Longtime Memphis modernist Marty Gorman remembers Al Aydelott as a “kind but flawed character, a gregarious Southern gentleman.” He “would come roaring down the hall,” says Gorman who, along with the seven or eight other designers at Aydelott and Associates, learned to fear the sound of the boss’s footsteps on their office’s travertine floors. “You’d hear that clopping,” Gorman remembers, “and say, Oh my god, who’s he going after?”[i]
For some 25 years after World War II, the vigorous, compelling, opinionated man whom Gorman described ran one of the most productive and award-winning architectural offices in the Deep South. Then in 1973, when he was only 57 years old, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Believing that he would be dead in short order, Al Aydelott simply locked the doors of his office and moved with his wife to the West Coast, finally settling in Carmel, California, where he lived, also traveled a lot, and for another 25 years made paintings as steadily as he had formerly made buildings, until his death in 2008. Today he is a largely forgotten mid-twentieth-century modernist whose work deserves far more recognition than it has received.
Alfred Lewis Aydelott was born in 1916 on Surrounded Hill Plantation in Brasfield, Arkansas about fifty miles east of Little Rock. He had family members in Memphis, including his grandfather, who owned an impressive residence, much modified but still standing at 1628 Peabody Avenue. Aydelott finished high school in Little Rock, then attended the University of Illinois, where he received his architectural degree in 1936, meaning that he was only twenty years old when he graduated. He married his first wife in 1937 and in 1938 entered into a partnership with Lucian Minor Dent, a man who favored traditional architectural styles and had connections to Colonial Williamsburg. Aydelott had long admired eighteenth-century buildings in the Virginia Tidewater and in Charleston, South Carolina, and he and Dent produced primarily traditional work until 1940, when Aydelott decided “never again to approach the design of a building through the archives of ancient architecture.”[ii] With this change of mind, he became a dedicated modernist, but one, especially early in his career, with a more formalist bent than many of his modernist colleagues. During World War II Al Aydelott served in the Marines but never went overseas and by 1946 he was back in Memphis. After a conflict with Lucian Dent over the Georgian-revival-style design for St. John’s Church, which was built on the model of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, he abandoned the partnership and established the firm of A. L. Aydelott and Associates in 1949.[iii]
In 1952 Aydelott married his second wife, Hope Galloway, whose paternal grandfather, Colonel Robert Galloway, had done well in coal and shipping and was instrumental in establishing Overton Park, and whose maternal grandfather, C. P. J. Mooney, was the longtime editor of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Aydelott’s forceful manner and the couple’s social and political connections led to abundant architectural commissions. And in his search for design quality, he soon made it a point to become a visiting critic at Yale University and at what was then known as the Carnegie Institute of Technology, where he recruited talented young designers for his office. All modernists, these men included Yale-trained Francis Mah, the eventual partner of Walk Jones III in the firm of Walk Jones and Francis Mah, the previously quoted Marty Gorman, and Francis Gassner, Thomas Nathan, and Robert Browne, who later practiced together as Gassner, Nathan, and Browne, and the forming of this cadre meant that Aydelott established a beachhead for modern architecture in the city.
The Aydelott Office, Its Prominence, and an Overview of Its Work
Unfortunately, after Al Aydelott abruptly ended his architectural practice, none of his office records and drawings were preserved. When Hope Aydelott died in 2010, the few architectural documents remaining in her Carmel, California home were placed in the archives at Christian Brothers University in Memphis. Today it is primarily through these limited materials and through periodical articles from the late 1940s to the early 1970s that Aydelott’s architectural production is known. During this period, his work appeared in the most prominent professional publications of the time, including Architectural Record, Progressive Architecture, and Architectural Forum. For instance, in 1952 Architectural Forumgave eight pages of coverage to Aydelott and fellow Arkansan Edward Durrell Stone’s gigantic hospital in Lima, Peru. Then, in 1955 Progressive Architecture published a sixteen-page piece on the whole history of the firm up until that time.[iv] Al Aydelott had become prominent on the national architectural scene.
In c.1959, Aydelott and Associates produced an office brochure, which includes photographs and write-ups for personnel and projects. (Also see section 4 below.) As represented here, the office’s output was diverse, with the dominant building types being medical, educational, commercial, and governmental, but the firm also designed churches, banks, and restaurants, as well as residences.
The biggest of the office’s hospitals was the Peru megastructure mentioned above. The associate architect was a personal friend whom Aydelott referred to as Ed Stone—Edward Durrell Stone as he later fashioned himself. Stone’s descent from celebrated modernist in the 1930s and 40s to ostracized ornamentalist by the 1960s has been well chronicled. While Aydelott never embraced overt ornamentalism, he argued late in his life that he had preceded Stone in the use of articulated brick patterning and sun and privacy screens made from repetitive ceramic units. If this were found to be accurate, it would produce some alterations in the understanding of Stone’s career, and, regardless of the chronology, this design idea set Aydelott apart from stereotypical modernists.
Across the country the Aydelott firm designed Sears and Roebuck stores, including one for Augusta, Georgia (begun 1958), which is shown in model form in the brochure. Its poured-in-place concrete construction included a dimpled wall pattern consistent with Aydelott’s search for non-ornamental wall articulation. No mid-century-modern building type was more widespread than the branch bank, and Aydelott and Associates produced such a building for the Union Planters National Bank in 1958 and gave it a folded-plate roof. Aydelott described it as a throwback to the concept of a bank as a formidable, vault-like protector of customers’ money. With comparable roof forms are the firm’s designs for Shady Grove Presbyterian Church and Lanier High School, both begun in 1958. The church, as seen in a tempera rendering, is a precinct-like complex organized around multiple courtyards and bounded by a continuous privacy wall. The model and perspective drawing of the high school show a grouping with a comparably rigorous orthogonal organization.
Outside of the United States, Aydelott and Associates designed the U. S. Embassy Office Building Chancery (1956-60) in Manila, the Philippines. His stated design intention was to make it representative of both American and traditional Filipino architecture. Its one-story base with internal courtyards was faced with local volcanic stone. Rising from it on pilotisthe five-story block of offices was enveloped in a ceramic sunscreen. It cannot have been a coincidence that his friend Ed Stone’s U. S. Embassy in New Delhi, India had a similar enveloping layer.
Aydelott was particularly proud of the fifteen-story Pet Milk Company headquarters building (1969) in St. Louis (now repurposed as apartments), an exposed-concrete, Brutalist work like his downtown Memphis fire station (discussed below) from two years earlier. The tower is a bold and sculptural interweaving of horizontal and vertical lines and rises up from an elevated platform as an assemblage of vertical window banks, formidable stair tower, and prominent flared cap. It was his own lengthy written analysis of this building that Aydelott proposed as a model for the analyses that Aydelott travel-award students are required to write after they visit their four buildings.
Also appearing in the brochure and discussed in the Driving/Walking Tour, which follows in Section 3 below, are the Aydelott firm’s own office building, the Immaculate Conception High School for Girls, buildings at Christian Brothers University, the Supplementary Court and Office Building, and the U. S. Federal Building. On the tour but built after the date of the brochure are the Memphis City Hall and Aydelott’s downtown fire station.
Driving/Walking Tour of Aydelott Buildings in Memphis
A good place to begin a tour is the former Aydelott and Associates office building (1950) in Midtown at 2080 Peabody Avenue. This is private property, but the building, with its strong horizontal lines, can be seen from the street on three sides. Today it is in a state of flux, as much of its interior has been gutted and only partially rebuilt, and its landscape has become overgrown. Here, before Aydelott began using brick and ceramic-unit screens, he explored the layering of a variety of architectural elements on his office’s west side: low serpentine brick walls with plantings, a pair of pipe-columns defining the space for a planter, a wall with clerestory, and a cut-out overhang. These elements are visible in a model made to support a request for a zoning variance as well as in the plan, which reveals that Aydelott conceived the building as four conjoined sets of spaces: the open drafting room to the rear, the subdivided central offices, and the projecting front reception area and conference room.
The drafting room, seen to the right of the plan, looks like a small wing from one of the firm’s modernist schools of the period, with its north-facing glazing comparable to that of a classroom. While its east and west end walls are solid and could have been used for bearing, the joists on the inside span the short north-south dimension, and it is under them that Marty Gorman would have stood when he heard the dreaded clopping of Al Aydelott’s shoes as the boss returned from a two-martini lunch and headed down the hallway to set somebody straight.
The middle portion of the building is divided orthogonally into an assortment of room sizes, but this geometry changes radically at the front. At the southwest corner, Aydelott broke the grid to produce canted walls for the entry vestibule, a design idea not seen in any of his other work. Adjacent to it and projecting toward Peabody Avenue is the conference room, a kind of room within a room, with two glazed sides opening out to a walled-in “planting area,” partially surfaced with extensions of the internal terrazzo flooring. This conference room contained no conference table, but it was given, of all things, a fireplace, as well as artwork, meaning that it was in no way a conventional conference room. Rather, it appears to have been a place where a cart would have been rolled in carrying cocktails or champagne or pheasant under glass, a place for getting deals done Al Aydelott style.
Not far away (east on Peabody, then south on Cooper, then west on Central) and east of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception at 1695 Central Avenue stands Immaculate Conception High School (completed 1956), and off-street parking is available. This building is notable for its Mies van der Rohe-inspired curtain-wall construction with exposed, verticalsteelmembers used as wall articulation. More distinctively the work of All Aydelott is the north end-wall, where corbeled brick produce a patterned background for a suspended cross.
Also in Midtown (back to the east on Central then north on East Parkway South) at 650 East Parkway South is the campus of Christian Brothers University, where the Aydelott firm did work beginning in 1954 and extending into the 1960s. Automobiles can enter from the parkway at a spot south of the bell tower, and there is visitor parking on the front campus, where all of the Aydelott work is located.
The Congregation of Christian Brothers was founded in the seventeenth century by Jean-Baptiste de la Salle. Today more than 500 Christian Brothers’ institutions educate some one million students worldwide. What is now Christian Brothers University in Memphis was founded in 1871, with the first president being Brother Maurelian Sheel from Pass Christian, Mississippi. In 1939, the institution moved to its present location not far east of the Aydelott office. They immediately built Tudor-Jacobean-style Kendrick Hall as a high school. Unfortunately, it has very recently been demolished. The extant Barry Hall south of the Kendrick site went up in 1950 in a similar style, and the De LaSalle Arena was built at the same time farther to the southwest. In 1953, administrators, anticipating expansion, recognized the need for a master plan. Enter Al Aydelott.
To adequately appreciate what happened, consider the state of American campus planning up until that time. Well known examples with college buildings built in traditional styles go back to, say, Frederick Law Olmsted’s plan for the Stanford campus in 1886 or Ralph Adams Crams master plan for Collegiate Gothic Rice Institute in 1920. At about the time when Christian Brothers relocated, Frank Lloyd Wright developed a master plan and over a period of time designed campus buildings in his own modernist style for Florida Southern College. And in the early 1950s the firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, with Walter Netsch as the lead designer, planned the Air Force Academy in Boulder, Colorado. Wright’s intention was essentially to obliterate any of Florida Southern’s existing ‘inferior’ buildings, while SOM began their campus from scratch. So when Al Aydelott arrived at Christian Brothers, American campus plans were relatively novel, and sympathetically weaving new modernist campus buildings in among those built in traditional styles was ever more so.
An old blue-line print of the Aydelott masterplan remains in the Christian Brothers archives and a version of it appears in the office brochure, which also contains an aerial-perspective tempera rendering showing both the old buildings and Aydelott’s new ones.[v] And this is what he wrote to describe the campus work, what he wrote in a characteristically modernist manner dismissive of traditional buildings.
The existing buildings in “Neo-Collegiate Gothic” style which minimized orientation, classroom lighting and appropriate grouping, seemed inappropriate as a model for over-all development. The master plan takes the architectural character of the original buildings into account by recalling the groined vault Gothic cloister in covered walks and tracery in the perforated brick pattern. Further, the buildings are grouped to form quadrangle enclosures which combine visual appeal and a sense of “tradition” in a thoroughly modern scheme.
Despite his misgivings about traditional-style buildings, Aydelott devised a scheme that took advantage of both new and old, and when viewed from Parkway South, the ‘covered walks’ both unified the new panorama and defined the front lawn. It also defined a definite street edge and along it a new bell tower marked the point of vehicular entry through a new gateway structure.
Of course the elements that Aydelott compared to ‘groined vaults,’ today simply called the ‘arches,’ are neither of these things; rather they are poured-concrete units with reinforcing steel inside them and have only the outward appearance of groin vaults. In addition to these arches, Aydelott added the bell tower and three buildings in strategic locations. A new dormitory, named Maurelian Hall (1958) for the institutions first president, still anchors the north end of the campus and created its own small courtyard. At the south end of the arches and just south of Barry Hall, Aydelott positioned a smaller dormitory called Ave Maria Hall (1953), which has since been stripped down and built back up to a larger footprint. Farther east he added St. Joseph Hall (1954), a classroom and office building with an interior court, and in front of it he strung out more arches, so that every building could be reached under cover. The ensemble was both efficient and generous and it respected the extant buildings about as much as modernists ever did.
Despite being modeled on traditional forms, Aydelott’s arches set the design theme for his modernist campus because of their permeability. On one hand, they consolidate views for those looking through them. On the other, they frame views for those looking out from within them. All of the new campus structures have exposed concrete frames, with brick enclosure walls and flat roofs, so that their outward expression is a classical and formalist one of load and support. This expression is seen most dramatically at the dormitories, where the frames produce continuous porticoes, which, like the arches, outline the facades and frame views for those looking out from within them. And Aydelott used perforated walls made of repetitive brick and ceramic units as screens at these porticoes and at adjacent stairs and repeated this openwork effect at lattice-pattern handrails. While the bell tower has been largely rebuilt, it originally shared the same visual language, with its iconic form and with its tiers faced with perforated walls. Likewise, there were similar effects on the west side of St. Joseph Hall and the adjacent Ave Maria Hall, all of which has been modified or lost in later re-buildings.
From Christian Brothers, it is about four miles (north on Central and west on Poplar) to downtown Memphis and the Shelby County Supplementary Court and Office Building (1959) at 157 Poplar Avenue. A visitor can go to the back of it and see aluminum screens wrapping exhaust piping, and these screens are similar to those sunscreens that originally shielded the glazed facades. Aydelott’s design problem was how to build compatibly with the classically inspired, monumental-masonry existing criminal-court building to the south. His solution was to create a heavy limestone base for his building and span the court and district-attorney functions over it on concrete pilotis. Figures 31 and 32 show two designs, the latter one consistent with the building as built, with exposed concrete and the textured patterning of the screens.
Walking distance north on Poplar Avenue is Court Square and adjacent to one another here are Aydelott’s U. S. Courthouse and Federal Building (completed 1963), now called the Clifford Davis/Odell Horton Federal Building, and the Memphis City Hall (1966). The eleven-story federal building rises from an elevated plaza, which was intended eventually to extend across the street to the city hall. Beginning with a structural frame of poured-in-place concrete, Aydelott designers faced the repetitive spandrel panels with gray granite, raised the external columns up in black granite, and added thin, white window mullions, a design strategy comparable to that applied at Immaculate Conception High School, but here much more highly articulated.
The city hall’s design is an overt expression of post-and-beam construction, with joints and connections celebrated rather than concealed. Like that of the federal building, its concrete frame has a veneer, in this case black and white marble.
Finally, farther south (west on Poplar and south on Front) stands the building now called the City Town Village Government Fire Station (1967). Its form reveals that by this date designers in the Aydelott office were exploring the possibilities of Brutalist concrete, an exploration that culminated with the Pet Milk headquarters discussed above.
The Aydelott Archive
The Aydelott Archive at Christian Brothers University is housed in the building at 2455 Avery Avenue and is open to the public by appointment. Among the materials available here is the office brochure from about 1959 titled “Projects, Current and Completed Work.” Also found in the archive is a “Biographical Resumé,” prepared by Al Aydelott in 1994, and his undated “REVUE WITH COMMENTS AND REFLECTIONS” of Eugene J. Johnson and Robert D. Russell, Jr.’s Memphis, An Architectural Guide, published in 1990 by the University of Tennessee Press. Aydelott was distraught about what he felt was inadequate and uninformed coverage of his work in this guidebook and so produced a lengthy critique of it. Whatever the guidebook’s merits, it did not adequate address mid-twentieth-century modernism in Memphis, including the work by Aydelott and Associates. In their preface, the authors simply avoid the issue, saying that “Critical opinion is divided over many of the Memphis buildings of the last decades, as it should be.” So in addition to its truncation due to personal illness, Al Aydelott’s production and consequent professional reputation has not yet benefited from informed historical assessment.
[i]Timothy A. Schuler, “ The Aydelotts’ $2.4 Million Gift to Architecture Students in the South,” Architect(the Journal of the American Institute of Architects), 10 August 2016, found at www.architectmagazine.com/design/culture/the-aydelotts-24-million-gift-to-architectue-students-in-the-south_o.
[iii]Dates for the establishing of Aydelott and Associates vary. The 1949 date appears in the April 1955 PA article cited above and below, while a resumé Aydelott produced while living in Carmel and now in the Christian Brothers University archives has the date as 1946.
[v]Subsequent to the creation of the tempera rendering, changes were made to the master plan. The rendering shows arches along both sides of the access road, dividing the front campus into two quadrangles, but these arches were never built. The rendering shows parking inside the southern quadrangle and shows a preliminary design for St. Joseph Hall.