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A three-decade exhumation to retrieve the forgotten career of one of the most influential 19th-century American architects was completed this June with the release of Henry Howard: Louisiana’s Architect. Published by Princeton Architectural Press and the Historic New Orleans Collection, the 350-page monograph by Robert S. Brantley with Victor McGee delves into archives to identify long misattributed buildings, find overlooked projects, and discover how a 40-year career alongside some of New Orleans’ most tumultuous history could fade.
Henry Howard involves a thoroughly researched text by Brantley with contributions from McGee, along with photographs by Brantley and his late wife Jan White Brantley. Both she and McGee passed away during the creation of the book, which started in the 1970s. It was a few decades before that when historians, even in the New Orleans area, remembered Henry Howard existed. In 1952, the Newcomb College Art School of Tulane University staged an exhibition to rescue “the memory of Henry Howard from obscurity,” as Charles L. Dufour wrote for the New Orleans State. On November 18, a new exhibition based on the book material is opening at the Historic New Orleans Collection.
The book indexes nearly 300 buildings attributed to Howard, including some of the most iconic in New Orleans, a stunning reveal for an architect who doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Howard was born in Ireland, first working as a craftsman in New York before moving to New Orleans in 1836. From that year until his death in 1884, he was prolific, focusing exclusively on design at a time when many architects doubled as builders. His work spanned eras of epidemic, like yellow fever in 1853; the Civil War; its subsequent reconstruction; and the highs and lows of the city’s 19th-century economy. Why a career that focused on plantation homes, civic buildings, and residential spaces almost exclusively in and around New Orleans matters to a national audience is explained by historian S. Frederick Starr in his preface and introduction.
Starr writes that “more than anyone else in the region, and as much as anyone in America at the time, Howard helped Americans to express their worldly success in terms of architecture. To be sure, this practice is as old as money and architecture, but Howard took it to a new level. Drawing on the rich heritage of neoclassicism is Ireland, he created his own Gilded Age a generation before Mark Twain and Charles Dudley coined the term and three generations before F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby gazed longingly across the bay at the green light on Daisy Buchanan’s dock.”
In other words, Howard helped craft a uniquely American form of architecture that merged Roman and Greek influences with European and local aesthetics, which would guide not just the built environment of New Orleans, but the national style of the 19th and early 20th-century. However, Howard suffered a slow health decline before his death, and the records of his office do not survive. “The generation for which he had built his finest buildings was vanishing,” Brantley writes. “With his drawings gone and his contracts scattered, in only a few years Howard’s name was forgotten.”
As a designer, his name doesn’t exist on many historic building documents kept at the New Orleans Notarial Archives. And some of his greatest work was in later years attributed to his rival, James Gallier Sr., such as the famous Pontalba buildings on Jackson Square in New Orleans. Gallier began drawings for the buildings, but Howard’s design was built. “For most of the twentieth century, when Henry Howard’s name had fallen into obscurity, the buildings were attributed to James Gallier based on the fact that Gallier had made drawings for the buildings,” Brantley explains. “No one questioned the detail that Gallier’s name was scratched out, and no one seemed troubled by the fact that his designs do not match the buildings as they stand.”
Other significant structures include grand homes in the New Orleans Garden District like the Robert Short House with its distinctive cast-iron cornstalk fence, and the Belle Grove plantation destroyed by a 1952 fire, also once erroneously attributed to Gallier. Brantley and his late collaborators deserve credit for a lovingly made and intensely researched biography that does forensics-level work on Howard’s legacy. Not only that, through their research on details like ornamentation, layout, the affinity for light-filled entryways, and even the handwriting on surviving documents, they were able to attribute buildings that had long lost his name. Some were demolished in his lifetime, but nearly 100 structures survive. Others are in need of preservation, such as the Carrollton Courthouse, vacant since 2013, which earlier this year was listed by the Lousiana Landmarks Society as one of New Orleans’ nine most endangered buildings. Henry Howard: Louisiana’s Architect affirms his significance, and argues for the elevation of his name in American architectural history.
Henry Howard: Louisiana’s Architect by Robert S. Brantley with Victor McGee is out now from Princeton Architectural Press and the Historic New Orleans Collection. An Architect and His City: Henry Howard’s New Orleans, 1837–1884 is November 18 to April 3, 2016 at the Historic New Orleans Collection (533 Royal Street, New Orleans).