"LSU: Building an American Renaissance" is a special exhibit highlighting the architectural history of the university's original 18 buildings. The exhibit is currently on display at the Union Art Gallery, located on the second floor of the LSU Student Union, through Oct. 25. Next year, a smaller version of the exhibit will tour the state as part of LSU's sesquicentennial celebration.
“LSU: Building an American Renaissance” Exhibit Traces History of Campus’ Original 18 Buildings
For nearly 30 years, J. Michael Desmond walked through the quadrangle of the LSU campus and never noticed something was amiss.
But in the process of researching and cataloging the 18 buildings of the original campus as part of a project funded by the Getty Foundation, the associate professor of architecture in the LSU College of Art & Design suddenly realized there was a problem: The otherwise architecturally perfect quadrangle is asymmetrical.
“Himes Hall was built about 10 feet further to the south from where it should have been built, so when you walk between Coates and Himes halls, there’s a narrow sidewalk there and you’re squeezed into this narrow sidewalk,” Desmond said. “It’s not like that when you look across to the other side.”
The asymmetrical walkway is just one of several unique discoveries Desmond has made over the past two and a half years as he has researched the university’s rich architectural history. The results of that study are now part of a special exhibit currently on display at the LSU Union Art Gallery.
Pictured above is one of the three-dimensional wooden models of the buildings in the school's quadrangle. Visitors to the exhibit can also see boards documenting LSU's journey from its original Pineville location to the current campus in Baton Rouge.
Titled “LSU: Building an American Renaissance,” the exhibit documents the work of Desmond, along with fellow professors and students, in assessing the history of LSU’s architecture, focusing on the campus’ original 18 buildings. The exhibit also outlines LSU’s beginnings as the Louisiana State Seminary for Learning in Pineville through its relocation to the Pentagon Barracks in downtown Baton Rouge and the move to its current location.
The exhibit will be housed at the LSU Union Art Gallery, located on the second floor of the LSU Student Union, through Oct. 25. Admission to the exhibit is free. An opening reception for the exhibit was held Sunday, Sept. 20.
The exhibit features 30 display boards of LSU architectural history. Also on display will be three-dimensional wooden models built by students and graduate assistants in the LSU School of Architecture of buildings in the university’s quadrangle.
In 2006, Desmond received an $180,000 Campus Heritage Grant through the Getty Foundation to conduct research and create a blueprint of how to restore and preserve the university’s original 18 buildings. The grant came with an education element, which led to the creation of the current exhibit.
Desmond was originally scheduled to complete the exhibition in the fall of 2008, but when university officials learned of the scope of the project, they realized it would be a perfect way to usher in LSU’s sesquicentennial celebratory year in 2010. To accommodate, Desmond delayed his project and unveiled it this fall.
“It’s very exciting to be a part of the sesquicentennial and very fortunate that this project coincided so nicely with the celebration,” Desmond said.
A study in design
Through the course of his research, Desmond found rooms that were supposed to be open-air pavilions and mysterious doors that lead to nowhere. He even calculated the miles of cracks that mar the facades of the old buildings. It has given a fascinating twist to a research project that was already interesting to begin with.
“It’s an environment I’ve been around off and on since the mid-1970s, so to discover new things about it and try to understand it is very rewarding,” he said.
J. Michael Desmond, associate professor of architecture in the LSU College of Art & Design, headed the research and cataloging of the 18 buildings of the original campus as part of a project funded by the Getty Foundation. The results of the study serve as the basis for the exhibit.
Over the past two-and-a-half years, Desmond and his team of graduate assistants have studied and cataloged every part of each of the original campus buildings. They’ve collected dozens of drawings from the Boston archives of the Olmstead Brothers, the architects who designed the master plan for the original campus. They’ve also researched the drawings of the Louisiana architects who designed the individual buildings in the quadrangle – Theodore Link and the New Orleans firm Weiss, Dreyfuss and Sieferth.
The fact that two different firms were involved in construction of the quadrangle is likely the reason for the asymmetry, which Desmond said can be noticed when walking between Coates and Himes halls. Likewise, looking across the quad, one can find that the corresponding walkway between Prescott and Allen halls is noticeably wider and covered with a double arch, instead of the single arch that covers the Coates-Himes walkway. Desmond theorized that when Link died, the New Orleans firm that picked up where he left off made a few mistakes along the way.
“After Link died suddenly, another architectural firm picked up and completed Link’s original plan and they’re the ones that put this in the wrong spot,” Desmond said.
Another unique discovery Desmond has made in his research concerns the room in the center of Memorial Tower. For years, the octagonal space has been used for a variety of purposes, though it never seemed designed for the receptions and gatherings for which it was used. By studying the original drawings for the room, which has thick walls and beautiful, bronze gates on its east and west entries, Desmond realized it was intended to be an open-air enclosure instead of a room. Its interior walls are covered with the same pebbly stucco as is the exterior of the other original buildings on campus.
“The wings of the tower were meant to be lecture halls that have doors that would stay open to the air, which is a very poignant idea,” he said.
Desmond also has discovered that the cracks in the building exteriors would stretch more than two miles if laid out in a straight line. One of the purposes of the project was to catalog all those cracks, as well as the windows and doors so that the university will have a complete inventory of them and be better able to repair them. To that end, Desmond and his researchers have compiled thousands of documents and photographs and organized them in an HTML file that works like a Web page. Users can click on an individual building and see actual images and documentation of that structure’s condition.
“No one else has done anything like this and Getty was real interested in our creation of that tool,” said Desmond.
There have been “fun findings” made during the study. These include a small door off the terrace of Memorial Tower that leads to nowhere. It’s an odd, wooden door and Desmond has yet to discover its intended purpose. But, he said, it’s fun to speculate.
“It gives you a completely fresh perspective on this campus and all the planning and thought that went into designing and building it,” he said.
Several faculty members assisted Desmond in his work. These include LSU landscape architecture professor Van Cox, LSU School of Architecture Professor Marsha Cuddeback, LSU history professor Paul Hoffman and LSU School of Art Director Rod Parker. Graduate students assisting in the project include Anthony Threatt and Santanu Majumdar, while architecture undergraduate students assisted in creating the building models.
Desmond said he hopes his work will enable others to appreciate the beauty, history and cohesive design of the campus. That’s especially important as the buildings age and find themselves in need of renovation and repair. Through his research, Desmond and his team have come to recognize that the historic LSU campus is one of the most architecturally significant buildings in the state and they look forward to sharing it with the public during the university’s sesquicentennial year.
“I’m especially hoping to impress young people with this and to create awareness with them as to the significance of the campus,” he said,
LSU Press is also planning to publish a book in 2010 about the architectural history of the campus that will be based in large part on Desmond’s work.
After the exhibit leaves the LSU Union Art Gallery, a smaller version will later embark on a year-long tour of the state throughout 2010. The tour is a partnership between LSU and the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office as part of LSU’s sesquicentennial celebration. Throughout the year, the exhibit will be housed in locations including Baton Rouge, Ferriday, Lafayette, Lake Charles, Monroe, New Orleans, Shreveport and Tioga.
The LSU Union Art Gallery is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. - 5 p.m. The gallery is open on the Saturdays of home football games and on the evenings of major theater events. It is closed between exhibits and on major holidays, and follows the university’s academic schedule.
For more information on the LSU College of Architecture, visit http://www.design.lsu.edu/architecture.
Aaron Looney | Editor | Office of Communications & University Relations