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Concrete Man

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  • David McIntire
    The article below was in Saturday s Post. It is about the man who did the unique concrete finishes on the walls of Meridian Hill Park and portions of Sacred
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 31, 2001
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      The article below was in Saturday's Post. It is about the man who did the
      unique concrete finishes on the walls of Meridian Hill Park and portions of
      Sacred Heart Church, including the steps.

      Dave McIntire

      --------------------------------------------

      Concrete Proof Of One Man's Legacy To Washington
      By Benjamin Forgey
      Washington Post Staff Writer
      Saturday, March 31, 2001; Page C01

      Squeezed between two rather fancy edifices on a downtown street, the Walker
      Building (734 15th St. NW) is politely unremarkable -- unless you pause for
      a moment to consider the decorative panel angled into a niche high above the
      front door.

      It is a beautiful period piece, a colorful stylization of the kind that
      gives much 1930s architecture its endearing appeal. It also is a neat little
      piece of Washington history, for it was made by John Joseph Earley, a
      stonecutter's son whose genius enriched the city from the 1910s into the
      1940s.

      There's a strangeness about the panel that forces you to take a second look.
      What is the puzzle? What accounts for the brightness of the reds, blues and
      greens of the stylized plant and animal forms after three-quarters of a
      century? What gives the design its peculiar, lively texture?

      Even when you already know the answer, it still comes as a surprise: The
      panel is made entirely of concrete. Yes, the ubiquitous building material
      often acclaimed for its usefulness but seldom for its beauty -- and never
      for its patterns and bright, lively colors.

      Well, never say never. For several decades concrete was celebrated in
      Washington, and to a lesser extent elsewhere in the country, for exactly
      these qualities. This is due entirely to Earley, who made concrete his
      life's work.

      If you think of concrete as just the pasty gray cement that is poured and
      formed into sidewalks these days, I advise you to catch the Earley bug.
      There is no exaggeration in the title of Frederick Cron's short biography of
      Early, "The Man Who Made Concrete Beautiful."

      The polychrome entry panel on the Walker Building (as well as mirror-image
      window panels and decorative motifs for the third-floor windows) bears
      Earley's unmistakable stamp. And his work turns up all over the map --
      ceilings inside the Justice Department, ceilings and walkways outside the
      original National Airport building, walls and balustrades in Meridian Hill
      Park, in and on office buildings, churches, institutional buildings and
      other government structures.

      Even houses. There is a Polychrome Historic District on the National
      Register of Historic Places, consisting entirely of five little houses
      designed and constructed by Earley in the 1930s in Silver Spring, across
      Colesville Road from the new Montgomery Blair High School.

      A group of historians, preservationists, architects and other enthusiasts is
      getting together today at the University of Maryland to shed new light on
      the Earley phenomenon. The symposium was organized by the Latrobe Chapter of
      the Society of Architectural Historians, the Art Deco Society of Washington
      and the university's School of Architecture (where the sessions will take
      place).

      Earley is difficult to categorize. He was at once an artisan, artist,
      manufacturer, salesman and sometime architect. He was born in New York in
      1881, the son of Irish immigrant James Earley. James moved to Washington in
      1891 and, among other things, designed the buffalo nickel for the U.S. Mint.

      John Earley apprenticed in his father's busy Washington stone-working shop
      in Foggy Bottom, and took it over in 1906 at age 24. Gradually, with the
      assistance of Basil Gordon Taylor, his lifelong business partner, he
      transformed the shop into a highly productive studio in the very
      20th-century medium of concrete.

      With this background in the stone-carving trade, Earley's work was rooted in
      the tradition of medieval crafts guilds. It built upon the respect for
      hand-craftsmanship nurtured in this country by the Arts and Crafts movement
      in the late 19th century. He ran a union shop organized along ancient
      apprenticeship lines; his workers were carefully trained in a system that
      placed a high value on near-perfect finishes.

      At the same time, Earley's studio was technologically advanced. Like today's
      electronic and biomedical entrepreneurs, Earley closely monitored the latest
      government research -- indeed, he helped with some of the experiments
      conducted by the federal Bureau of Standards to enhance the strength and
      durability of both stucco and concrete. He patented several ingenious
      production methods.

      From the artistic standpoint, Earley's primary innovation was what he called
      "architectural" or "mosaic" concrete -- a method of mixing and exposing the
      small stones and other materials (called "aggregate") that combine with
      cement and water to form the body of the concrete. Before Earley, no one
      paid much attention to this stuff; he transformed it into high craft.

      With his inventive new methods, Earley was able to demonstrate something
      wholly new in his work at Meridian Hill Park, that splendid urban green that
      tumbles gracefully down the hill above W Street NW between 16th and 15th
      streets. Made of Earley concrete, the walls, stairs and balustrades of this
      park -- constructed between 1912 and 1936 -- are something to see.

      Close up, viewed inch by inch, they show an amazingly even distribution of
      little earth-toned pebbles dredged from the Potomac River, mixed with the
      cement and exposed only after a layer of cement was scraped off with wire
      brushes. There is something lively and almost magical about the irregular
      pebbles, seen and touched close up. From a distance, they catch the light
      beautifully. And, though a lot cheaper than stonework, Earley's concrete has
      held up remarkably. He built for the long haul.

      Meridian Hill Park was Earley's first important concrete job. The nave and
      aisles inside the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic Church at 16th
      Street and Park Road NW, completed in 1923, was the first large-scale
      application of his trademark polychrome concrete. Here again, even when you
      know the work is made of concrete, you find yourself surprised at the
      clarity and durability of the colors -- azures, soft greens, sparkling reds.

      Earley greatly expanded the number, kind and color of materials put into his
      concrete panels, using little pieces of glass, ceramics, marble, quartz and
      many other stones. In the end, he settled on about 200 carefully graded
      colors, and had his workmen lay them down with a painter's perfectionism in
      monochrome fields enlivened by bits and pieces of contrasting or
      complementary hue.

      The man greatly benefited Washington in the process of inventing and
      applying this new form of decoration, and also a couple of other locales.
      (He did important work at Louisiana State University, in Nashville and in
      Wilmette, Ill.) Though his firm continued until 1973, doing some fairly
      distinguished work in the 1950s, the high-quality polychromy pretty much
      expired with Earley's death in 1945.

      Why did this happen? Well, the better question is, how could it not have
      happened? The Earley process was relatively expensive. It was
      labor-intensive. It required careful training and great skill. It was
      overtly decorative, and thus was not in tune with the prevailing
      architectural currents after World War II.

      So, Washington can be thankful for its Earley treasures, and should be
      protective of them. But make no mistake -- their lesson today is about an
      attitude, and not a process or technique. John Earley passionately cared
      about what he built, and it shows. You look at the lively concrete in
      Meridian Hill Park, and then at most of the stuff we are throwing together
      these days, from sidewalks to shopping malls, and you think, shame on us.

      It is impossible to dismiss the man who wrote, in 1924, "Concrete is so
      wonderfully responsive that it has wound a spell around me and around the
      men in my studio. When the work is taken from the molds each morning and the
      colors are exposed, there is something so spectacular, so magical about it,
      that our enthusiasm never abates."
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