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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
He is a legend in his own time.