park in N. Carolina being an important one where Mr. Rudolph generously took me to all the main meetings with the president of B-W although I was very inexperienced. It was an enjoyable time to me where I was able to watch his disarmingly unorthodox manner of presentation ( he once sat on the floor in the office of the president to explain the plan) and his remarkable unpretentious explanation of the concept that was so accessible and logical that the executives were practically reaching for their checkbooks to get the project started. I often attributed his clarity to his small town practical childhood and recognized his fervor and sense of commitment was undoubted related to childhood experiences in the presence of a evangelical minister father.
My enthusiasm for his presentation method, the clarity and force of his ideas, endeared me to him in a small way and I came to think that Mr. Rudolph recognized in me an ability to judge people and situations similar to his own and he appeared to respect my opinion. I don't wish to over emphasize this connection but it did exist and was probably linked to our common backgrounds and our mutual desire to break free of this past – he of course being much more successful than I. He once said to me at dinner, “Errol, do you know the difference between you and me? We were both born in the sticks, but I got over it.”
Our relation was close in spite of our age difference and relative difference in the architectural world, him being quite famous but he recognized that we shared a sense of humor and communicated well non-verbally.
My most significant project was undoubtedly (even more so than the famous Bass House in Ft. Worth, Texas) the Kaiser apartment in NYC, for the widow of the industrialist Henry J. Kaiser. During this project I became friends with Michael Kaiser, her son, who remains a friend today. Through his influence on his mother, she asked me to design her house and estate in Greece where she moved after Mr. Kaiser’s death and lived till about 1980. When I told Mr. Rudolph of this commission he was amazingly supportive and encouraged me to take off time from the office to get the project going. I never sensed any annoyance on his part for this professional breakthrough for me.The project led to my meeting the Vardinoyannis family of Athens who bought the house and commissioned 3 large houses from me. I worked in Greece for this remarkable family from 2005 – 2015.
Mr. Rudolph was a remarkable figure to me, a very strange combination of an unassuming practical man and a virtual visionary. Like many others who have come from the provinces to the great city he embodied the confidence of someone who knew he was different, more talented, more endowed with natural intelligence, more intuitive, though someone who was carrying great deal of heavy baggage of social and cultural inferiority. This odd but understandable set of conflicting influences fueled his ambition ad his courage to excel – and to lead where others, with many more advantages, followed. He was sought out and respected for his candor and clarity of thinking, a product of his humble beginnings and his intellectual and moral fervor. His talent in other words shone a light on possibilities utterly lost in darkness to most everyone else. As Peter Schjeldahl counters, “genius is not complicated, it is the opposite – we regular folks are complicated, tied in knots of ambivalence and befogged with uncertainties, genius has the economy of a machine.” This observation describes Mr. Rudolph well and I will never forget the experience of being in the presence of such a talent at a critical time in my life and to see him in action, up close.
Errol Barron FAIA
June 10, 2019