Sunday, May 24, 2009
Anna B. Crocker and Frank Lloyd Wright "Spot" Pietro Belluschi
Many visitors to the Portland Art Museum are astonished to hear that the main building was erected in 1932. The first comment they make is that it looks so modern. The second is the question "1932, how can that be? The country was knee deep in the Great Depression". It does seem that the stars were definitely aligned for the Portland Art Museum. Unemployment was high and new building in the city had come to an almost stand still. Fortunately for Portland and the museum, key patrons were still donating money to the museum. In 1930, the museum received a donation of $100,000 to be used towards a new facility. This would allow the Museum to have a permanent home. As generous as that donation was it would not have been sufficient without the forward thinking of Anna B. Crocker, the Curator and in effect director of the Museum.
The Museum approached A. E. Doyle with their proposal for a new building. After negotiations between the Doyle firm, the museum board and Anna Crocker, it was agreed that the the museum would pay no more than the $100,000 including architect's fees. Center to the proposal was Anna Crocker's well thought out guidelines for the museum. The interior space, lighting and comfort for the visitor were all to be considered before the design of the exterior. The exterior should be simple and approachable by the public.
But which architect at the Doyle firm should be selected? Pietro Belluschi, a young and yet untested architect, was Anna Crocker's choice. She knew him and his work from his days at the Portland Art Museum's School. Crocker approached C. F. Adams, the chairman of the building committee, and convinced him to back Belluschi as the choice. Without this support, the Doyle firm would have chosen Jamieson Parker, a more conservative architect and member of the museum's board. The overall design of the museum would have definitely been different, most likely leaning towards a Georgian exterior.
As it turned out even though the limited budget precluded the use of marble, colonnades, statues "and other monumental mausoleum accessories", the board members including Parker were insisting upon just that -- Georgian, what Belluschi thought of as dead tradition. Belluschi was caught between providing a traditional looking building and what Anna Crocker had made clear she wanted: "a welcoming, accessible, unpretentious, functional-looking building", also Belluschi's choice. Belluschi got his second "spot" from none other than Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright had just complected lectures at the University of Oregon so his name was in the news. Belluschi asked for and immediately received a letter from Wright that the museum would be "making a serious mistake" by insisting on a Georgian exterior. Belluschi proceeded to incorporate the minor changes Wright had suggested. Armed with the letter and amended proposal, Belluschi with Anna Crocker's support prevailed. The Portland Art Musuem has what Frank Lloyd Wright described as a sensible modern exterior that has moved gracefully into the 21st century.
Shown below are the floor plans for the museum as well as the Belluschi's preliminary drawing with Frank Lloyd Wright's comments. If you should like to read more about what transpired in the making of the Portland Art Museum, Meredith L. Clausen devotes about twenty pages to it in her book Pietro Belluschi: Modern American Architiect.