- Historic Sites
To Save The World We Built
Every town you pass through has felt the impact of the modern historic-preservation movement. Now a founder of that movement discusses what is real and what is fake in preservation efforts.
April 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 3
In 1930, at the age of twenty-one, I got a job with an architect in Nashville. All of a sudden I was working for the richest people in town, and although I didn’t have the same social background, I was going to all the balls and dancing with the debutantes. For two or three years I was really riding high. Well, the Depression taught me how evanescent those things were. The copy of Auburn was finished in 1934, and for a year or so, I couldn’t get any professional employment. In order to make a living, I was doing maintenance gardening for some of the houses I had designed. I remember a very vivid nightmare from that time. It had to do with a house I’d been working on. The entrance hall was floored in black-and-white marble tiles, with a circular stair at one end and a cloakroom and a powder room on either side of the entrance door. I had had trouble laying out the pattern of the tiles in these two tiny rooms. In the dream. I was not drawing this floor but actually in the room trying to fit the tiles, and they wouldn’t quite fit. When I finally got the thing worked out, I was sitting back on my haunches admiring my handiwork when I saw a blade of grass. So I picked the grass out. I saw another blade of grass, picked it out, and then another. All of a sudden the room was on fire with grass, and I woke up in a panic. The message of that dream was perfectly clear—Fitch, get the hell out. I was trying to impose a formal pattern on a life that was out of control.
Where did you go?
Eventually I got a job with the Tennessee State Planning Commission, one of the emergency agencies that had just been created by Roosevelt. One of our first projects was an employment survey of architects and engineers in the state, which showed that about 93 percent were unemployed. Well, that radicalized the thinking of many people of my age. It began to seem to me that the corrupt social system that was collapsing around our heads and the corrupt design idioms that we were employing were two sides of the same coin.
In 1935 I was lucky enough to get a very interesting job as an architect with the Federal Housing Administration in Washington, but I was really headed for New York, where the social and political action was and where I hoped to learn more about the modern style. A year later Lawrence Kocher, the editor of Architectural Record , read my piece in Architecture and offered me a job in New York.
What was your idea of “modern” architecture at the time?
It was as much social as aesthetic. This was the beginning of the New Deal, and I was becoming more and more interested in social issues—trade unionism, politics, housing, city planning, education. I also began reading articles on European housing that included pictures of the work of the Bauhaus—beautiful, immaculate white stucco buildings with huge amounts of glass to the south, balconies flooded with sunshine, and beautifully kept lawns and public gardens. They were designing schools, nurseries, and sports facilities that were a summary of the social and cultural ambitions of the times. Another source of images was the extensive publicity for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933, which extolled modern architecture. The model houses impressed me most, particularly George Fred Keek’s “Crystal House.” which included steel frames, prefabricated wall panels, and “dematerialized walls,” as Le Corbusier called the transparent screens. The handful of other sparkling functionalist buildings in this country were widely publicized. It was a rnilitantly contemporary concept of a bright new world of space, sunlight, and freedom from any kind of hierarchy, of any indication of rank.
But when the time came to build your own house, it was inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, not that of the International Style. When did you become aware of Wright?
Because of the peculiarities of his career, during the latter part of the 1920s and the early 1930s Wright was almost in complete eclipse. I don’t think I had heard of him before coming to New York in 1936. Since I was earning my living by writing and editing, it was not until 1950 that I again did any architectural design at all. Though I was intellectually enamored with the clarity, the purity, the classlessness of the modern European architecture, it perhaps did not completely satisfy me sensually. By the time I again had an opportunity to design, my tastes had been modified. When I designed my first house, it was in the Wrightian mode.
What was life in New York like when you arrived?
It was fantastic. I had the advantage of immediately becoming part of an exciting circle of architects, writers, editors, and critics. All the great WPA cultural projects were thriving—theater, music, ballet. I had a relatively big salary- thirty-eight hundred dollars a year—and the city was incomparably cheaper and more secure than today. My wife Cieo and I were intoxicated by how safe it was as compared with the South. Cleo could come home at twelve o’clock at night on the subway and feel completely secure. This was psychological as well as physical, because the racism in Southern society had made everybody so fearful. We were stunned by the freedom of living in a big city where you had a real choice of circles and movement, whereas in Nashville there had been no choice: your street address indicated exactly who you were.