In spring 2015, my Research Methods in Architectural History class dedicated its main research project to analyzing documents within the City of Savannah’s Research Library and Municipal Archives in order to compile a research guide for each topic. These guides are now available on their website. Each student selected a type of 19th-century municipal infrastructure — fire hydrants and water mains; municipal wharves; the rope walk; wells and pumps; street lighting; and the landscaping of the downtown squares — as their focus and conducted most of their research using the collections of the City’s municipal archive. Depending on the topic, the records they consulted dated from the late 18th century through to the early 20th century. Secondary research using online and library resources allowed each student to understand Savannah’s infrastructure within a larger context and in comparison to other cities. At the end of spring quarter, the students delivered a formal presentation to municipal staff members in the media room in City Hall. The research guides are now available online through the Municipal Archives website and are meant to help future researchers who may be interested in these topics understand the history of that type of infrastructure in Savannah.
I never imagined that my set of handwritten seminar notes from ARLH759: Power and the Built Environment, and in particular several pages of scribbled notes from the session, “Power and Commemoration,” would become a valuable source of research materials that I would use in my early career as an architectural historian.
This past summer, I was hired as an expert witness (through the introduction of a personal friend of mine) in a legal case that was brought against the University of Texas at Austin. At issue was whether or not the university could remove two bronze statues of historical figures from a war memorial, which had been constructed at the bequest of a former regent and the university’s largest donor; the plaintiffs’ sought an injunction to block the removal. My task, as an architectural historian, was to provide testimony on behalf of the plaintiffs as to the significance of the war memorial, generally and of the statues in particular.
To prepare for my day in court, which required working on a tight deadline (less than ten days), I began with those seminar notes, reviewing them for general background information in order to place the subject memorial in its historic context of war memorials erected from the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. But for more specific information, I read some relevant journal articles, especially those contained in Commemoration in America, Essays on Monuments, Memorialization, and Memory, edited by SCAD Architectural History Professors, David Gobel and Daves Rossell. My next task required more specific research on the sculptor of the statues and the architect of the war memorial in Austin; a research trip to the Athenæum of Philadelphia, one of the country’s premier archives of American architectural drawings and documents provided a treasure trove of primary and secondary source materials that would form the basis of my testimony.
As a result of my research, I learned that the memorial has a complex and fascinating history. George Washington Littlefield, a Confederate Major, wealthy Austin businessman and former Regent of the University of Texas, bequeathed $250,000 to UT to build a memorial to honor the Confederacy and intended to be a grand gateway to the university. The Roman-inspired triumphal arch would include five colossal bronze statues of prominent men who served in the Confederacy and had personal ties to the state of Texas, including President Jefferson Davis. While Littlefield’s triumphal arch was not realized due to the financial constraints of the bequest, the statues were executed in clay by Italian-born sculptor, Pompeo Luigi Coppini in his Texas studio and cast by the Roman Bronze Works in Brooklyn, New York.
In 1919, plans for Littlefield’s memorial were revived. Coppini’s design integrated the completed bronze statues displayed on a plaza surrounding a fountain, to be dedicated to UT alumni who were killed in the “Great War:” this proposed memorial would jointly commemorate the sacrifice of those who served in the Civil War and World War I and Coppini completed another bronze statue of President Woodrow Wilson as a companion to President Davis, symbolizing a reunified America fighting against a common enemy abroad. This plan likewise was never executed and future plans for the memorial languished until Paul Phillippe Cret, the French-born architect and Chair of the Architecture Department at the University of Pennsylvania was hired by UT to complete a master plan for the campus in 1930. Cret’s master plan included several buildings, most notably the iconic Main Building and Tower and a final plan for the Littlefield’s memorial with a fountain, complete with a Roman quadriga, and Coppini’s six bronze statues sited on the hill along oak-lined walkways leading up to the limestone steps of the Main Building.
Following the horrific murder of parishioners at a Charleston, S.C. church and related anti-Confederate sentiment, the university sought to remove Jefferson Davis’ as the statue was deemed to be “offensive” in the wake of the tragedy in Charleston. Wilson too would be removed to maintain a symmetrical appearance of the south mall. As an architectural historian, I was not as concerned with the underlying cause célèbre but with the university’s wanton destruction of an eighty-year-old war memorial, erected to honor and commemorate sacrifice and a symbol of Texas’ shared cultural heritage located just steps from the statehouse. Further, the removal of these statues would not only alter a masterpiece of one of America’s greatest architects and urban planners of the twentieth century, but removing Messrs. Davis and Wilson would forever destroy the central iconographic meaning of the monument and fountain.
I prepared talking points, elevator pitches and curated images for a PowerPoint (drawing on what I learned in COMM740: Professional Presentations) and headed to Texas. Appearing in a Travis County District Court was an experience that I will not soon forget. First of all, this was a big local news event and I was a bit unprepared for all the media attention this case was getting. In fact, the courtroom was packed, not only with supporters of both sides, but with every local television news outlet and newspaper jockeying for position on the front row for the best view of the action. But, I had a job to do and while I was not able to deliver all my pithy comments (e.g “architecture is fragile” and “we inherit our monuments from our ancestors and borrow them from our children,”) I successfully answered counsels’ questions, remained poised under cross examination and made the points I needed to—and I ended up on the 6:00P news and my picture was in the newspaper (one resourceful reporter accessed my LinkedIn profile for his article on the proceedings).
Even though the plaintiffs’ motion was denied, and the university hastily and unceremoniously removing the “offensive” statues mere hours after the court’s ruling, the case is currently at the appellate division, which means I may have a second chance to advocate in court for the preservation of an historic cultural landscape and the replacement of the statues. But the moral of the story is two-fold: first, this is proof that Richard Nickel’s famous quip, “[g]reat architecture has only two natural enemies; water and stupid men,” is true and secondly, take good class notes—you never know when you may need them for a future research project.
Editor’s Note: Glen Umberger is an alumnus of our Architectural History program (M.F.A. 2015).
The trend towards an increasing number of full-time positions continues with the latest set of career survey data compiled by Dr. Karl Schuler in our department, with 153 positions counted, up from 129 in 2014. This is the highest number since 2008. Positions involving historical research and evaluation are the most numerous among the five main kinds of positions, with the Southeast offering the greatest number of positions of any part of the country.
The data can be viewed in the Career Survey tab above.
I have recently learned about the Italian writer Italo Calvino’s travels in the United States in 1959-60 in which he kept a journal, translated and published in the book Hermit in Paris: Autobiographical Writings. Calvino (1923-1985) is most famous for his book Invisible Cities (1972). In his journal entry of March 8, 1960, he had this to say about Savannah:
“Consequently, my impressions of the South would be very dark if I had not discovered
I stopped at Savannah, Georgia, to sleep and have a look at it, attracted only by its beautiful name and by some historical, literary or musical memory, but no one said I should go there, no one in any State of the United States. AND IT IS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL CITY IN THE UNITED STATES. Absolutely, there is nothing to compare with it. I don’t know yet what Charleston, South Carolina, is like, where I will be going tomorrow and which is more famous. This is a town where nobody ever comes (despite having a top-class tourist infrastructure and knowing how to present its attractions — relating to both history and town planning — with a sophistication unknown elsewhere; but this is perhaps the secret of its charm, that internal American tourism, which is always so phoney, has not touched it). It is a town which has remained practically unchanged, just as it was in the prosperous days of the South at the start of the nineteenth century, in the heyday of cotton; and it is one of the only American cities to have been built with unique urban planning, of extreme rational regularity and variety and harmony: at every second intersection there is a small tree-lined square, all identical, but always different, because the pleasantness of the buildings which range from the colonial period to that of the Civil War. I stayed there spending the whole day going round from street to street, enjoying the forgotten pleasure of feeling a city, a city in which the expression of a civilization, and it is only in this way by seeing Savannah that you can understand what type of civilization the South was. …”
Calvino is one of numerous visitors during the city’s history that have written glowingly about Savannah and admired its urban plan. To read what others’ have said, visit our collection of praise for Savannah (or click the link above).
Architectural History alumna Katherine Williams (M.A. 2014) received the Thesis Document Award for the top thesis at SCAD submitted in 2014. Her thesis, “The Social Implications of Architectural Improvement: How Approaches to Poverty Influence the Success of Urban Revitalization in Over-the-Rhine,” considers the architectural changes and their social implications in urban renewal efforts in the Over-the-Rhine neighbourhood of Cincinnati in the twenty-first century, and suggests that limited community input and a lack of consideration for mixed incomes precluded the success of those efforts.
Her thesis is the second in the history of the department to receive this college-wide honour. Click here to view her thesis.
One of the perks of being an Architectural History graduate student at the Savannah College of Art and Design is having opportunities to step out of the classroom and get some real world professional experience. Recently, I had the privilege of presenting a paper at the Ninth Savannah Symposium: The Architecture of Trade.
Presenting a paper at an academic conference may sound intimidating and it can be. But it can be very rewarding, too. For me, it was a chance to push myself a bit farther outside my comfort zone.
The process is fairly simple. Most conferences require you to first submit a 300 word abstract on your paper. I chose to frame my paper around a few ideas that I wanted to use for my master’s thesis so writing a short abstract was fairly straightforward. Along with the challenge of writing only 300 words (my first draft was over 750) I was given the following advice: keep it simple, make sure it is interesting and don’t forget to include a clever title.
Once my paper was accepted, the real work began. At the symposium, you only have twenty minutes and you only get one chance to make a good first impression. So, my paper went through numerous drafts (I lost count how many) and I spent a lot of time selecting my PowerPoint slides (more advice here: make sure they are “visually stunning.”)
Of course, you are writing a paper that will be read out loud to an audience, which is a bit different than writing a paper for a professor who will be reading it in the comfort of his office. So, I had to think about my unique speech patterns, making sure to limit architectural jargon and avoid getting tongue-tied over superfluous words.
But, the most important step in the process was rehearsal. I rehearsed my paper in front of a mirror to see how my facial expressions affected what I was saying. I rehearsed with friends, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude and I rehearsed in front of some of our department faculty, whose critique was enormously valuable to get my paper into its final form: fourteen-pages, 3208 words, and almost exactly 20 minutes complete with a polished, professional PowerPoint presentation.
By the time of my session at the symposium, I was well prepared. The night before, I read my paper one last time before going to sleep and then didn’t look at it again until I was standing at the podium, in front of professional colleagues and friends who wanted me to succeed.
I should mention that no matter how much preparation you do, always expect the unexpected, or just remember the Boy Scout’s motto, “be prepared!” Try to think of everything that could possibly go wrong and try to anticipate a solution ahead of time.
At the end of the day, the success of my paper gave me good feedback for my thesis and confidence I can take to the next conference.
(Editor’s Note: Glen Umberger is currently an M.F.A. student in the Architectural History program at SCAD.)
The 9th Savannah Symposium: The Architecture of Trade, February 5-7, 2015, successfully fulfilled the high expectations we have for this series. In addition to the two esteemed keynote speakers — Nasser Rabbat, Director of the Aga Khan Program in Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Joyce Appleby, Professor Emerita of History at the University of California, Los Angeles — 45 speakers participated, representing eight countries (Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Germany, Israel, South Africa, United Kingdom and United States). The symposium offers junior scholars a chance to hone their skills and share insights from the cutting edge of scholarship. Among the presenters were 15 graduate students (10 pursuing their Ph.D. and 5 their Master’s degree). One of the goals of the series is to bring together academics and practitioners from different disciplines and it was thrilling to welcome diverse historians (architectural historians, art historians, social historians, economic historians) and architects, preservationists and planners. We were especially thrilled to see 67 SCAD students register as attendees, representing several different academic majors.