Arts & Letters

A Shining City on a Lakefront

Truesdale Marshall, in Henry Blake Fuller’s 1895 novel, “With the Procession,” had this to say about Chicago: A “hideous monster, a piteous, floundering monster too. It almost called for tears. Nowhere a more tireless activity, yet nowhere a result so pitifully grotesque, gruesome, appalling.” This was the assessment of the great city that had risen so rapidly in the plains of America’s Midwest. The young nation had barely survived its civil war just decades before. Chicago was still recovering from its great fire. Railroads rushed to cross and crisscross the fruited plain, building quickly. There was no time for building beautiful arched bridges. Wooden trestles were thrown up in a matter of weeks. Track was measured in miles laid per day. “Hell on Wheels” was the order of the day. Midwestern cities were ugly, smelly, and chaotic.

But then, in the summer of 1893, a gleaming city appeared on the shores of Lake Michigan, something that didn’t seem to belong to this boisterous time. It only stood for a brief season, but it would change the course of a nation’s development. Massive Classical buildings rose majestically above a series of great lagoons. Beauty rose from the chaos of unbridled growth as a swamp along the shore of Lake Michigan became the site of the World’s Columbian Exposition—the Chicago World’s Fair.

Swamp transformed. “Bird’s eye view of the World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago,” 1893, by Rand McNally and Company. (US-PD)

It was inspired by the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris and was conceived to honor the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. Chicago had beat out established cities like New York and now set to work to build a great international fair in the heartland of America. Daniel Hudson Burnham, of Burnham and Root, was selected as Director of Works for the fair. He was an accomplished architect and urban planner and a strong advocate of the Beaux-Arts movement. He would go on to design the magnificent Union Station of Washington, D.C. Now, he had a fair to create.

Architect, urban planner and the Chicago Fair’s Director of Works. (US-PD)

Enlisting some of the finest minds in architecture, Burnham struggled to create a unique site for his fair. Frederick Law Olmsted, the great landscape designer, envisioned a series of lagoons and canals, creating a modern-day Venice. The signature building of the fair, the Administration Building, was awarded to Richard Morris Hunt, a fine Beaux-Arts architect who had designed the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. Hunt had done numerous commissions for the Vanderbilt family, including working with Frederick Law Olmsted to create Biltmore Estate, the largest private home in America.

Hunt’s rendered elevation for the Administration Building is a beautiful watercolor in the finest Beaux-Arts manner, rich in layers of Classical detail. Burnham, Hunt, and Olmsted clearly laid forth a vision for something timeless, a vision of what a city should be, but time was of the essence. An entire city would have to be built in less than two years. It would already open a year late for the 400th anniversary celebration. It was also temporary. The fair would only operate for six months and then be torn down, so the builders did not use carved stone at all. Instead, they built an enormous stage set! The large buildings of the Court of Honor were hastily built on steel and wood frameworks that were covered with lath and a fibrous plaster-cement mixture called “staff.” Details were molded out of plaster.

Each building would need to be painted to protect it from the elements. Brushing would take too much time, so the builders developed an efficient method of spray-painting everything white. The result was a series of huge buildings that were bright in the summer sun. The press dubbed it the “White City.” Black-and-white photographs of the fair add to this impression. Though George Westinghouse’s electric illumination of the fair included colored lights, the impression guests received by day, and that of newspaper readers, was monochromatic. The technology that would propel America into the 20th century was proudly displayed on a Neoclassical stage. Over 27 million visitors would come to the fair.

Chicago’s Art Institute, circa 1907 postcard. Originally a building built for the World’s Columbian Exposition. (Public Domain)

There were some who wished that the fair’s Classical architecture could be preserved, but that was not possible. The staff-covered buildings were simply not durable enough. They were also firetraps. During the fair, the innovative Cold Storage Building had burned to the ground, claiming 17 lives. The Peristyle, a massive colonnade facing Lake Michigan, burned down right after the fair, killing two more people. Only the Palace of Fine Arts, built more substantially to meet insurance requirements for the artwork displayed there, would survive. Today, it houses the Field Museum, but it has been substantially rebuilt. The World Congress Building, built just outside the fairgrounds, remains today and houses the Art Institute of Chicago. It was built for the fair but was not actually an exhibition building. The Pabst (beer) Pavilion, the Pavilion of Norway, and a few state pavilions were moved elsewhere.

The Beaux-Arts Classicism the fair inspired would endure, however, as a series of international expositions continuing into the early 20th century and built in the same theme. San Francisco, Atlanta, Nashville, Omaha, Buffalo, Charleston, St. Louis, Portland, Seattle, and even little Jamestown, Virginia, would host fairs. The resurgence of Classicism would inspire many important civic buildings and institutions, ushering in a new wave of American architecture. But already, there was a disagreement over the future of America’s public architecture. Louis Sullivan’s Transportation Building at the 1893 fair was a substantial departure from Classical forms. Sullivan and his apprentice, Frank Lloyd Wright, would seek to create a distinctive American architecture apart from European Classical forms. Wright’s work would find inspiration in the Chicago fair’s Japanese Pavilion.

Daniel Burnham went on to lay out new urban planning for Chicago and would go on to serve with Charles McKim (of McKim, Mead, and White), Fredrick Law Olmsted, and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens in creating the 1901 McMillan Plan to redesign the monumental core of Washington, D.C. The plan would define the National Mall we know today, a great avenue and green-space flanked by classical museums. In smaller cities and towns across the nation, Neoclassical courthouses and banks would also rise to underscore a new sense of national identity.

Bob Kirchman is an architectural illustrator who lives in Augusta County, Virginia, with his wife, Pam. He teaches studio art (with a good deal of art history thrown in) to students in the Augusta Christian Educators Homeschool Coop. Kirchman is an avid hiker and loves exploring the hidden wonders of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Arts & Letters American Artists Features

Madama Butterfly

Maria Callas was of Greek decent, born in New York in December 1923. Just one year later, in 1924, Giacomo Puccini, who was from the small town of Lucca in Italy, died. They never met. They never even knew each other, and yet their lives will be forever entwined.

Maria Callas, of course, would come to know Puccini intimately through the miraculous beauty of his work. But it seems almost a tragedy that Giacomo Puccini would never know the woman, or hear the phenomenal voice, that would give such flight to his work.

It is almost inconceivable that Maria Callas, one of the most renowned and influential sopranos of the 20th century, detested her own voice. She thought it too nasal! The first time she listened to a recording of one of her performances, she broke down in tears. She had wanted to give up singing entirely. Though she later said she was able to accept her voice and be objective about it, it seems impossible that she might well have been the only person on earth left unmoved by the fluid power, that lilting delicacy and startling expression of authentic emotion, that brought audiences to their knees.

Given her tumultuous childhood, perhaps the very thing that gave her access to such raw emotion, it seems understandable that she might have viewed herself with a sense of remote disconnection. She commented often that “Callas,” the woman who went up on stage, was another person.

While the tone or quality of her voice might have been subjective—and there were detractors—through her style and phrasing, her voice came to be revered as the most telling, the most expressive and true voice of her time. With the fiery passion and theatricality she brought to each performance, she captured the hearts of audiences the world over.

But more: Victor de Sabata, the acclaimed conductor and composer, noted, “If the public could only understand, as we do, how deeply and utterly musical Callas is, they would be stunned.” Tullio Serafin, another conducting giant of the time, considered her musicality “extraordinary, almost frightening.” And indeed, Callas viewed herself foremost as a musician, the first instrument of the orchestra, though she never thought of herself as “good enough.”

Thirty-five years after her death, she was still one of classical music’s best-selling artists. While the press named her the first “diva” of the opera and concentrated on the drama and spectacle of her private life, those who actually listened to her voice were transported to another world: a world where each moment caught your breath, where each phrase, in the best tradition of opera, was love—life or death.

Maria Callas’ first performance in a leading role was that of Tosca, written, of course, by Giacomo Puccini. Callas went on to sing the arias from every one of Puccini’s most popular operas.

Maria Callas’ first leading role was in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. Cover of the libretto for Tosca, 1899, by Alfredo Montalti. (Public Domain)

Puccini came from a lineage of musicians who were well established in Italy. While they were certainly not wealthy, Puccini’s grandfather, after whom he was named, was the organ player and chief conductor at the Cathedral of St. Martin in Lucca. Members of the Puccini family had occupied that position going back to 1740!

After the death of his father, the family fell on difficult times. Giacomo was said to have been an unruly child, often playing truant from school, and at one point being accused of stealing the lead pipes from the church organ to buy cigarettes! Later on, he would actually elope to marry his wife, so it is clear he was not exactly a shrinking violet. There was a vibrancy to his personality, and it showed in the myriad colors of his work.

Composer Giacomo Puccini in a studio photograph. (US-PD)

At age 17, he literally walked from Lucca to Pisa to see a performance of Verdi’s latest opera, “Aida.” At that point, Verdi was the rock star of Italian opera. Apparently, Puccini had no money and no ticket, but that did not stop him. It would not be long before Verdi’s ardent fan would equal his fame.

It was expected that Giacomo would follow in the family’s musical tradition. He was sent to study at the Conservatory of Milan, where he lived the bohemian life of the starving artist. His adventures there would inspire his later opera,

Set Design for Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” 2010, by Reginald gray.

Apparently, apart from enjoying the nightlife of Milan, his schooling bored him to tears. But the Conservatory required he compose a piece as part of his thesis. Puccini responded with a composition for full orchestra entitled “Capriccio Sinfonico.” Writing for full orchestra, with just pen and paper, is an unfathomable skill. But Puccini’s remarkable symphonic talent and style were immediately clear.

It might have been expected that a man from such a background would become an excellent composer, but that doesn’t explain the incomparable genius that gave the world the operas “La Bohème,” “Tosca,” “Madama Butterfly,” and “Turandot.” It is an unparalleled contribution of such magnificence that words simply fail. To this day, these works still thrill audiences around the world.

Later in life. “Una fotografia del” compositore of Giacomo Puccini. (Public Domain)

As a musical dramatist, he was unequaled. As a writer of the most memorable arias, with melodies such as the impassioned “Nessun Dorma,” which became the theme for the 1990 soccer World Cup, he broke through the elitist notions of opera, bringing that magical world of imagination to the common people.

But neither Giacomo Puccini nor Maria Callas were common people. They may have grown up on the same streets as the common people, but the miracle of their uncommon gift was to distill everything of the human experience, from our highest ideals to our lowest cravings—the fears and secrets hidden in the corners of our hearts, desires, heartbreaks, the sacred and the profane—and reflect every one of us back upon ourselves.

It is a rare gift—so rare, in fact, that we still know the names of those few who have been able to do it. Their lives and their work enrich us all with a greater sense of the meaning, the depth and width, of our existence.

Giacomo Puccini and Maria Callas were not alike in terms of their personalities, but in their work, they appear as almost the same person. Their brilliance, of both sheer technical skill and deep, human, expressive passion, is truly as one. It is as if Callas was born specifically to bring ultimate expression to Puccini’s work.

Screen set on Madame Butterfly. “Collina presso Nagasaki,” 1906, by Alexandre Bailly and Marcel Jambon. (Storico Ricordi, Collezione Digitale Ricordi, ICON000079 – Restoration. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

I mentioned that they never actually met. Puccini was leaving this world just as Callas was coming into it. But there is a song, “Un Bel Dì, Vedremo” (one fine day we will see). It is an aria for soprano from the second act of Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly.” If you never listen to another piece of opera in your life, just read the outline to the story of Cio Cio San, and then listen to Maria Callas perform it. It is a piece of such searing drama and delicate beauty that it leaves me speechless each time I hear it. And each time I hear it, I am more convinced that Giacomo Puccini must be standing right there in the wings, listening.

Pete McGrain is a professional writer, director, and composer best known for the film “Ethos,” which stars Woody Harrelson. Currently living in Los Angeles, Pete hails from Dublin, Ireland, where he studied at Trinity College.

American Artists Arts & Letters

Norman Rockwell’s America

“I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed.”
—Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell’s career spanned six decades, and he is certainly one of America’s best-known 20th century artists. Many of us love him. Many dismiss him as a romanticist and kitschy caricaturist, but a showing of his works gives a much deeper appreciation for “America’s Best Loved Artist.”

“Triple Self-Portrait,” cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, Feb. 13, 1960. (Norman Rockwell Museum Collection)

When the show came to the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, we went to see it with anticipation. “Will it have any original paintings in it?” my wife asked. “I certainly hope so,” I replied. Yes, I would have enjoyed a selection of Saturday Evening Post covers, but I really wanted to see brushstrokes! I was not to be disappointed!

Rockwell began painting professionally at a young age. At 21, he was painting covers for the Saturday Evening Post. He was a disciplined and masterful painter and achieved solid success very early. While most of us are familiar with the oft-reproduced Saturday Evening Post illustrations, few are aware of other masterful works that appear early in his career. These paintings show a keen sense of observation and composition, and a genuine knowledge of the techniques of the old masters.

“Young Valedictorian” by Norman Rockwell, circa 1922.

She stands erect before an audience, lit from above and behind, in a style reminiscent of the works of Degas or Rembrandt. The light is accentuated by a touch of impasto and skilled brushwork. The subject is a serious one. “The Young Valedictorian,” painted in 1922, captures a young girl standing before her school in a white dress at graduation. The interior behind her is meticulously detailed. In the shadows, a row of seated faculty members listens. A globe on stage reflects a spot of light in highlight on its varnished surface. A clock on the wall, to the upper right of the speaker, marks time.

All eyes are on the face of the young speaker. Rockwell’s lighting and masterful composition see to that. Here are the brush strokes of a genius! Amazingly enough, this work was never published. Few people are aware of it, and if it were on a wall by itself, perhaps few would attribute it to Norman Rockwell. There is no irony, no humor, and no caricature. It is a beautiful capture of a poignant moment. It reveals a Norman Rockwell I want to know.

“After The Party” by Norman Rockwell, circa. 1922

“After the Party” is another painting by Rockwell from the same year. It was painted as an advertisement for Edison Mazda (later to become General Electric). In a masterful bit of chiaroscuro, Rockwell captures a conversation between a young woman and an elderly lady. A single electric lamp backlights the two figures—presumably talking late in the evening after an important social event. The composition creates the conversation. Again, it shows Rockwell’s mastery of his art, as well as his observational skills.

In “Two Children Praying,” painted much later in his career—in 1954—Rockwell captures an America still in touch with its core values. This painting was done for a billboard advertisement for Longchamps Restaurant, Union Square, New York. The background is a night sky illuminated by a bright star, and its light falls across the faces of a young boy and girl as they pray. Rockwell’s detailed pencil study for the work shows the artist’s commitment to excellence in a work like this. The sketch is reminiscent of those that Leonardo da Vinci did leading up to painting “The Last Supper.” When one remembers that Leonardo took a commission for a rather common refectory scene and added the drama of the betrayal—rendered in the relatively new medium of oil paint—one can begin to appreciate that Rockwell stepped up to the easel of an illustrator and brought to it the drama that his artistic skills made possible.

Both da Vinci and Rockwell could capture the fine nuance of personality. Though Rockwell would often push it to the limit in his magazine covers, he could pursue subtlety. In a painting entitled “Norman Rockwell Visits a Country School,” painted in 1946, Rockwell depicts a loving teacher in a small (perhaps one-room) schoolhouse reading to a rapt group of students hanging on her every word—all but one! There, on the other side of the wood stove that heats the room, sits a girl lost in her own book. The painting tells its own story. Here I must tell you, Rockwell’s interiors are gorgeous! If I wanted to recreate a country schoolhouse, this painting is the template, rendered down to the minutest detail. Even the children’s art on the walls is amazingly realistic. Norman Rockwell was witness to an America in transition.

The body of his work is no less than a historical record. His work spans the Roaring ‘20s, the Great Depression, and the Great War. Read the headlines of the Saturday Evening Post covers, and you discover an America whose journalists were not afraid to call out the evils of Communism. Rockwell may indeed have romanticized some of his work, but he had a sense of the life and struggle of ordinary Americans.

Nowhere is this more evident than in a series of posters he designed for a commission from the government: “The Four Freedoms.” The paintings are based on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address. The president laid out four “fundamental freedoms” in that speech: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The first two, taken directly from the First Amendment of our Constitution, reiterate freedoms unique to people living under a system of limited government—freedoms that belong to the people. In the painting “Freedom of Speech,” a man in a worn work jacket stands to address a meeting of local government. The image resonates with all of us who are now standing up at school board meetings to protect the interests of our families.

The second painting, “Freedom of Worship,” shows a rich composition of diverse faces—the faces of the devout. This resonates with all of us whose ancestors came here for freedom to practice our faith’s dictates. But here, the freedoms take a turn from freedom to “do” something to freedom “from” something.

Freedom from want and freedom from fear are not in the Constitution. They are rather a statement of some of FDR’s New Deal ideals. They would play out in the work of the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, near Washington, D.C., where much work was done to create our modern, chemically dependent agriculture. Located next to Beltsville is Greenbelt, Maryland, originally an example of Eleanor Roosevelt’s idea of a centrally planned city, intended to replace the squalor of depression America. Here, the government proposed that it could eliminate want and fear. That was a new idea. All one had to do was “democratically assent to central planning.”

In 1963, Rockwell left the Saturday Evening Post, and worked for Look magazine. Here he was given more creative latitude, and he freely pursued his passion for civil rights and space exploration. He painted right up to his death in 1978 at the age of 84, leaving an unfinished work on his easel.

Arts & Letters

Dream House Renovation

The team at Evens Architects faced a real challenge when they were tasked with restoring the house known as “Mi Sueño,” or Spanish for “My Dream.” It was a reinterpretation of Spanish Baroque and Spanish Colonial architecture, conceived by famed architect Bertram Goodhue while he was lead designer for the 1915 Panama–California Exposition. That event was to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal.

When Evens Architects first encountered the property in 1998 in the Pasadena Arroyo, they found that decades of deferred maintenance and insensitive remodeling had left the once-proud house in poor shape. The task confronting the design team—to restore the remaining fragments of Mi Sueño to their former glory while accommodating the lifestyle of the new homeowners—was daunting.

The completed renovation in 2004 turned out to be a true rebirth. The existing magnificent living room, with its lushly detailed, coffered ceiling of Moorish design, was restored to its original condition. Exuberant landscaping now envelops the home, providing a variety of inviting outdoor spaces. Meanwhile, the completely reimagined master suite, with elaborate hand-cut Moroccan tile mosaics and a canopy bath, evokes a dream-like scenery.

The coffered living room. (Erhard Pfeiffer)
Detail of the coffered ceiling design. (Erhard Pfeiffer)
Another view of the living room. (Philip Clayton Thompson)

Mi Sueño was constructed in 1915. Originally designed as a residence for a banker from New Jersey named Herbert Coppell, the estate comprised several acres. As the estate changed hands over the years, most of it was sold off. In the 1940s, the house itself was divided into two parts, with one fragment becoming a separate house on the property immediately to the south—which still exists. The northern fragment, which included the living room, became Mi Sueño.

The original parts of the house that were still of great quality and worthy of restoration included the living room and the entry hall, which featured original cast-plaster detailing designed by Goodhue, according to Erik Evens, partner at Evens Architects, a Los Angeles-based firm that’s part of KAA Design Group. The rest of the spaces had been poorly remodeled over the years and had to be reinvented.

The entry hall with ornate plasterwork. (Philip Clayton Thompson)

Evens said the most challenging part of the renovation was rectifying the structural deficiencies of the house. The walls were constructed of hollow clay tile, which was a common building material in 1915 but is no longer used today, and for good reason. “Although strong in compression, the clay bricks are quite brittle and not able to resist the earthquake loads we have in southern California. They simply would not be approvable under current building codes. So for the entire northeast wing of the house, we had to demolish the exterior layer of clay tile bricks and build a concrete shell around the house,” he said in an email interview.

The dining room. (Philip Clayton Thompson)
The master bedroom. (Erhard Pfeiffer)

The original house included many details and motifs derived from the Moors, who left a lasting impact on art and culture in the Iberian Peninsula after centuries of conquest. Most notably, the Moorish influence is evident in the star detailing in the magnificent, coffered ceiling of the living room.

“We used this as an inspiration to develop the new spaces of the house,” Evens said. “Our clients requested a large and luxurious master bathroom, so we reworked one of the existing secondary bedrooms into a Moorish fantasy bath, complete with hooded canopy tub and exotic Moorish cut tile mosaics on the walls. The Alhambra in Spain was certainly an inspiration,” referring to the majestic palace complex in Granada.

The master suite bathroom. (Erhard Pfeiffer)
(Erhard Pfeiffer)

The mosaics were created by Mosaic House in New York City. Their installation required collaboration between Evens Architects, Mosaic House, and the interior designer, Chris Barrett. Constructed onsite using traditional methods, the mosaics were laid upside-down on a leveled bed of moist sand. Each piece was hand-cut. Once all the pieces were in place, a thin bed of mortar was poured over the back of the tiles. Once that was cured, the panels were tilted up and installed on the walls.

“It was an amazing process!” Evens said, as bathrooms were constructed very differently back in 1915.

The team also created a modern family kitchen, and gutted the northeast wing of the house “to create a new, cozy family room, which opens to the main courtyard through broad French doors,” Evens said.

This restoration was a good fit for Evens Architects, as the firm is committed to the idea that architecture inspired by classic traditions—whether the sources are Spanish, Italian, French, or Moroccan—is well suited to the climate, landscape, and culture of contemporary California.

The courtyard, which features a fountain. (Erhard Pfeiffer)
A reflecting pool on the other side of the house. (Erhard Pfeiffer)

Neal Lorenzi is a content guru and freelance writer who has contributed to a variety of publications. In his spare time, he likes to read, listen to music, and power walk.


‘The Light of Stars’

The night is come, but not too soon;
And sinking silently,
All silently, the little moon
Drops down behind the sky.

There is no light in earth or heaven
But the cold light of stars;
And the first watch of night is given
To the red planet Mars.

Is it the tender star of love?
The star of love and dreams?
O no! from that blue tent above,
A hero’s armor gleams.

And earnest thoughts within me rise,
When I behold afar,
Suspended in the evening skies,
The shield of that red star.

O star of strength! I see thee stand
And smile upon my pain;
Thou beckonest with thy mailèd hand,
And I am strong again.

Within my breast there is no light
But the cold light of stars;
I give the first watch of the night
To the red planet Mars.

The star of the unconquered will,
He rises in my breast,
Serene, and resolute, and still,
And calm, and self-possessed.

And thou, too, whosoe’er thou art,
That readest this brief psalm,
As one by one thy hopes depart,
Be resolute and calm.

O fear not in a world like this,
And thou shalt know erelong,
Know how sublime a thing it is
To suffer and be strong.

American Artists Arts & Letters

Paintings in Glass

Tiffany is a name that’s synonymous with the enchanting and sublimely beautiful glassware of the Art Nouveau movement in the United States.

With a career spanning from the 1870s through the 1920s, Louis Comfort Tiffany embraced virtually every artistic medium: leaded-glass windows, mosaics, lamps, glass, pottery, jewelry, and furniture. Of all Tiffany’s artistic accomplishments, it was his innovation in leaded glass that brought him the most recognition. Tiffany was among the first U.S. designers to be acclaimed abroad. His techniques in glass and the union of his craft with American arts set him apart as the most innovative designer at the turn of the century.

“I have always striven to fix beauty in wood or stone or glass or pottery, in oil or watercolor, by using whatever seemed fittest for the expression of beauty.”

—Louis C. Tiffany

Louis C. Tiffany was the son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of the successful and influential silver and jewelry firm Tiffany & Co. In lieu of working for his father’s business, Louis C. Tiffany chose to pursue his own artistic interests. The young Tiffany began his career as a painter, working and studying under the tutelage of American landscape artist George Inness. Inness is reputed to have remarked of Tiffany: “The more I teach him the less he knows, and the older he grows the farther he is from what he ought to be.”

Electrolier, c. 1904. Black-eyed Susan design. Leaded glass. Photo by Raymond Martinot. (Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida)

Tiffany’s fervor for the arts led him to France, where he studied with Léon Belly in Paris. It was Belly’s exhibition of Islamic genre scenes and landscapes that initially opened Tiffany’s eyes to a bright world of patterns and colors—which became Tiffany’s signature trademark for his leaded glass. In spring 1869, he met artist Samuel Colman, cofounder and first president of the American Watercolor Society. Colman taught Tiffany the value of watercolors for sketching, and together they traveled to Spain and North Africa in search of exotic subjects. Tiffany spent his time in North Africa collecting photographs, glassware, and objects that helped further formulate new ideas and theories about color.

“When first I had a chance to travel in the Near East and to paint where the people and the buildings are also clad in beautiful hues, the pre-eminence of color in the world was brought forcibly to my attention. I returned to New York wondering why we made so little use of our eyes, why we refrained so obstinately from taking advantage of color in our architecture and our clothing when Nature indicates its mastership.”

—Louis C. Tiffany

The Gilded Age

The term “Gilded Age” was coined by writers Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner to represent the era of American opulence. The reconstruction of the United States following the Civil War was a time of unprecedented economic development. Manufacturing production boomed and railways grew across the United States, attracting millions of migrants to the nation. The economic wealth financed the growth of the luxury goods market, and wealthy art patrons sought extravagance as a way of displaying status. The Gilded Age set the stage for the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States.

Large Memorial window, Education commissioned by Simeon B. Chittenden was made for the window of new library at Yale University. The window, 30 feet long and 5 feet high, was installed in time for commencement week 1890.

The Arts and Crafts movement had already gained popularity in Victorian England during the second half of the 19th century. The return to traditional styles of artisan design was a direct revolt against the Industrial Revolution and what was felt to be the “soulless industrialization of craft.” British artist, designer, and philosopher William Morris led the movement and believed production by machinery to be “altogether evil.” He also advocated for the union of all arts within the field of interior design, emphasizing nature and simplicity of form. The theme of nature remained a powerful iconography throughout the Arts and Crafts movement—especially in the works of Tiffany and in the aesthetics of Art Nouveau.

A Wooded Landscape in Three Panels c. 1905. Leaded Glass. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Transom, c. 1910–20. Wisteria Leaded glass. Tiffany Studios, New York City. (Photo by Raymond Martinot. Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida)

In 1876, Tiffany was first exposed to the lure of the movement when he exhibited his paintings at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. It was then that he became attracted to the decorative arts and began to think about moving his artistry into the field of design, remarking to a fellow exhibitor: “I believe there is more in it than painting pictures.”

Tiffany embarked on a design career in 1879, opening the interior design firm Louis Comfort Tiffany and Associated American Artists, together with Candace Wheeler, Lockwood de Forest, and Colman. In the company’s four short years of existence, it fulfilled numerous interior design commissions, including contracts to design home interiors for wealthy clients such as writer Mark Twain, actor and inventor James Steele MacKaye, and President Chester Alan Arthur.

The Rise of Tiffany Glass

In the early 1870s, Tiffany’s passion for glass blossomed and he began experimenting with different techniques and materials. Between 1880 and 1881, Tiffany filed three patents for his glass-making process. One patent was for the creation of iridescent glass tesserae (small square tiles used in mosaics). Traditional mosaics were made with squares of uniform color. Tiffany’s innovations in glass-making technique, however, allowed for the creation of mosaics with shimmering tiles that were both iridescent and luminous.

Another patented technique utilized metallic oxides to create iridescent window glass. While Tiffany wasn’t the first to invent iridescent glass, he’s the most recognized for popularizing it on the market. Prior to 1880, iridescence in modern glassmaking was used in Venice, Italy, and earlier by Scottish physicist Sir David Brewster, who experimented with iridescent patina.

The third patent involved inducing opalescence by layering stained-glass panels. Tiffany and his early rival John La Farge, another prominent glassmaker, had both been granted similar opalescent glass patents by 1881. Opalescence revolutionized the look of stained glass, which had remained essentially unchanged since Medieval times. Early stained glasswork used flat panes of white and colored glasses, and details were painted atop with glass paints before firing. However, the paint reduced light transmission.

Tiffany sought to find natural ways to allow for gradations of depth, lines, and color—particularly in order to depict the tone and texture of human flesh without losing luminosity. The opalescent effect was so highly sought after because it enabled form to be defined by the glass itself, without paint.

Woman in a Pergola with Wisteria, ca. 1915. Leaded glass. (Courtesy of Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA.)

“By the aid of studies in chemistry and through years of experiments, I have found means to avoid the use of paints, etching, or burning, or otherwise treating the surface of the glass, so that now it is possible to produce figures in glass of which even the flesh tones are not superficially treated, but built up of what I call ‘genuine glass’ because there are no tricks of the glass-maker needed to express flesh.”

—Louis C. Tiffany

Tiffany’s newfound obsession with glass developed and proliferated after the Associated Artists disbanded in 1883. Tiffany continued as an interior designer for many years, but with a new focus on purely decorating, using glass and light. One of his most ambitious interiors was the Tiffany Chapel, exhibited in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition (the Chicago World’s Fair), which was notable for being the first world’s fair to feature electrical exhibitions. A total of 27 million visitors from all around the world came to enjoy the event.

View of the chapel interior designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. (Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida)

Light filtered in through 12 leaded windows and a 1,000-pound cruciform-shaped chandelier covered in sparkling jewels and pieces of glass. Created in the Byzantine-Romanesque style, Tiffany Chapel also included 16 mosaic columns and a mosaic altar of marble and white glass. The chapel’s visual impact was undeniable, bringing Tiffany international recognition. It was reported from Wilhelm von Bode, director of the Gemäldegalerie (Painting Gallery) in Berlin, Germany, that the opalescent windows received more attention from visitors than any other industrial art project in the United States. Tiffany Chapel became a symbol of American ingenuity, which could rival and even surpass anything created abroad at the time.

Baptistery and Field of Lilies leaded-glass window from the Tiffany chapel interior at the Morse Museum. Photo by Raymond Martinot. (Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida)
Closeup of glass mosaic with Peacocks in Tiffany Chapel c. 1893. (Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida)

Art for Beauty’s Sake

Tiffany’s aesthetics were based on the belief that the most beautiful and perfect design was present in the natural world and that world should therefore be the primary inspiration for art. He had an extensive horticultural library and a collection of plant photography that he commonly used for source material. His youngest daughter, Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham, recalled of her father: “He knew every plant and flower. … To watch the flowers grow from bud to full bloom was his greatest pleasure.”

The fascination with nature and extending the capabilities of glass to replicate the subtle shading and lush palettes found in flowers and plants led Tiffany to explore another technique—Favrile. The term is derived from the Old English word fabrile, meaning handmade. Favrile glass is different from other iridescent glasses because the color doesn’t sit solely on the surface; it’s actually embedded within the glass.

In 1893, Tiffany hired expert glassblowers, some of whom came from the not-long-defunct Boston and Sandwich Glass Company, and established his own glass furnaces in the neighborhood of Corona, in New York’s Queens borough. From there, large quantities of his Favrile blown-glass vases and bowls could be sent to museums worldwide. In 1896, Tiffany took his new products to market, holding the first public Favrile glass exhibition at his Fourth Avenue studio in New York.

Flower-Form Vase, ca. 1899–1900. Blown glass. (Courtesy of Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA.)

After 1900, the name Tiffany became associated with art glass, lamps, and decorative objects, more so than the formerly acclaimed stained-glass windows and mosaics. Among the items made at the time were desk sets, ash trays, enamel boxes, and jewelry. It was Tiffany’s passion that beautiful art and objects be made available to the widest audience of American homeowners. He set out to provide everyday items that he felt would enrich people’s lives with beauty and justified shifting the focus of art from public displays to household objects with the reasoning that items such as lamps, flower vases, and toilet accessories reach wider audiences than a painting might. Tiffany looked to artisans as “educators of people in the truest sense” and as masters of art appealing to emotion and the senses, thus “rousing enthusiasm for beauty in one’s environment.”

Necklace, c. 1903–6. Exhibited at the Salon of the Société des Artistes Français, Paris, 1905 or 1906. Peacock and flamingo. Enamel, opal, amethyst, ruby, sapphire, demantoid garnet, emerald, chrysoberyl, pearl, gold. (Photo by Raymond)

He consistently held to a traditional criterion of beauty similar to that of the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke in his treatise “On the Sublime and Beautiful,” positing that man’s concepts of beauty arise from the passion of love, the senses, the calming of nerves, and the divine providence of God. An article written by Tiffany for Country Life in America titled, “The Gospel of Good Taste” publicly shares his aesthetic views, hoping to educate and inspire a surge of beautiful art in America: “It is all a matter of education, and we shall never have good art in our homes until the people learn to distinguish the beautiful from the ugly. … We should study classic art, and learn that the simplest things are the best.”

A Dream Realized

The unification of the arts and the culmination of Tiffany’s artistic and aesthetic endeavors were embodied by the final house he designed in its entirety—his own estate. Laurelton Hall was erected in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, in 1905. The 84-room property sat on 580 acres of land, 60 acres of which were devoted to the design of picturesque gardens and woodlands containing ponds, tennis courts, and a bathing beach.

View of Laurelton Hall. (Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida)
Living Room at Laurelton Hall. (Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida)

The estate housed his collection of unique art gathered from around the world, as well as numerous relics designed by Tiffany Studios: furniture, lamps, windows, vases, and more. The architecture, both interior and exterior, was ornamented with glass mosaics and carved wood, inspired by art and designs from Asia and the Middle East.

Dining room from Laurelton Hall, c. 1925. (Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida)

The décor included wisteria-bordered long glass panels that lit up the dining room. In a sheltered alcove of the living room, Tiffany displayed several of his stained-glass windows, including “The Four Seasons,” which he cut into separate panels—the window had previously been awarded a gold medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition and inspired the French government to appoint Tiffany a Chevalier (Knight) of the Legion of Honour.

“God has given us our talents, not to copy the talents of others, but rather to use our brains and our imagination in order to obtain the revelation of True Beauty.”
—Louis C. Tiffany

Spring panel from Four Seasons window, c. 1899–1900. Exhibited: Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1900. Leaded glass. Photo by Raymond Martinot. (Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida)

Tiffany wanted to create a school of rational art (as he referred to it), where students would be shown specimens of good artwork collected from various periods and countries, fostering education in the simple, true, and beautiful. His plan for a special “museum school” was denied by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but reimagined through the transformation of his own estate, Laurelton Hall, into an artists’ retreat. In 1918, a gift of 62 acres (with several structures included) was granted to the newly established Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation. The stables were converted into dormitories and the gatehouse into an art gallery to accommodate students eager to learn the aesthetics of Tiffany’s doctrine of beauty.

Capital, c. 1915 Daffodil Terrace, Laurelton Hall, Long Island, New York. Cast and cut glass, concrete Tiffany Studios, New York City. (Photography by Joseph Coscia Jr. Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park)

Tiffany’s Legacy

Tiffany’s work and ethics resolved the conflicting ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement, making an assorted range of products available to consumers of every economic level. While Arts and Crafts influencer Morris once said, “What business have we with art at all unless all can share it,” in reality, most companies couldn’t produce high-quality art at affordable prices. Tiffany, however, successfully created an art industry for all classes of people, in part because his personal wealth allowed him to sacrifice profits in the interest of advancing his artistic philosophy.

With the modernization of the United States, Tiffany’s art had fallen out of favor by the 1920s. However, after several decades of neglect the Art Nouveau movement was revived through interior design, publications, and museum exhibitions—a common aphorism is that we often scoff the arts of our parents and revive those of our grandparents. Since the turn of the century, the United States has seen the design of public buildings enhanced by ornamentation and mosaics, and many artists have begun to work in glass—glassblowing, as an art form, is more appreciated now than ever before.

Tiffany’s legacy lives on through the careful preservation of relics obtained and collected after his death in 1933. Following a fire that ravaged the abandoned Laurelton Hall in 1957, Hugh F. McKean, former artist in residence at Laurelton Hall, and wife Jeannette Genius McKean, founder of the Morse Museum, purchased what they could of the intact remains. Today, the Morse Museum’s collection of Laurelton Hall relics is the largest single collection of surviving materials from Tiffany’s turn-of-the-century estate and will likely remain a visual masterpiece of influence and inspiration for generations of artists to come.

Arts & Letters Book Recommender

‘War and Resistance in the Philippines, 1942–1944’

The United States suffered its biggest defeat of World War II in the Philippines. More American soldiers were captured there than in any other campaign in U.S. military history. The number of Filipino soldiers who surrendered dwarfed the U.S. totals. Despite that, after the surrender of U.S. forces, the war in the Philippines continued in a guerilla struggle.

“War and Resistance in the Philippines, 1942–1944,” by James Kelly Morningstar, documents that struggle. It is the first generally accessible attempt to compile the guerilla struggle in the Philippines into a single, coherent story.

Morningstar starts by describing the Japanese invasion of the Philippines and the conventional struggle that followed. He shows the difficulties faced by Allied forces in the Philippines, both U.S. and Filipino. He captures the tensions between the U.S. and Philippine governments. The Philippines were a reluctant colony of the United States but on a path to independence when Japan invaded. The nascent Philippine Army was still forming and unprepared. U.S. forces were underequipped, despite major commitments of aircraft.

Surprisingly, no preparations for guerrilla warfare were made before Allied conventional military forces collapsed. Morningstar shows how Washington exacerbated the collapse of conventional resistance. The resistance springing up after U.S. forces surrendered was spontaneous, a reaction to thuggish Japanese behavior and cruelty. In other cases, Morningstar shows that it was the result of soldiers, American and Filipino, refusing to surrender while still capable of fighting, or exploiting Japan’s inability to occupy all of the Philippines.

Morningstar traces how these disconnected movements began communicating with each other, fought each other, and eventually began merging into a coherent movement. Simply establishing communications with General Douglas MacArthur (then the supreme commander, Southwest Pacific Area) in Australia took months, and over a year passed before any supplies began flowing to the Philippine resistance.

Morningstar shows how the resistance denied Japan many of the resources the Philippines could have supplied. Its most important contribution was giving MacArthur the leverage needed to force Allied landings in the Philippines rather than Formosa.

The story was difficult to capture. The opening of the guerrilla war was chaotic and disorganized. Some guerrilla bands may have been snuffed out before having their actions recorded. Documentation was secondary to survival. Regardless, Morningstar does a good job. He manages to place the chaos into a larger picture, accurately capturing the outline of the struggle and its consequences. “War and Resistance in the Philippines, 1942–1944” offers fascinating reading about a difficult and dirty battle.

“War and Resistance in the Philippines, 19421944,” by James Kelly Morningstar, Naval Institute Press, 2021.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, Texas. His website is

Arts & Letters History

A Pedestal Waiting for a Monument

The crypt of the U.S. Capitol isn’t the dark, dank dwelling conjured up by its evocative moniker. On the contrary, the crypt is a well-lit circular chamber on the ground floor, under the rotunda, traversed by countless people every day, hurrying on their way—blinders on—to a hearing or meeting of reputed import. George Washington was supposed to be interred here—hence the name of the burial place—but his body never made it. Construction of the crypt was interrupted by the War of 1812. His family decided to honor his wish to be buried at his Mt. Vernon, Virginia, home, just a few miles away from the Capitol.

Magna Carta

Tucked away in the crypt—hidden in plain sight—is a replica of the Magna Carta, the 800-year-old document reining in the monarch. On tours, I make a point of directing my visitors’ attention to this transformational declaration; otherwise, they might miss it, given all the magnificent distractions surrounding it—forty neoclassical columns, and thirteen statues of prominent Americans of the original thirteen colonies.

In all the times I’ve entered the crypt—and it’s been plenty—I’ve never seen people clustered around the gold and glass case containing this most essential document, the greatest relic in the room.

The history of the Magna Carta predates our nation’s founding by more than five hundred fifty years, which might explain how it sometimes escapes people’s attention today. King John of England signed the Magna Carta on June 15 of 1215, after a severe clash with his barons, who had become frustrated with the monarch’s arbitrary rule and abuses of power. The noblemen set out to craft a document to rein in the king’s powers. The document they formulated prohibited arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, and established individuals’ right to a fair trial and the protection of private property. Those rights are foundational to the rule of law, and essential for limiting the powers of government.

The Magna Carta—Latin for “the Great Charter”—provided the key principles of the supremacy of the rule of law that formed the foundation of our Constitution. In this respect, it is symbolic that the Magna Carta replica lies in the crypt—the literal foundation—of the Capitol, erected to support the rotunda above it. The document’s most important principle— that no man is above the law, not even the king—is the foundation for American rule of law, and the base upon which we have built our system of government.

If those basic rights recognized in the Magna Carta sound familiar, it’s for good reason. America’s founders drew heavily from the ideas in the Magna Carta to write the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

The Compass Star

Only a few feet away from the Magna Carta is a worn white marble stone compass star embedded in the center of the floor of the crypt. While it may seem, at first glance, the two features of the Capitol are unrelated, they each reinforce the primacy of the rule of law and the importance of the legislative body.

That compass star is the point in Washington, D.C. where all four quadrants of the district—northeast, southeast, northwest, and southwest—converge. If you place your foot on the compass, as I have from time to time to demonstrate for my visitors, you are standing in all four quadrants of the city simultaneously. When I take tourists to this spot, the following ritual tends to take place: They stand on the star, which droops below floor level, smoothed down with the passage of time. Then they hop off the star, pull out their smartphones, and take photos of what is, admittedly, a cool symbol. But it holds even greater significance. The compass star is the key to understanding the vital role the legislature plays in our republic.


We must first revisit Pierre-Charles L’Enfant. After he wrote to President George Washington, offering to create a capital “magnificent enough to grace a great nation,” he got the gig in 1791. Influenced by the France of his youth, L’Enfant borrowed ideas from the grand sweep of the Versailles palace, conjuring up what are now distinct D.C. features, such as its broad avenues, designed on a slashing angle. The cheerful L’Enfant sought another epic brush stroke, designing a considerable park in front of the White House, for the benefit of the president, whoever happened to be in residence. But Thomas Jefferson put the kibosh on those plans out of a worry such an exclusive domain didn’t mesh with the nascent nation of the people. Hence, the space became a public gathering spot you might have heard of—Lafayette Park.

L’Enfant, though, got his way on a more vital part of his plan, to make the Capitol the central point of the new capital district. The Capitol was created to be the central focus of the new government, a building perched on a slight hill, elevated above the rest of the city. That hill was known in our nation’s earlier years as “Jenkins Hill,” because a man named Thomas Jenkins apparently once grazed livestock at the site. L’Enfant saw it in a more enchanted way, as “a pedestal waiting for a monument.” That pedestal has come to be known as Capitol Hill, today.

The location of the Capitol building speaks volumes about the role our founders intended the legislative branch to play—and the paramount role of the rule of law. Because the Capitol is located on a hill, on one of the highest points in Washington, D.C., it reminds all of us that the legislative branch—the part of the federal government most accountable to the people—is the most important branch of government.

Excerpted from the 2020 book “Capital of Freedom, Restoring American Greatness” by Colorado Rep. Ken Buck

Arts & Letters

A Conversation With Charles Marohn: ‘Honor the Struggle!’

Walking six blocks to work each morning gives Charles Marohn a unique insight into the vitality of his town, and into his own well-being. Aware of the benefits of exercise in his life, he quickly draws an analogy between personal discipline and the discipline that makes for a strong town. Wisdom literature often draws a comparison when it calls the human body one’s temple or place of habitation, cautioning us to make good choices in the care thereof. Marohn sees the same discipline necessary for personal health as being necessary for our communities—the shared places of our habitation. In a recent conversation, we talked a bit about his faith. He’s a practicing Catholic who values the discipline of self-denial. “Fasting is an intentional deprivation that actually makes your body work better—a lot like exercise,” he said.

As the founder of Strong Towns, Marohn is on a mission to help communities of all sizes gain the discipline that will give them the strength and resiliency to not only survive challenges but also to use them as catalysts to grow and prosper. Surveying his town as he walks, Marohn sees the human struggle as well as the opportunities. Little things—the trees planted, the fresh paint, a hand-painted crosswalk, the cleaned-up empty lot; these are the signs of a healthy community. Thousands of individuals, each of them adding a small piece to the fabric of the whole, together cause a community to grow and prosper.

And Marohn has been forced to search for these components that make communities strong. He grew up on a small farm in Baxter, Minnesota, studied civil engineering at the University of Minnesota, and received a master’s degree in planning. “An engineer sees everything in equations,” he says. Working for the small town of Remer, Minnesota, Marohn set out to obtain funding for a small sewer system repair. Government agencies couldn’t be bothered with his small grant request, so Marohn got creative, turning a $300,000 repair into a $2.5-million sewer expansion project. He was a hero—or was he? Even with grants and sweet loan deals, the project actually failed to generate enough revenue to cover repaying the loans. So Marohn began to see the bigger picture.

His latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Engineer,” is scheduled for release in the fall of 2021. In it, he questions the planning and procurement mentality that favors building bigger instead of using a more organic and locally empowered process. His critics love to call him “anti-growth” or “anti-suburbs,” but in really dialoguing with him, one finds a man with a truly positive vision for the places of our habitation—and he’s a visionary with a keen sense of history.

History and Planning

Marohn’s hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota, began as a collection of hastily constructed wooden buildings along a simple main street. Following a pattern they had seen before, they used local lumber, milled and planed, to develop a street—Front Street. “This is how every city in human history up to this point had begun: a series of pop-up shacks, some hopes, and some dreams. The great cities of North America—San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, and Manhattan—all began in this way. London, Paris, Milan, and the cities of Europe, likewise. Even ancient cities, where urban DNA was in a more infantile phase—places like Alexandria, Thebes, Beirut, and Damascus—were founded in this same manner.” Was it a smooth process? Not exactly, as there was chaos and failure along the way, too. But as the town grew, the mistakes could give way to other uses.

A town would grow incrementally and organically, evolving slowly as its inhabitants continually sought to meet their needs and express their dreams. Its fine school, its Beaux-Arts courthouse, and the presence they both conveyed—none of these came first; rather, they emerged gradually as the process unfolded. They were more often than not a second or third version of the same edifice—often on the very same spot. This process of gradual renewal served us well, and we tend to forget that it came to us, sometimes quite literally, through the fire. Some of our great cities burned to the ground, and lessons learned in disaster informed the rebuilding.

Marohn’s bookshelf at his office based in his hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota. (Jen Kalenberg)

However, sometime during the early to mid-20th century, this natural evolution of towns changed. After the Great Depression and World War II, we felt that we could do a better job by controlling the process from the top down. The United States had emerged from that great conflict relatively unscathed, and we found new prosperity that would allow us to build our environment on a grand scale. Old neighborhoods that had evolved over the years, often home to ethnic communities nurturing their unique cultures, suddenly stood in the way of progress. Flattened to make way for highway interchanges or housing projects, mid-20th-century planners went large when building upon their ruins—and they built their projects all at once.

Whereas entropy and renewal were constant in the old community fabric, a project’s new structures would initially be shiny and pristine, but in no way immune to decay. Also, because they were all constructed at the same time, they would later begin to break down together—and there would be no gradual renewal, only the endless demands of maintenance as they aged. The battle then became an ever-increasing effort to counter the wholesale deterioration of the project. Additionally, novelty and public funding had led cities to underestimate the true cost of maintenance. With abundant sources for project funding, old buildings were left to decay while their occupants simply moved into newer versions across town.

“This idea that there should be some kind of overarching plan that lays it all together gives us a certain degree of comfort—that is really false comfort,” Marohn says. “The postwar development pattern has really forced us into a Sisyphus kind of relationship with the world. Our only struggle now is to resist decline—not to improve, make better, evolve, reach higher states of being and greatness, but to just simply resist the rock falling back down the hill.

“Instead, you need to respect the organic nature of it, the idea that cities do need to evolve and adapt and change and be reborn—cities and neighborhoods need to reinvent themselves regularly. You need to add the capacity to respond to stress and opportunity. If you don’t embrace that, then wherever you are today is the high water mark for everything in the future—and the question is then, ‘How long can you keep from decline?’ Can you put it off for one generation or two generations—10 or 50 years?”

A Change for the Better

“If you look at the way we build places now, the vast majority of them are abandoned, not rejuvenated. Credentialism has led to a lack of experimentation—that stifles innovation,” Marohn says. “The innovator will not necessarily be the smartest person in the room; rather, it will be the result of 1,000 experiments going on simultaneously. Today, we see inventiveness as the realm of people like Elon Musk. And so it goes: The expert will lay out a solution, it will be built, and when it fails to deliver, we’ll do a charrette—we’ll bring in the people and listen to them—and then the expert will pronounce the solution. Jane Jacobs, with no planning experience, saw the value of places like Greenwich Village, and ultimately inspired their renewal. … It is time for a new generation of her ilk to rise up and begin the renewal of their communities from the bottom up. In the end, it really isn’t about new urbanism or suburbs versus city, but a vision for a healthy community—one that lives within its means and allows for its members to contribute to its vitality—much like any healthy family. This is about people more than projects.”

Marohn on his usual route to the Strong Towns office. (Jen Kalenberg)

An example of where this is happening today is the Broad Avenue neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee. Broad Avenue was a wasteland of vacant stores and had become a place to simply “drive through.” Then an army of local citizens equipped with brooms, brushes, and cheap hardware-store paint started a revolution. The citizens painted in crosswalks and bicycle lanes, and earnestly worked to make the streets as clean and inviting as their limited resources would allow. They invited merchants into the vacant stores—and the merchants came. When Memphis city officials realized what was happening (with no permits having been requested), did they step in and shut it down? Marohn points out that they did quite the opposite: “In many cases, where it was appropriate, they came in and replaced the hardware store paint with permanent crosswalks and bicycle lanes. They followed the template laid down by the citizens in most cases. Then they looked at the fact that the area had almost 100 percent occupancy of the commercial spaces, and used it as a model for surrounding streets and communities.”

In his work with Strong Towns, Marohn strives to empower many such communities. While the media shows us the decline of Detroit, he can point to neighborhoods where local initiatives are keeping people in their homes—keeping neighborhoods alive. After the difficulties of the pandemic, Marohn sees real lessons to be learned from citizens joining together to revitalize their communities. Psychologists have similarly documented that Americans were actually happier during the Great Depression of the 1930s; as they worked together to overcome all sorts of real obstacles, they experienced real and lasting personal satisfaction. Hopefully, our communities have emerged from the isolation of the past year with renewed respect for our shared places of human habitation. Most importantly, we should move forward as shapers—not merely consumers—of these places, gaining the deep satisfaction that comes from doing so.

Bob Kirchman is an architectural illustrator who lives in Augusta County, Virginia, with his wife, Pam. He teaches studio art (with a good deal of art history thrown in) to students in the Augusta Christian Educators Homeschool Coop. Kirchman is an avid hiker and loves exploring the hidden wonders of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Arts & Letters Features

An Artistic Mission

Growing up in Salzburg, Austria, Johanna Schwaiger was constantly surrounded by beautiful art—from the city’s Baroque architecture to majestic fountains and public gardens. “I always thought the masters of these works were of a distant past, … had magical skills, and I thought if I could only learn a little bit of what they knew, I would be so happy,” she said.

Her father, an art teacher, taught her basic drawing and sculpting techniques. Working in clay gave her true joy. “It became my world to retreat to, whenever I felt I needed to escape somewhere, like Alice entering her wonderland,” she said. Today, Schwaiger has not only achieved her childhood dream of becoming a sculptor but also seeks to inspire the next generation of artists to create the kind of art that so moved her.

She came to the United States in 2017 to work with New Masters Academy, a subscription-based online tutorial platform for people to learn fine arts techniques. To begin with, she was invited to teach a sculpture tutorial on video. Today, she is the academy’s program director. Similar to Netflix, people can stream videos of creative artists teaching their crafts from around the world. Even top art schools and entertainment studios, including the Walt Disney Animation Studios, Ringling College of Art and Design, and the National Sculpture Society, have signed up for courses.

A Journey

It would take some time before Schwaiger could fulfill her passion for arts education. At age 15, she enrolled in a local school for sculptors. But while the school taught wood and stone carving, she wanted to learn traditional figurative sculpture, like that of the Renaissance masters, together with training in ink drawing, clay sculpting, and bronze casting. After graduating from high school, Schwaiger searched ateliers and schools in Salzburg, Vienna, and other nearby European cities, but none taught these techniques.

Some in the arts world told Schwaiger that realism had become a thing of the past, so she decided to train herself by studying the works of old masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Schwaiger also majored in art history at the University of Salzburg, and soon picked up commissions to paint portraits and sculpt figures for churches and graveyards, but she still felt a need for more schooling. At age 26, she discovered that the Florence Academy of Art in Italy taught the traditional curriculum. After completing her training there, she returned to her high school alma mater and began teaching a course in traditional figurative art.

Schwaiger was inspired by the grace and strength exhibited by artists of classical Chinese dance. (Lux Aeterna Photography)

Schwaiger has since made it her mission to continue the lineage of the classical art tradition, through New Masters Academy, education initiatives, and her private art studio. “I try to inspire the younger generation to hone their craft and really focus on the craft as much as possible—and make them understand that if you get strong in your craft, that’s how you become free in your expression,” she said in a recent interview held at Fei Tian College in Middletown, New York, where she taught a four-week summer sculpting class.

Now 38, Schwaiger taught her Fei Tian College students human anatomy and how to draw from a live model. To her, it’s about respecting the process pioneered by the great classical artists of the Western tradition. “You need to honor the past, what the ancestors learned and what they brought out. It’s basically taking the torch and bringing the torch further. That’s what I believe in,” said Schwaiger.

Inspired by the East

In her latest project, Schwaiger took inspiration from a different culture. Several years ago, she and her husband attended a performance by Shen Yun Performing Arts, the world’s premier classical Chinese dance company. Based in New York, the company seeks to revive the 5,000 years of Chinese civilization through dance and music. Classical Chinese dance, in particular, has a lineage tracing back to imperial courts and ancient plays. Schwaiger was touched not only by the storytelling but also by the technical prowess of the dancers. “I could see that this is the kind of excellence … that artists in the past were aiming for. And it’s really moving people’s hearts with beauty, and with excellent techniques,” she said.

Schwaiger thought of capturing through sculpture the grace and strength of the dancers she saw on stage. “What amazed me so much was the variety of dance poses that the dancers can do in sync, and so the whole choreography seems to be a language that is told on stage,” she said.

Through a mutual artist friend, Schwaiger recently met Celine Ma, a 22-year-old instructor of classical Chinese dance at Northern Academy of the Arts, a private middle and high school in Middletown, New York. Together, they thought of possible poses that the figure could take on, with Ma occasionally modeling the movements. At first, Schwaiger found it challenging to translate dance, a moving art form, into the still form of sculpture—especially conveying the light, airy movements of classical Chinese dancers. “It’s a moment in time that you’re capturing, and so the pose I picked is not a resting pose. It’s more like she’s like a flower blossoming into her pose,” said Schwaiger.

The Sculpture

One of the dancer’s legs is grounded, but the rest of her body is twisted toward the viewer. Meanwhile, her extended arm is gesturing toward the sky. “I was trying to think of how plants grow. That helped me to bring that grace into the piece … like how a flower opens its petals. That’s the image I tried to keep in mind as I was sculpting this,” said Schwaiger.

Schwaiger said that she envisioned a flower blossoming while making the sculpture. (Lux Aeterna Photography)

Ma said of the hand gesture: “It’s reaching high, like giving people hope and aiming for something brighter and higher.” She was not only impressed by Schwaiger’s dedication to artistry but also thrilled to see classical Chinese dance represented in another art form. “Dancers in the past—we don’t have a lot of documented footage, and a lot of techniques are lost because there’s no way that someone is passing [them] down through thousands of years,” Ma said, noting that it was thrilling to see “a sculpture that can be everlasting.”

Through working on the sculpture project, Ma also gained a newfound understanding of how Western and Eastern arts can complement each other. And through discussing the posture of the sculpture, she became more aware of the muscles she was using while dancing, and “the beauty of the human form.”

The Role of Art in Society

Ma trained in classical Chinese dance for seven years, learning the inner meanings behind the art form. She said that the training helped her to embody values that were appreciated in ancient Chinese culture, such as self-discipline, being willing to endure hardships, and having an optimistic outlook. To master the art form, “you really have to build these values within you, and it’s something that comes with your heart,” said Ma.

Schwaiger similarly believes that artists must cultivate good values in order to create something beautiful. “The artist very much has to immerse themself with the idea of beauty to communicate it to somebody else. And if the artist is thinking of the audience, wanting the audience to connect with that beauty, the person who is looking at the art is going to feel that. So that’s why I think art has such importance for society,” she said.

She also firmly believes that art has the power to elevate people. “If you’re looking at graceful things, powerful things, it’s naturally helping you to connect with these virtues. … It’s reminding people of these qualities that you should have in yourself,” she said. That’s why she hopes to one day create public art that can inspire through beauty—whether it’s sculpture in schools, hospitals, or public squares.

Schwaiger plans to cast her dancer sculpture in bronze next, using an ancient technique known as lost-wax casting, and she hopes the sculpture can be placed in a public setting one day. With art beautifying its surrounding environment, “you like to spend time there, you’d like to sit down and be there together with others, and you feel the other people that are present—and that’s very essential for our civilization,” she said.

American Artists Arts & Letters Features

Artful Stories of Historic New England

Historic New England is the largest regional heritage organization in America today. Founded in 1910, it was the earliest organization of its type with a focus on the preservation and continued use of properties of historic significance. Historic New England aims to educate the public on their archives and collections and engage in public outreach by establishing house museums—working with homeowners and communities to protect buildings and landscapes.

With a collection of over a million records of photographs, homes, paintings, objects, sculptures, and documents, Historic New England has been able to tell the most complete story of how New Englanders lived from the 17th century to today. There are over 6,500 works of fine art housed across the New England states. Recognizing the importance of their collection, and to engage with the public, “Artful Stories” has brought together works from ten different house museums as well as a number of works from Historic New England’s storage.

The exhibition is held at the historic Eustis Estate in Milton, Massachusetts—a jewel of late-19th-century American architecture built in 1878. The estate was designed by William Ralph Emerson, prominent American architect and cousin of transcendentalist American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Not only was Emerson of the eponymous family, he was a close friend of leading Boston painter William Morris Hunt, and he collaborated with American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. It was a time of cultural renaissance in America, when bronze foundries produced full-scale works on American soil for the first time, and the cities were filling with Neoclassical architecture.

Eustis Estate, Milton, Mass. Public Domain.

Curated by Nancy Carlisle (Historic New England’s Senior Curator of Collections) and Peter Trippi (European art historian and editor-in-chief at Fine Art Connoisseur), “Artful Stories” explores regional stories told through art. Rather than simply showcasing Historic New England’s best paintings and sculptures, the curators selectively chose artists, portraits, and settings to give the artwork and theme a larger sense of context. As Carlisle noted, the experience of curating a show like this reveals new information every time you scratch at the surface of history.

The exhibition was well planned, but just as society had to contend with the pandemic lockdowns, so did “Artful Stories.” They quickly pivoted to online programming and immersive 360-degree videos. Karla Rosenstein, the site manager of the Eustis Estate, shared that “from the beginning, we had planned to utilize the interactive touchscreens to add extra multimedia materials to ‘Artful Stories,’ so we luckily had already been developing some online content for the exhibition.” As it became clear that they would not be able to open up as scheduled, they wanted to provide an online preview that was a full version of the exhibition. “While working from home, we created a far more robust version than we had initially planned” added Rosenstein.

“Homeward Bound” by John George Brown, New York, 1878. Oil on canvas. Gift of Ralph May.

The curators chose to present the works in a variety of themes across four galleries. The first gallery, “Land & Sea,” is a survey of the historical geography of New England. The second gallery, “At Home in New England,” showcases how and why the people of New England came to settle there, while the third gallery, “New England’s People,” reveals the cast of characters involved. The fourth gallery, “Wide World,” is about how the New Englanders interacted with people and places outside their region.

Unlike other exhibitions that would source works from outside their collection, Rosenstein noted, “it was very fortunate that this show was entirely from Historic New England’s collection as we did not need to negotiate date changes with other institutions.” The gallery was open to in-person visits in October 2020 and welcomed small groups of visitors to enjoy the exhibit. “We had a good number of members eager to attend it and get back into our museums,” added Rosenstein. “We also found ways to pivot our planned programming online and hosted a series of conversations between the curators and scholars, artists, and other curators that was attended by far more people than we would have expected in person.”

The show is full of interesting distinctions—a striking, perfect copy of Vigée LeBrun’s self portrait was a surprise for Carlisle. “The copy of Vigée’s portrait was by Elizabeth Adams, an artist about whom we knew nothing. During our research, we discovered who she was and the lengths she went to receive professional training.”

Copy of “Self-Portrait of Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun” by Elizabeth Adams, Florence, Italy, 1865–74. Oil on canvas. Gift of the artist’s nephew, Boylston Adams Beal.

As our collective American [MISSING NOUN] shifted so much throughout 2020, this allowed the curators to examine some of the asymmetries of the past, confronting the history of race and social class through the lens of today. Two such landscape paintings are hung in the first gallery, “Land & Sea.” One painting is a tight, Hudson-River-School-influenced panorama by the son of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, while the other is a pure Barbizon, Romantic landscape by an African-American barber who had to strive for his training as a painter. On these two paintings, Peter Trippi noted “the contrast between the landscapes painted by Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow and his neighbor (on the wall), Edward Mitchell Bannister—what different life journeys they had, but they both ended up being talented painters flourishing in New England at the same time!” Truly, one of the most important aspects of representational painting is its ability to transcend setting and social class and rely on truth, skill, and beauty.

Left: “View of Boston Across the Flats” by Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow, Boston, 1876. Oil on canvas. Gift of D. Codman. Right: “Woman Reading Under a Tree” by Edward Mitchell Bannister, probably R.I., 1880–85. Oil on canvas.

Throughout the show, there are a number of thoughtful arrangements and connections made that came to light through their research. In gallery four, “Wide World,” there is a wall which showcases not only the talent and skill of the artists, but the ingenuity and distinction of the American art patrons during the late 19th century. One is a portrait painting of Richard Norton by Italian artist Antonio Mancini. Hanging next to it is Edward Burne-Jones’ portrait of Sara Norton, Richard’s sister. These two paintings couldn’t be more stylistically distinct; Edward Burne-Jones was a Pre-Raphaelite, a classicist in the truest sense of the word, and Mancini an innovator, regarded by American artist John Singer Sargent as the greatest living painter of the time.

Left: “Richard Norton” by Antonio Mancini, Rome, c. 1905. Oil on canvas. Bequest of Susan Norton, the sitter’s daughter. Right: “Sara Norton” by Edward Burne-Jones, London, 1884. Oil on canvas. Bequest of Susan Norton, the sitter’s niece.

The simple fact that these two now hang side-by-side in contrast to each other displays the power of patronage—allowing the artists to fully express their vision of the subject, rather than attempting to impose their own aesthetics onto their likeness. This is further driven home by their accompanying painting on the wall, “St. Servan Harbor” by Edward Darley Boit. Best remembered as the patron who commissioned John Singer Sargent to paint his four daughters (housed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston), Boit was also an accomplished painter in his own right.

“St. Servan Harbor” by Edward Darley Boit, Dinard, Brittany, France, 1882. Oil on canvas. Gift of Dorothy S. F. M. Codman.

Throughout the exhibition, there are multimedia opportunities to learn more about the various artists and subjects. For those residing outside of New England, the website offers one of the most complete possible viewing experiences online. “Artful Stories” is both a truthful retelling of the Northeast’s history and an important chapter in cultural preservation, which Historic New England continues to champion. The exhibit has been extended until October 17th, 2021.

Arts & Letters Book Recommender

Inside the Space Shuttle Mission Control

The space shuttle carried 2 to 8 people into space when it flew. Most of us don’t realize that a shuttle mission required a crew as large as that of a modern U.S. Navy cruiser. More than 300 flight controllers at Johnson Space Center in Houston “flew” the mission from 20 stations in the Mission Control Building.

“Shuttle Mission Control: Flight Controller Stories and Photos, 1981–1992,” by Marianne J. Dyson, tells the story of those people and the Flight Control Room (FCR) at the heart of Mission Control.

The FCR was what the public thought of as Mission Control, the room televised during shuttle missions. It can be thought of as the ship’s bridge for shuttle missions. Dyson describes the FCR, its history, its layout, its role within Johnson Space Center, and how it worked.

The book’s real focus is the people running shuttle missions during the shuttle program’s early years. Dyson spends a chapter on each Mission Control station, describing what that station did, telling who the people at each station were and how they supported missions.

She starts with “the Trench,” at the front of the FCR. The bottom row of consoles, the Trench handled critical shuttle engineering activities: propulsion (fuel supply), data processing, guidance and rendezvous, trajectory and flight dynamics, and ground controller.

During Mission 51F (in July 1985), one of the shuttle’s three main engines shut down. A second was reported overheating. Dyson shows Flight Dynamics Officer Brian Perry, assisted by Jenny Howard at the booster console, making a split-second decision to press on, disregarding an errant temperature sensor—and their action saved the mission.

Author Marianne Dyson and her husband Thornton Dyson on the cover of the ebook for “Shuttle Mission Control: Flight Controller Stories and Photos, 1981–1992.” (Courtesy Marianne Dyson)

Dyson continues up the rows showing how the remaining stations played important roles, if not normally as time critical as Trench positions. They ranged from payloads to the flight director. Some are well known, such as the flight director, who “captains” the mission, and CAPCOM (capsule communicator), who talks to the orbiter crew.

Others, such as MMACS (mechanical, maintenance, arm and crew systems), are obscure but critical. MMACS such as Paul Dye were shuttle handymen, dealing with numerous mechanical glitches. Dye scrubbed one mission with five minutes to launch when a system threatened to fail. A tough call, but it proved correct.

Dyson, an award-winning author, was there. She was a flight activities officer; her husband, Thornton E. Dyson, was a guidance officer. Both were in the FCR on the shuttle’s first flight. “Shuttle Mission Control” is an intimate look at a remarkable team.

“Shuttle Mission Control: Flight Controller Stories and Photos, 1981–1992,” by Marianne J. Dyson, self-published by Marianne Dyson, 2021.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, Texas. He is a former Shuttle navigator. His website is