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Arthur Q. Davis, FAIA

ALIHOT, 2010: Civic Service

 To read the story of Arthur Q. Davis is to read the story of his city, his state, his country, and, indeed, the world of his time. His architectural firm’s mark on the skyline of New Orleans with such achievements as Louisiana’s iconic domed stadium has been nothing short of historic.

The first assignment of Navy officer Arthur Davis (pictured left) was to design camouflage to protect the ships of the Pacific Fleet during World War II.

This renowned American design professional, who was selected by his peers as one of the 100 most important architects of the 20th Century, is a walking book of modern history.  And with his usual, quiet good humor, he likes to quip that his career began “literally in the toilets of Louisiana politics. One of my first projects as an architect was to design the partitions for the restrooms in the state capitol built for Huey Long.”

Since meeting and working on the project for that famous populist, Arthur Davis has known every Louisiana Governor and New Orleans Mayor and has designed state and city projects for all of them and, indeed, for the Governors and Mayors of other states and cities, as well as for quite a few heads of state of sovereign nations. 

Davis' firm has built state-of-the-art schools, innovative hospitals here and abroad and prisons, including Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary; office buildings and shopping centers; business parks and luxury hotel complexes not only in Louisiana but all over the world; medical, civic, and performing arts complexes; university facilities, other sports arenas, and an entire new town in Indonesia. At the same time, he has designed some of the finest contemporary residences in America.

His exemplary career as an architect, however, is only part of the Davis story, which he describes as “a charmed life, ruled by Fate.” This quiet, competent, always curious man has taken the ball Fate dealt him and run with it, scoring impressively in his career and in creating a better, more entertaining environment for Louisianians and their visitors from around the world. Along the way, he has known Presidents and Kings, Saudi Royals, and the corporate elite of the world.

The Davis saga includes designing camouflage for the Pacific Fleet, a sort of charm he perfected to protect our ships as a young Navy officer during WWII. It includes clandestine operations on the Eastern bloc side of the Berlin Wall’s Checkpoint Charlie and an eerie series of encounters with voodoo practitioners, which, ultimately, have proven beneficial to his health and wellbeing. Originally, the Davis family was in the rice planting and milling business in Pointe-a-la-Hache, LA, south of New Orleans on the Mississippi Delta. 

In the Great Flood of 1927, the delta’s fertile land was flooded when the levees just below the city were dynamited to save New Orleans. “Because of these events,” Mr. Davis has said, “my family was forced to move to New Orleans.  It was as if the city we had saved with our own destruction would somehow save us in turn.  And it did. 

“In that strange way that New Orleans has, it adopted us and gave us sustenance, a new way of living.  Without the flood, without the city, without the workings of Fate, my life would have been defined by the delta.  Instead, I came of age surrounded by the vast inventory of manmade structures, wonderful and various, that make up New Orleans. And it was Fate that put me on the path to my profession.  I was 14 when, for no particular reason, I took a different route to Audubon Park.  On the way I happened upon a brick mason building a fireplace in a herringbone pattern.  He seemed to be weaving the pattern from the unyielding red brick, pausing only to consult the blueprint tacked to a plywood board, curling at the edges in the summer humidity.  Fascinated, I parked my bike and sat on the curb, watching until I had the courage to ask about his project and especially about the blueprint. I had never seen one before.  The mason patiently explained the purpose of the blueprint to me.  What impressed me the most was how those diagrams described exactly the way the chimney should be built and how it would become an integral part of the house. This meeting with the mason, which occurred because I decided to take a different route to the park, dictated my career. I knew I wanted to become an architect from that moment.”            

Three years after this chance encounter, Arthur graduated from the Isidore Newman School and entered Tulane University. As a student of architecture, he learned “the cryptic language of engineering with its enthralling calculations” along with French, then required of all enrolled in architectural studies, “a hangover from the Beaux Arts period when it was believed that all great architecture emerged from Paris.” 

Arthur came to a different conclusion about the sources of good design as his career progressed but, he says, “the French came in handy, as Fate would have it.” While wandering the streets of the old neighborhoods, searching for just the right historic structure to measure, a requirement of all architecture students, he came across Voodoo for the first time, when he found mounds of deep red brick dust with patterns drawn in white on the stoop of a Creole cottage with shuttered French doors. “I felt instinctively that these patterns had a power of their own, a power to attract.”  He did not succumb to the attraction, however, and, instead selected for his thesis a small architectural jewel, the chapel of St. Roch Cemetery, a predecessor in spirit to the work of modernists, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, mentors who later influenced his own work. He later learned that the patterns on the stoop were intended to attract amorous clients for the prostitutes who lived in that cottage and he has always believed that his resistance to their charms made him a better candidate for more beneficial voodoo magic.    
         
While at Tulane, Arthur met and fell in love with Mary Henriette Wineman, a Detroit native studying at Newcomb College. Arthur needed an extra ticket for the Sugar Bowl game.  He learned from a mutual friend that Mary was going home to Detroit for the holidays and would not be back until after the game. He called on her and asked if he could have her ticket.  When she returned to campus, Arthur asked her out on a date to thank her. “And that was it.  My fate was sealed.” As fate would have it, football determined the course of his private life and later was the inspiration for the best-known achievement of his firm, the Superdome.           

After graduating from Tulane, he went to work designing the massive wood structures used to build flying boats for the Navy. During his tenure at the shipyard, he became friends with an elderly black man who worked at the shipyard. While he thought that the work they were doing was important for the war effort, Arthur wanted to do more, to be part of the great adventure of war and he volunteered for Officers Candidate School. When his friend learned that he had joined the Navy and would soon be leaving, he brought him a going-away gift. 

“He brought me a charm. When I saw it, I realized he must be deeply involved in Voodoo.  The charm seemed a small thing, just a red oilcloth pouch the size of postage stamp, but I could see that it had been hand-stitched.  He instructed me never to open it but to carry it with me at all times.  I would know it was working when I felt it moving. Although I knew little of my friend’s religion or the nature of the charm, I did know that where I would be going, I would need all the help I could get.  So, I accepted his gift with gratitude and followed his instructions.  I keep the charm with me to this day.”    

At right: Mary & Arthur Abroad

Arthur and Mary married August 30, 1942 in the living room of her parents’ home in Detroit, just before he left.  She was just a junior and so completed college as a married woman, very unusual for that day and time.

Arthur’s first assignment as a Naval officer was to design camouflage for ships of the Pacific Fleet, a special Davis charm for their protection.  The Turks were so impressed with his camouflage that they memorialized it with a Turkish national postage stamp. Then, he was ordered to active duty and, carrying his little red charm, Arthur survived a storm so bad while airborne that the plane he was on was actually flying backwards, a brief stay on Tarawa, a stint on that “damp Hell” Guadalcanal, then Noumea, and finally the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill, which took part in every major engagement from Rabaul to Tokyo. “Soon after I left the Bunker Hill she came under kamikaze attack and hundreds were killed or wounded and she limped back to the Puget Sound Navy Yard as the most damaged ship ever received there. I was already on my way home and glad to be.”


Arthur in the Pacific Theatre


Reunited, Mary and Arthur set up housekeeping and began a family, two sons, Arthur Q. Davis, Jr., better known as Quint Davis, and James Davis, and a daughter, Pam.  Pam married the late Frank Friedler, a much loved New Orleans businessman who played an active role in Democratic politics and civic affairs of New Orleans.  Quint is the City’s best known music ambassador.  Their son James, who was the father of Mary and Arthur’s three grandchildren with the former Jill Lassen, died in a tragic accident at home, falling from a ladder while trimming a tree.

After leaving the Navy, he received a Master of Architecture from the Harvard School of Design, studying on the G.I. Bill with Bauhaus school founder Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer before interning with Eero Saarinen. He joined forces with architect Nathaniel “Buster” Curtis Jr. in 1947, a time in which few New Orleans-based architects were designing modern architecture.
Curtis and Davis soon began introducing modernist ideasto the skylineof their city. 

Although the firm is best known for designing the Superdome, the firm also was building such modernist landmarks as The Rivergate Exhibition Center (shown at right), later torn down over the protests of all those who value the city’s architectural heritage, to make way for Harrah’s Casino. The firm’s important projects also included the University of New Orleans Events Center, the New Orleans Public Library, Oakwood Shopping Center, Angola Penitentiary, and the Hyatt Regency and Marriott hotels.The firm received more than 50 awards for design excellence and, at age 38, Davis was made the youngest Fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

 At Left,The Rivergate, part of our arhcitectural heritage lost to a gambling casino.    

During the Cold War, Arthur went to West Berlin, to build a major medical center and acquired an old, dilapidated Mercedes 190. Its secondary use became covert—ferrying people out of East Berlin to freedom, concealed in a compartment under the seat. “East Berlin was in many ways a shuttered city but I could still find excuses to cross over: to attend the ballet, visit museums, search for Czechoslovakian art books. When possible, I would take my good friend the Spanish Ambassador with me for added safety, as diplomats from neutral countries were often just waved through without inspection. I would advise my West Berlin contacts when I would be going to the East and where I would park the car.  Once there, I would take in the ballet or buy books and have an inferior dinner, then drive back through Checkpoint Charlie. In West Berlin, I would park again at a pre-designated location and the passengers would be retrieved. I never met any of the men and women I ferried across but was told that 14 friends and relatives of our German associates had been reunited with their families because of that beat up old Mercedes. It was a risk, of course, but it seemed the right thing to do. And, besides, I had my Voodoo charm." 

Later, in Haiti for a project, where his school days French proved invaluable, he was introduced by a Haitian colleague to a
Voodoo priest, a Hougon(a sort of witch doctor), who told his fortune, put him in a coffin and into a trance in a ceremony punctuated with beautiful chants in an exotically decorated studio. The Hougon granted him a single wish and promised it would come true if his instructions were followed. He was given potions to protect him and his home from evil and instructed in how to use them.  “And, indeed, long after I left the island, my wish was granted.” Asked to reveal his wish, Arthur says, “I’ll never tell.” And why?  “Because he told me not to.”            

Since then, Arthur has Davis has designed public and private works commissioned throughout the United States as well as in Saudi Arabia, Germany, Egypt, and the United Kingdom. For these projects and many others, Davis was recognized as Outstanding Alumnus of the Tulane School of Architecture in 1982.

One of Arthur's beautiful Glass Rooms

For these projects and many others, Davis was recognized as Outstanding Alumnus of the Tulane School of Architecture in 1982. Since 1988, he has operated his own firm, Arthur Q. Davis, FAIA, and Partners. And, recently, he published his memoir, It Happened by Design, which provides an affecting and thorough narrative of his life and achievements. In this book, Davis explains how he fused Creole and Beaux-Arts ideas together, filtering those concepts through modernist aesthetics to create new forms while preserving the old. A good example is the firm’s design for the Royal Orleans Hotel.             

One of America’s most distinguished and celebrated architects, he has enormously impacted the architectural landscape of the city. Yet, all the while, his interests have extended far beyond the field of architecture. Throughout his professional career, Davis has shared his talents and personal wealth with the academic, civic, and cultural communities of New Orleans.   

Listed with the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, Davis is a member of th College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and a former member of the AIA's National Committee on Aesthetics, the AIA's National Honor Awards Program, and the Architectural Advisory Committee to the U.S. Navy. He is also past chairman of the jury for the National Design Competition of American Telephone & Telegraph. Over the years, Davis has served as a visiting critic at Harvard University School of Design, the Pratt Institute of Design, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and Tulane University.

At right, the Davis Residence on Bamboo Road, Metairie, LA

Davis also completed a lecture tour of the People's Republic of China as a guest of the Chinese government. A current member of the Tulane President's Council and the Newcomb College Art Advisory Council, Davis has funded, for several years, the annual Davis Visiting Critic at the School ofArchitecture. He also gives prizes to Newcomb art students judged by a panel to be the most talented.
          
As one of the principal individuals, with his son Quint Davis, behind the birth of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Davis secured the creation of the festival by providing an escrow fund. He was the first chairman of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. He is past president of the board of trustees of the New Orleans Museum of Art and a past board member of the United Way, the Metropolitan Area Committee, the Preservation Resource Center Foundation, and the Greater New Orleans Tourist and Convention Commission. In 1988, Davis was named one of the Ten Outstanding Persons by the Institute for Human Understanding, and, in 1990, he received the Young Leadership Council's Role Model Award. Davis is an honorary citizen of the City of Berlin, an honor conferred by Chancellor Willy Brand. As Honorary Consul-General for the Kingdom of Thailand, he was awarded the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant by King Bhumibol of Thailand.

More recently, he was the founding Chairman of the National World War II Museum’s Board of Directors. He is a member of Advisory Council of the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society and he has been a patron of both the Faulkner Society and the Tennessee Williams Festival.

At left, Arthur & Mary on the town!

With all of this going on, it’s hard to believe, but Arthur has always managed to enjoy life, to have fun.  He is, for instance, a member of the famed Bohemian Club of San Francisco, which has an equally famous property called The Grove in the redwood forests north of San Francisco.  One of the most exclusive clubs in the country, its members, all male, annually go to The Grove for summer high jinks, an excursion which has often been spoofed as “Summer Camp for the Big Boys” by such wits as Harry Shearer, actor and creator of the film, Teddy Bears Picnic.

A congregation of Presidents and former Presidents, Fortune 500 CEOs, and you name it, men who have made it, the Bohemians annually write and perform an original operetta.  Arthur’s contribution one year was the original libretto for the Bohemian production, Je Suis Lafitte.

Arthur has traveled widely with his wife for pleasure as well as business and he has loved the café society life of his city, enjoying the machinations of business and politics in private rooms over excellent meals, a lifestyle summed up as an admirable “little way” by Walker Percy in his essay, New Orleans, Mon Amour. He has enjoyed being a man of both style and substance.           

Arthur Q. Davis has, indeed, led a charmed life and he has let of us in on it with his exceptional grace and wit and his good deeds on our behalf. 

        He is a legend in his own time.   

 

      

 
Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society
624 Pirate’s Alley, New Orleans, LA 70116
phone: (504) 586-1609 or (504) 525-5615
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