July/August 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 4
His first memory was of a green lampshade in his father’s study. His second was of fury and frustration. His mother, father, and older brother, Win, were going up from the Stanford University campus, where he’d been born, to San Francisco, where the fleet was. He, considered too young to make the trip, was being left behind. He didn’t exactly know what the fleet might be—he suspected it was a cool, delicious drink—but he wanted it. It was the Great White Fleet, stopping in San Francisco Bay on its way around the world in the spring of 1908.
My father saw almost all of the last century. He missed the Wright brothers’ first flight, but not the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which jostled his cradle and disintegrated his surroundings when he was ten months old. He watched French aviators sent over to help with the Liberty Loan drive looping their Nieuport Scouts over the Mall in Washington, D.C., in 1917; he met Harry Houdini; he once played his violin for Henry Ford; he went to a house party on Long Island in the 1920s where he was assigned his own butler for the weekend; he was in charge of designing dormitories at West Point in the Gothic style under the direction of an Army man who confided, “Frankly, the missus and I found Chartres rather disappointing”—and then was delighted to have this overseer replaced by Gen. Leslie Groves, who had nothing at all to prove.
Richard B. Snow made it through the whole century —I was about to write “unscathed,” but of course one never is by life, and he died late last February.
What a world of history, great and intimate, disappeared with this long life. He recalled his grandparents’ telling him about being at the Lincoln-Douglas debate in Quincy, Illinois (hot, crowded, but the speakers surprisingly easy to hear); he was the last person to remember stroking Penelope, the family’s sweet-natured chestnut mare, who shied at blowing newspapers and refused outright to visit one particular part of San Francisco (or was it Washington? I’ll never again be able to check this).
He went to Columbia College in New York City and graduated from the school of architecture there in 1931—a bad year generally, and particularly grim for architects. Nevertheless, he established his own firm and spent the better part of a decade scratching up what work he could: minor alterations, mostly, but he did design the long-gone science and industry museum in Rockefeller Center and jumped at the chance to renovate a Madison Avenue shoe store.
Things brightened when he recruited the architects Edward Durell Stone and Morris Ketchum, Jr., to work with him on a competition sponsored by the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Their entry won, they were commissioned to build one of the agriculture pavilions, and my father got the task of designing a monumental emblem for it. The result, four Deco-ish hundred-foot-high gilded stainless-steel wheat stalks, was eventually purchased by the Tilyou family and spent the quarter century after the fair closed standing in front of Steeplechase amusement park on Coney Island.
My father found out about their transplanting when, as a freshly minted lieutenant (jg), he spotted them from the bridge of a brand-new destroyer escort steaming out of New York Harbor in 1943. Jobs had been plentiful since the fair, but he had left his practice to enter the Navy. Overage, he’d managed to find some strings to pull and got himself sea duty. He served in the North Atlantic aboard the USS Neunzer on convoy and antisubmarine work and, in April 1945, took part in the action that destroyed the U-546 after the German U-boat had sunk the Neunzer ’s sister ship, the Frederick C. Davis .
The war was winding down by then, and government pamphlets about the impending difficulties of readjusting to civilian life were circulating about the Neunzer . My father read them with a sort of Olympian pity for the boys who had no jobs to return to. He was delighted to get back to his office. He sat down at his drafting table, picked up a pencil—and froze. Days went by, weeks. When somebody said, “Draw a doorway here,” he’d do a sure and lovely job. But he couldn’t think on his own. Give it time, said his partner, who had carried the shop during the war; but in the end my father got too embarrassed. He walked away from his own firm and joined the staff of another. He did just fine there (indeed, with the interruption of the war, he practiced architecture for nearly sixty years), eventually specializing in university and public buildings: the Barnard College library, the Firestone Library in Princeton, the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College, West Point.
But once, when I was about eighteen, he told me that he felt he’d let me down by not still having his own company. I told him that I didn’t believe many sons would rather have a father with his own architectural firm than one who had fought Hitler’s navy.
He was smarter than I—read all of Proust in French when I have never been able to do so in English—but was wonderfully supportive of my enthusiasms. He subscribed to American Heritage in 1955, too late to receive the first few issues, and when he saw the magazine (actually, its pictures) engaging my interest, he spent his lunch hours in the used bookstores that used to line lower Fourth Avenue until he was able to assemble a full set for me.
Toward the end, his elegant intellectual equipment began to slip. One day he started talking about the time the Model T had pulled its ugly trick of spinning the starting crank back around when the engine caught and broke my wrist. I nodded, but he pressed me with specific questions until I had to tell him that I was his son, Richard, not his brother Win.
“Oh, of course!” he said, not the least discomfited. He smiled past me from the place he was sitting, a promontory that overlooked a land populated with both the dead and the living: his grandmother who had heard Lincoln and Douglas, his grandfather who had carried the debate forward with Grant’s Army of the Tennessee, Penelope, Win, and his four-year-old granddaughter, Rebecca, lying at his feet deeply immersed in her Rugrats video. “It doesn’t matter. I love you all.”