Sunday, November 17, 2013

Benjamin Polk: Forgotten Mid-Century Modernist with Deep Asian Connections

Browsing through back issues of The Californian this morning I ran across this fascinating article on mid-century modernist architect Benjamin Polk's Wallace Residence in the San Francisco Bay area community of Belvedere. Does anyone out there know if it still exists? A quick Google search led me to his archive at UC-Berkeley's fantastic Environmental Desgn Archives where his papers reside. The finding aid link leads to a description of Polk's fascinating career (see below).

"Home...Between Air and the Earth," The Californian, August, 1949, pp. 40-41.

Benjamin Kauffman Polk was born in 1916 in Des Moines, Iowa. He attended Amherst College, the University of Chicago, and studied structural engineering at Iowa State University. In 1952 he earned an equivalent master's degree from the School of Planning, Gordon Square, London, in the field of Research in Regional Development. Polk served in the U.S. Army from 1942 until 1946, and married Emily De Spain, poet, artist, and designer in 1946.

Polk practiced architecture in San Francisco from 1946-1952, and in Asia from 1952-1966. He designed and constructed more than fifty projects during this time. In 1957 he established the partnership of Chatterjee and Polk, which become the largest architecture firm in Asia. His major projects include: The Jallian Walabagh National Memorial in Amritsar, India, the Royal Palace for King of Nepal in Katmandu, and the great Buddhist Tipitaka Library in Rangoon, Burma. He also designed many large commercial and industrial buildings, universities and schools, and a theater in Calcutta, India.

In 1966 he returned to California, settling in Los Osos. From 1966-1980 he was a professor of architecture at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. During these years he also developed an improvisational piano technique, and traveled to Paris in 1977 to study with French composer Nadia Boulanger. After living in Salisbury, England, from 1981-1991, he returned to his home in Los Osos, California.

Polk is the author of "Architecture and the Spirit of the Place," published in Calcutta in 1961, and "India Notebook - Two Americans in South Asia of Nehru's Time," written with his wife Emily.

With his deep Asian connections and passion for music Polk's career appears to be a fascinating line of research to pursue. The place to begin would be Berkeley with a follow-up trip to Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo. Here is a link to a Selected Polk Bibliography. Happy hunting.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Merle Armitage to Edward Weston, January 5, 1935


Merle Armitage by Sonya Noskowiak, Carmel, 1934. Center for Creative Photography.


Merle Armitage by Henrietta Shore, pencil drawing ca. 1933. From "Naturally Modern" by Victoria Dailey in LA's Early Moderns, Balcony Press: Los Angeles, 2003, p. 51.

I just put together a quick photo album to illustrate the below letter from larger than life impresario Merle Armitage to Edward Weston. In the letter Merle discusses Schindlers-Westons mutual friends Ramiel McGehee, Rockwell Kent, Schindler client artist Giovanni Pasquale Napolitano, pianist/composers John Charles Thomas, Josef Hofmann and Igor Stravinsky, and his latest flame Elise Cavanna. (For much more on McGehee's fascinating early life in the Los Angeles dance community see my "Bertha Wardell Dances in Silence at Kings Road, Olive Hill and Carmel").

(click on image to enlarge)
Merle Armitage to Edward Weston, typed letter signed, January 5, 1935. Center for Creative Photography.

Ramiel McGehee in Japanese Noh Dance, 1919. Edward Weston photograph. From Merle Armitage Dance Memoranda edited by Edwin Corle, Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1946. 

Ramiel McGehee, ca. 1929 by Edward Weston. Center for Creative Photography.

De Soto Airflows at gas station, 1935. From internet.

Rockwell Kent by Merle Armitage, New York: Weyhe, 1932.

Napolitano by Merle Armitage. New York: Weyhe, 1935. Sm.8vo, 10pp, 15 plates, frontispiece portrait by Brett Weston, original signed lithograph by Napolitano.

Giovanni Pasquale Napolitano by Brett Weston, 1935.


Sculpture class at Otis Art Institute, 1924: Pasquale Napolitano fourth from left, instructor Harold Swartz in center; continuing right: Ruth Sowden, who encouraged classmate Harris to discover Frank Lloyd Wright and commissioned his son Lloyd to design her Sowden House; Viola Kepler (model); George Stanley (future designer of the "Oscar"statuette; Clive Delbridge (classmate Harris's client for his first building, the Lowe House); and Harwell Hamilton Harris. From Otis College of Art and Design web site.

The Weston Family, 1934. Center for Creative Photography.

John Charles Thomas, photographer and date unknown. From Wikipedia.

Josef Hofmann, photographer and date unknown. From Wikipedia.

Stravinsky by Merle Armitage, New York: Weyhe, 1935. Photographs by Edward Weston. Center for Creative Photography.

Elise Cavanna Armitage, 1936. Photo by Edward Weston. From "Naturally Modern" by Victoria Dailey in LA's Early Moderns, Balcony Press: Los Angeles, 2003, p. 80. Center for Creative Photography. 

Elise by Merle Armitage, 1934. New York: John Becker, 1933.

Elise by Merle Armitage, 1934. New York: John Becker, 1933.








Packard Family Architectural Connections

This photo album weaves a web of architectural, agricultural and artistic connections surrounding the larger than life Packard family who were clients of important architects in Los Angeles (John C. Packard - R. M. Schindler) and San Francisco (Walter Packard - Burton Cairns, Vernon DeMars and Garrett Eckbo).


Emmy Lou Packard and Diego Rivera, Mexico City, 1927From Walter E.Packard Oral History.

The Walter Packard family was in Mexico during the late 1920s for his consulting job with the Mexican government working on agrarian and land settlement reform issues. Walter was sharing the considerable expertise he picked up in California's Coachella and San Joaquin Valleys in the 1910s and early 1920s. It was here that daughter Emmy Lou was introduced to and mentored by Diego Rivera (see above). Emmy Lou later assisted Rivera on his 1940 mural "Pan American Unity" created as part of the "Art in Action" program in conjunction with the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island. Rivera arranged an exhibition of Emmy Lou's work at the Stendahl Gallery in Los Angeles the following year (see below).

Emmy Lou Packard self-portrait and letter from Diego Rivera to Earl Stendahl, 1940 regarding Emmy Lou's 1941 Stendahl Gallery Exhibition.  From Exhibitionist: Earl Stendahl, Art Dealer and Impresario by April Dammann, Angel City Press, 2011, p. 78.

As Rivera's intro for Emmy Lou's Stendahl Gallery exhibiton mentions, Emmy Lou was born in the Coachella Valley near El Centro where father Walter was then stationed by his then employer UC-Berkeley while working on agricultural experimentation. In 1917 Packard published Agriculture in the Imperial Valley: A Manual for Settlers and other agricultural publications. His section on date growing was likely informed by Coachella Valley date industry pioneer Paul Popenoe's 1913 book Date Growing in the Old World and the New. Thus Walter most likely knew later Schindler client Popenoe personally. Schindler designed a nearby house for Popenoe in 1922 (see below). (Author's note: The multi-faceted Popenoe was a noted figure in the Eugenics Movement and later became a founding practioner and author of books on marriage counseling.).

Popenoe Cabin, Coachella, 1922. R. M. Schindler, architect. UC-Santa Barbara Architecture and Design Collections, Schindler Papers.

It is interesting to speculate whether Schindler knew of the Popenoe and Packard family connections while designing the house. It seems plausible as Kings Road housemate Clyde Chace was encamped at the Popenoe site during construction and would have had much personal contact with Popenoe. It was also likely through Edward Weston sidekick Johan Hagemeyer that Schindler landed the commission as he had worked for Popenoe in the Coachella Valley and Pasadena before deciding to opt for a career in photography.  

The Walter Packard Residence in the Delhi Land Settlement Community near Merced between 1920-24. Max E. Cook, architect, B. L. Ryan, landscape designer, 1919. From UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

John C. Packard Residence, Pasadena, 1924. R. M. Schindler, architect. UC-Santa Barbara Architecture and Design Collections, Schindler Collection.

Emmy Lou Packard's cousins John and Virginia Packard on porch of Packard House, Pasadena, ca. 1926. Archives of American Art, Esther McCoy Collection.

Walter Packard and family, including daughter Emmy Lou, moved into his brother John's house in Pasadena (see above) for a period after returning from their stint in Mexico in 1930.


R. M. Schindler, 1927. Edward Weston portrait. Center for Creative Photography.


Schindler had designed the John C. Packard Residence in Pasadena in 1924. Attorney Packard and his circle co-founded the Los Angeles Chapter of the ACLU stemming from defending Upton Sinclair who was arrested for reading the U.S. Constitution at a longshormen's strike in San Pedro in 1923. Walter and John Packard's mother Clara was deeply involved in the anti-war movement in Los Angeles and was a patron of the Walt Whitman School where the Schindlers first met the Westons. (For much more on this see my "The Schindlers and the Westons and the Walt Whitman School.").

Walter Packard, Emma Packard, Don Cairns, and Burton Cairns. From Walter E.Packard Oral History. Photo likely by Emmy Lou Packard, niece of Schindler client John C. Packard. Burton and Emmy Lou were married in 1934.


Emmy Lou Packard met Burton Cairns (see above) while performing in a play at the Berkeley Community Theater in 1933 and they were married the following year. A few years later Emmy Lou's parents commissioned their son-in-law and Vernon DeMars to build their still-existing house in Berkeley (see below). 

Walter and Emma Packard Residence, 773 Cragmont Ave., Berkeley, 1938. Burton Cairns and Vernon DeMars, architects. Linoleum blockprint by Emmy Lou Packard. From Walter E. Packard Oral History.


Walter E. Packard, Acting Director, Rural Resettlement Division, Farm Security Administration, May 1936. Dorothea Lange, photographer. From Library of Congress.

Through the largess of Emmy Lou Packard's father Walter (see above), her husband Burton Cairns collaborated with Garrett Eckbo and Vernon DeMars for the Farm Security Administration’s regional office in San Francisco to make lasting contributions to the field of planning and low-cost housing design for migrant farm workers. Eckbo was riding with Cairns to an FSA project in Oregon when Cairns was killed in a tragic auto accident and Eckbo was gravely injured.


Vernon DeMars. From Environmental Design Archives, UC-Berkeley.

Vernon DeMars earned his Bachelor of Arts in Architecture from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1931. DeMars worked from 1936-1942 as district architect for the Farm Security Administration’s regional office in San Francisco. During his tenure with the FSA, DeMars collaborated with landscape architects Burton Cairns and Garret Eckbo. In 1939, DeMars, Cairns, Joseph McCarthy, Garrett Eckbo, T.J. Kent Jr., and Francis Violich co-founded Telesis, a city and regional planning organization that was the inspiration for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). DeMars married Betty Bates in the same year. He then joined the National Housing Agency in Washington, D.C. as Chief of Housing Standards in 1943, where he was engaged in research on post-war housing.

"Space for Living" exhibition, Telesis, San Francisco Museum of Art, 1940. Fran Violich Collection, Visual Resources Center, College of Environmental Design, UC Berkeley.

Telesis was featured in the prestigious "Space for Living" exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art at the same time Rivera and Emmy Lou were working on "Pan American Unity." Emmy Lou's deceased husband's former partners DeMars and Eckbo gave a very interested Rivera a tour of the exhibition while she and Rivera were working on "Pan American Unity" in conjunction with the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island.

Emmy Lou Packard and Diego Rivera, Treasure Island, 1940. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of the Pan American Unity Archive, City College of San Francisco, Will Maynez and Julia Bergman, archivists.

Garrett Eckbo driving a tractor. From The Art of Social Landscape Design.

A native of Alameda, California, Eckbo entered the Department of Landscape Architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in 1936. Disenchanted with the traditional landscape curriculum taught at Harvard,  Eckbo pursued architecture classes with Walter Gropius and began to define his Modernist theory based on a multi-disciplinary design approach, with landscape design as a vehicle for social change. Publication of his master’s thesis project, "Contempoville," as well as “Small Gardens in the City” in Pencil Points (September 1937) brought recognition. Together with classmates Dan Kiley and James Rose, Eckbo produced “Landscape Design in the Urban Environment," “Landscape Design in the Rural Environment,” and “Landscape Design in the Primeval Environment” (Pencil Points, now Progressive Architecture, 1938-1939). (From the Cultural Landscape Foundation).

Emmy Lou Packard and Diego Rivera working on "Pan American Unity," Treasure Island, 1940. Courtesy of the Pan American Unity Archive, City College of San Francisco, Will Maynez and Julia Bergman, archivists.

Afterword: 

Emmy Lou Packard was close friends with artists Irene Bohus and Mona Hofmann who also assisted Diego Rivera on "Pan American Unity." Emmy Lou and Mona and their son and daughter respectively appear in the mural alongside the likes of Edwar G. Robinson, Paulette Goddard, Charlie Chaplin, Adolf Hitler and many other luminaries.

Mona and Arthur Hofmann and Sidney Kahn were architectural clients of Richard Neutra. Kahn, whose residence (see below) was being completed during the time Rivera was working on his mural, photographed Rivera at work (see two below). Upon his arrival in San Francisco Rivera first stayed in a studio apartment across the street from the Kahn House on Calhoun Terrace, briefly sharing the space with one of his assistants Irene Bohus. Still fearing for his life over the Trotsky affair, Rivera moved to the above-mentioned Packard House in Berkeley in January of 1941. (Herrera, p. 296).

Sidney Kahn Residence, Calhoun Terrace, 1940. Richard Neutra, architect. Photographer unknown. From San Francisco's Telegraph Hill by David Myrick, p. 100.

Rivera at work, Pan American Unity, Treasure Island, 1940. Photo by Neutra client Sidney Kahn. Courtesy of the Pan American Unity Archive, City College of San Francisco, Will Maynez and Julia Bergman, archivists.

Hofmann Residence, Hillsborough, 1937. Richard Neutra, architect.

L-R, Edward G. Robinson, Ottorino Ronci, Irene Bohus, Johnny Cumming, Dudley Carter, Mona Hofmann, and Diego Rivera, Treasure Island, July 1940. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of the Pan American Unity Archive, City College of San Francisco, Will Maynez and Julia Bergman, archivists.

Emmy Lou Packard and Frida Kahlo at Casa Azul, 1941. Photographer unknown, possibly Diego Rivera. From Frida Kahlo: Her Photos, edited by Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, Editorial RM, 2010, p. 168.

Emmy Lou Packard and Frida Kahlo at Casa Azul, 1941. Inscribed to Emmy Lou's son Don Cairns (see below). Photographer Diego Rivera. From Internet auction site.

Don Cairns, son of Emmy Lou and Burton Cairns in a cowboy suit given to him by Frida Kahlo for his 7th birthday, ca. 1943. Photographer unknown, likely Emmy Lou Packard. From Frida Kahlo: Her Photos, edited by Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, Editorial RM, 2010, p. 400.



For more details see also:

Packard Family Oral History


Eckbo Oral History



Emmy Lou Packard Oral History