A compelling story unfolds as the reader turns the pages of “Henry Howard: Louisiana’s Architect,” the sumptuous new book by Robert S. Brantley, published by The Historic New Orleans Collection and Princeton Architectural Press.
Architectural historians can plunge into an engaging forensic study of how to identify an architect’s oeuvre when plans, documents and drawings are lost or incomplete.
For New Orleans history buffs of the era between 1837, when Howard arrived, and 1884, when he died, the book contains a gripping tale of yellow fever, the Civil War and Reconstruction, financial booms and busts, and the shaping of the city’s built environment.
But one need not be a historian, researcher or academic to find the book riveting, for it takes the reader on tour of the creation of some of New Orleans’ most beloved and visible buildings: the Pontalba Apartments on Jackson Square, the Carrollton Courthouse, Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Faubourg Marigny and St. Anna’s Asylum in the Lower Garden District (among many more).
Howard’s high-profile private residences include a half-dozen or so Garden District favorites, including the “cornstalk fence” house.
And we have Howard to thank for the majestic Madewood and Nottoway plantations, among many more.
Amply illustrated with photos, watercolors, drawings and images, the tome pulls together several decades of research that Brantley, his late, wife Jan, and the late Victor McGee (Howard’s great-great-great grandson) undertook after meeting in 1977.
For McGee, the journey was inspired, in part, by a trunk of Howard’s papers discovered in a family attic.
Inside was a handwritten autobiographical sketch — reproduced in the book — which the architect wrote in 1872 and that helped provide clues to the research.
Howard was exceptional among his colleagues for many reasons, we learn, especially the fact that most architects in his day were both designers and builders, whereas Howard did not build what he designed.
Although he earned money in the building trades for the first few years after arriving in New York then moving to New Orleans, Howard preferred to design only.
This accounts for his scrupulously detailed specifications, as the documents had to provide thorough and precise instructions to whomever was hired to execute the plans. Because Howard’s time was not consumed for months on the construction site, he had the time to generate a larger body of work than many of his peers.
And because he did not need an in-house labor crew, he did not own slaves, as many colleagues did.
I recommend reading the foreword by the eloquent historian S. Frederick Starr and the book’s introduction for an overview, then skipping to the catalog in the back of the book to become visually familiar with Howard’s works.
Because the buildings are referred to in preceding chapters by the names of their original owners, the text can be a little confusing if the reader doesn’t already have a mental image of the building alluded to.
It is also possible to use the catalog entries to select passages to read one at a time, if the reader decides not to peruse the 279-page text from cover to cover in the order intended. Selecting one or more projects to explore at a time not only makes the potentially overwhelming amount of research manageable, but prolongs the pleasure of discovery.
Whatever approach is taken, it is imperative that readers do not neglect to read Howard’s brief autobiography, written in his own handsome and legible script.
It begins: “Born 8th February, 1818, in the city of Cork, Ireland, where I remained until I was eighteen years old.”
The rest, as they say, is history.