THE RIVERGATE title page | contents | appendices | cd-book cover

chapter 3

the design architect: nathaniel curtis, faia

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by abbye a. gorin

I believe that good design marks the professional. Good design should be a single harmonious cast without shortcomings or significant compromise and the keynote is honesty, technically and aesthetically honest. The attribute of taste is the ability to distinguish between good and bad, good and better, logical and inconsistent, befitting or out of place, pleasing or uninspiring. In short, good design means to recognize the scales and nuances of values and select those necessary for a tasteful result.

Nathaniel Curtis


I. Nathaniel Curtis, International Designer
II. Prof. Nathaniel Cortlandt Curtis Sr. A Renaissance Man
III. Curtis And Davis' Entry Into The Sequence Of Time
IV. A Design Philosophy
V. Bibliography

I. Nathaniel Curtis, International Designer

Nathaniel Curtis' contributions to the world of architectural design were his daring, imaginative, and innovative buildings. Although he designed structures as small as houses, he also designed the world's largest building, the Louisisana Superdome. He gravitated to big projects. He was lured by the challenge of the monumental. The core philosophy that governed his brand of architectural intellectualism was the honesty, simplicity, scale, and functional efficiency of the plan. He spoke of his buildings in terms of exuberance, poetry, joy, and a sense of belonging to the land.

New Orleans jazz musicians.
Drawing by Nathaniel Curtis, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Tulane Library.

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Curtis was a master of the design process, an artist of the first rank. Although his passion for design was dominated by buildings, he could graphically express anything that struck his fancy, e.g. New Orleans jazz musicians.

His illustrated children's story about Miss Citronella, a swamp lady, demonstrated his flair for creative writing and his sense of humor.

Curtis disliked architectural labels: modern, contemporary, or post-modern. For him, good design was based on sound principles, interpreted and presented in the designer's own way for a specific project. Each design was influenced by the site, program, budget, climate, availability and accessibility of materials, and most important, the owner.

The work of Curtis and Davis Architects and Planners, 1946-1978, won ninety-five awards, thirty-four national in scope. Their work has been published not only in architectural journals but also in Time, Life, Fortune, and Business Week. Curtis and Davis set design records, nationally and internationally, with the construction of such projects as the Teaching Hospital for the Free University of Berlin, the largest hospital in Europe; the James Forrestal Building (for the Department of Defense), next to the Pentagon, the largest building in the Washington area and the first modern building to be approved by the Fine Arts Commission; Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, first penitentiary designed to house a rehabilitation program; Fox Lake Correctional Institution, Wisconsin, first campus type corrections center; the Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans, largest of all enclosed stadiums; and the Rivergate, the Port of New Orleans Exposition Center, longest span pre-stressed post-tensioned concrete barrel vault roof when built.

Curtis designed buildings in thirty states and nine countries. His design experiences in Saudi Arabia read like adventures in the Foreign Legion. By his own evaluation of his design record, which spanned more than fifty years and covered a wide range of building types, he rated the Rivergate as his finest hour. He was the design architect and partner in charge -- a project he spent five years of his life to bring from a dream to reality. The saddest day in his life was the day he watched the destruction of this avant-garde, award winning structure. The wanton demolition of the Rivergate took a toll on the psyche and the health of the master architect, and the City of New Orleans lost an important link in its architectural patrimony.

II. Prof. Nathaniel Cortlandt Curtis Sr. (1881-1953), A Renaissance Man

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Nathaniel Cortlandt
Curtis Sr.
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To his son and his students, Nathaniel Curtis Sr., Ph.B., B.S., FAIA (1881-1953) was a role model. He was the architect who had the most influence on his son's career. To some, Prof. Curtis is a storybook hero. He was a trailblazer -- the first full-time architectural educator to head the Tulane School of Architecture, 1912-1917. Prof. Curtis came to Tulane from Alabama Polytechnic Institute in Auburn where he was professor and head of the architectural school, 1907-1912; before Alabama he was instructor of drawing and geometry at the University of North Carolina, 1904-1907. A Renaissance man, Prof. Curtis was an educator, designer, artist, and writer. He trained under the noted architectural educator William Robert Ware (1832-1915) at Columbia University where he graduated in 1904. Prof. Curtis brought the Ware teaching philosophy to the Tulane curriculum. After the Curtis' first child, Nathaniel Cortlandt Curtis Jr., was born on 29 November 1917, Prof. Curtis took a higher paying job at the University of Illinois, but returned to New Orleans in 1920 to become the chief designer for the firm of Moise Goldstein and a guest lecturer in the Tulane School of Architecture, 1921-1937.

Prof. Curtis published two important text books, Elements of Graphics, Descriptive Geometry, Shades and Shadows, and Perspective, 1909, reprinted in 1926, and Architectural Composition, 1923, reprinted in 1926 and 1935; and a documentary New Orleans, Its Old Houses, Shops and Public Buildings, 1933. Architectural Composition covers every aspect of the design process and was illustrated with 249 line drawings by the author. This book had a profound influence on his son. Although Prof. Curtis never traveled abroad to see either historic monuments or Modern Style buildings, his classical training and his interest in contemporary architectural vocabulary molded his vision.

New Orleans, Its Old Houses, Shops and Public Buildings is a documentary of Creole buildings as they appeared in the 1930s. This book -- text, architectural drawings, and photographs -- is a testimonial to Prof. Curtis' dedication to the preservation of the city's early buildings, a quality that he passed on to his son.

In 1915, Prof. Curtis tried hard to save French architect J.N.B. De Pouilly's St. Louis Hotel, 1839, in the Vieux Carré. The old hotel was a derelict structure whose condition was worsened by the 1915 hurricane, but the building was intimately entwined with the cultural history of the city and the state. Prof. Curtis made measured drawings of the domed structure and presented a scheme to adapt it as a convention hall and exposition building. Architectural Record (April 1916) published his illustrated article, "The Dome of the old St. Louis Hotel, New Orleans." Prof. Curtis, no doubt, considered a political tie his best chance to halt destruction, but his proposal failed. The building came down in 1916. Forty-four years later, in 1960, the Royal Orleans Hotel was built on the site of the old St. Louis Hotel and Prof. Curtis' son, Nathaniel, participated in the design. Prof. Curtis did not live to see the convention and exposition building seed that he planted in 1916 mature into the Rivergate, 1968, his son's design for the city. As the St. Louis Hotel was entwined in the cultural and political history of the city and state, so also was the Rivergate. The thread of continuity that weaves through the careers of father and son continued to 1996 when Curtis began the restoration of his father's Howard-Tilton Memorial Library (1941) on the Tulane University campus, a building that the elder Curtis considered one of his best designs.

III. Curtis And Davis' Entry Into The Sequence Of Time

George Kubler, noted art and architectural historian, discussed in The Shape of Time the relationship of talent and genius to the moment of "entrance" into the sequence of time, the moment in tradition -- early, middle, late -- which coincides with opportunity. Talent is predisposed and inventions come to the gifted more fluently than to those who are less talented. But according to Kubler, time and opportunities differ more than the degree of talent between artists (Kubler 1979, 5-8).

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Curtis (left) and Davis (right) c.1950
Photo by Leon C. Trice, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Tulane Library.

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Nathaniel Curtis and his partner, Arthur Quentin Davis, FAIA (b. 1920), were classmates at the Tulane School of Architecture. After Curtis graduated in 1940, he joined the Navy for four years and was sent to Annapolis to study naval architecture which he claimed was more engineering than design. Davis graduated in 1942 and went to work in Detroit for Albert Kahn, noted designer of large industrial and manufacturing buildings. After World War II Davis went on to Harvard to earn a Master's degree under Walter Gropius in 1946. In the scheme of architectural education at Tulane, 1936, the year Curtis entered his training, was the last year that the classical orders of architecture were taught. Beaux-Arts classical methods were superseded by new directions and new concepts which had taken root before World War I. The design stage was set for a new epoch, and Curtis was among the first to study the new language of architecture at Tulane and the first to graduate in the new style.

Curtis and Davis, young and enthusiastic architects, formed a partnership in 1946 in New Orleans to practice the design of contemporary buildings -- in a nineteenth-century city with a nineteenth- century mind-set. What a couple of cockeyed optimists! But these were the early post World War II years, and the Curtis-Davis team entered the sequence of time on the up-wave of the biggest building boom in world history. It was not only a critical moment in economic history but also a rare moment in technological and cultural history. All of the elements were in place for the rise of a significant new design aesthetic.

According to Curtis, the major triumph of their firm, for which Davis was responsible, was the Teaching Hospital for the Free University of Berlin. It was a project that occupied Davis for about ten years depriving the firm of Davis' special talent as critic and his ability to control, direct, influence, and steer a design through its development. Not only did the Curtis and Davis team set new design precedents, but they also created new architectural marketing methods. Curtis and Davis Architects and Planners continued for thirty-two years until they were acquired in 1978 by Daniel, Mann, Johnson, and Mendenhall, a large engineering-architectural firm on the west coast. Curtis then established Nathaniel Curtis, FAIA, Architect in 1978 where he practiced until his death in 1997.

Curtis was a member of the Architectural Review Panel of the Federal Reserve System. The panel advises the Federal Reserve Board on selection of sites and architects and reviews and approves design work. He was a member of the prestigious Cosmos Club in Washington, a private social club whose members are elected from professions that have anything to do with scholarship and creative genius.

IV. A Design Philosophy

Although Curtis had taught at Tulane University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, he preferred the practice of architecture to teaching. Among the many building types that he designed or participated in the design of -- hotels, schools, office buildings, churches, clinics and hospitals, libraries, university buildings, jails -- his pioneering work in the field of criminal justice merits special mention. Working with national experts in penology, his penal institutional designs have played a role in carrying out the criminal justice rehabilitation mission. Curtis has been involved in one hundred such buildings nationwide, beginning in 1952.

When one discussed design philosophy with Curtis, "honesty" was a recurring word. The spirit of his designs was encompassed in the honest expression of form which became the architecture. Nathaniel Curtis has left not only a legacy of many designs which dot the landscape at home and abroad, but also a design philosophy which he succinctly laid out in ten points:

The plan, the first consideration, must be logical, efficient, and convenient with all elements having proper relationship, horizontally and vertically, to one another, to the whole, and to the patterns of circulation.

The architecture must permit the function demanded by the program to operate without hindrance.

The forms must truthfully express the function of the volumes within.

The structural system, in particular, and the mechanical and electrical systems must be precise, rhythmic, integrated, and themselves objects of beauty honestly expressed.

Materials native to the locale must be used whenever possible and appropriate.

Forms, devices, systems, and elements of the architecture should respond to the natural environment.

The natural beauty of the land must be preserved, and historic architecture should not be destroyed.

The forms must be in scale to human beings and to the environment.

The architecture, in its life cycle, must assist in the ease and economy of operation and maintenance.

The architecture must have charm, poetry, beauty with texture, pattern, readability, color, light, planting, native decoration, and tasteful applied art (Curtis and Izenour n.d.).

Curtis married Frances Collens in 1944. Although Curtis was born in Auburn, Alabama, he lived most of his life in New Orleans. Nathaniel and Frances Curtis had seven children, twelve grandchildren, and one great grandchild. They lived in a Curtis designed residence not far from the first modern, first all electric dwelling in New Orleans that his father designed.

Known as "Buster" to his friends, he died 10 June 1997.

V. Bibliography

Curtis, Nathaniel
1980s Autobiography, typed script. Unpublished.
Curtis, Nathaniel and George Izenour
n.d. Design of the national cultural center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Xerox copy.
Kubler, George
1962 The shape of time. Thirteenth printing, 1979. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Lemann, Bernard, Malcolm Heard Jr., John P. Klingman
1993 Talk about architecture, a century of architectural education at Tulane. New Orleans: Tulane School of Architecture.
1937 "Seek to visualize new concept of living in building miracle home." Times-Picayune, 25 January, O-1. bottom_line.GIF

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