To Save The World We Built

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Twenty years ago nobody thought much about saving old buildings. The phrase urban renewal had an optimistic, forward-looking sound to it, and entire urban centers were razed with little thought of what might be lost in the process. Today communities across America are fighting to save their architectural heritage. James Marston Fitch, more than any other individual, has championed that cause. Born in Wash- ington, D.C., he grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in a family proud of its pre-Revolutionary American ancestors but numbering among its members many whom he considers failures. At the age of fifteen he entered the University of Alabama intending to become an engineer. The following year he transferred to the architectural program at Tulane, but financial reverses forced him to leave after two years and find a job. At the beginning of his career he designed traditional houses; later he became a staunch advocate of the modern style. In 1954 he began teaching the history of architecture at Columbia University, and ten years later he instituted the nation’s first graduate curriculum in historic preservation there, creating the prototype for the dozens of programs that now exist.

Fitch is currently director of historic preservation at the architectural firm of Beyer Blinder Belle in New York City.

 
Now I am a curator of antiques, not a designer of replicas.
 
 

You began your career designing eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century-style buildings, then turned against them to become a committed modernist. But in recent years you’ve again become involved with traditional idioms. Why?

When I began, the only mode of design given students in the Beaux-Arts system of teaching architecture was the idiom of the past. That restriction led to my rebellion against the whole apparatus. Now, fifty years later, I am working again with artifacts designed in these older idioms, but with the crucial difference that now I am a curator of authentic antiques, not a designer of replicas. Under no circumstances would I design a replica for a new site as I did in the beginning of my career. Of course, there are times when a preservation project requires the insertion of a new element, which- while being clearly new—must also be congruent. Two of my firm’s recent projects—the South Street Seaport Museum and the proposed Hearst Tower—illustrate that principle.

What made you stop designing traditional buildings?

I began to recognize the contradiction between designing houses in the traditional styles and having to conceal within them all the new technology. My first published piece, which appeared in Architecture in 1933, dealt with this subject. I had recently finished a replica of the famous Natchez mansion Auburn, which had many aspects that pleased me in 1933: the woodwork, the vaulted plaster, the beautiful handcrafted freestanding spiral stair with no metal supports, the handmade sand-finished brick. This was also the first house in Nashville to have air conditioning, which meant ductwork. But ducts were a flagrant contradiction with the solid masonry walls, so I had to sneak them in. Every time I put a piece of modern technology into a traditional structure like that, I found that it was troublesome and expensive.

The turning point for me came as we were remodeling a vulgar, “catalog” colonial house. Our task was to style it up to make it look like a literate, polished piece of historic architecture. We were installing a room that was to be the library, although as I remember it, the clients owned few, if any, books. We had bought an old, very handsome Empire cypress chimney breast in New Orleans, and I had designed the shelving and paneling for the rest of the room in the same style and wood. When the installation was completed and the workmen and I had finished admiring our handiwork, I said, “Well, boys, the next thing we have to do is antique all this new wood so that it matches the old mantel. I want you, Joe, to take this chisel and knock off all the sharp edges of the moldings—not too brutally, just so the molding looks as though it had been bumped into for 150 years. Bill, I would like you to beat all the new cypress with this bunch of keys. Tom, mix a couple of pats of cow manure and some lime in a fivegallon pail of water and slop it all over the woodwork with this big brush, but before it’s completely dry, wipe it so it has the same patina as the old cypress.” There was a dead silence. Finally I asked, “What’s wrong?” One of the men said, “Mr. Fitch, do you mean that you want us to spoil all this beautiful new woodwork we just got finished putting in?”

That really ran me right through the heart. I call it my “Balaam’s Ass Story”—you know, an ass saw an angel and Balaam didn’t. That was a turning point in my intellectual approach toward fakery and imitation in architecture.

What finally made you decide to leave Tennessee?