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Sam Hall Kaplan

2 Cities Grapple With Their Past

July 05, 1987|Sam Hall Kaplan

When writing about design is your vocation, it is hard to take even a few days off.

On the way to a family gathering in Helena, Mont., recently, we stopped off in Salt Lake City to spend a few hours glimpsing the landmarks there, only to learn that one of the more venerable, the Hotel Utah, is being closed at the end of the summer.

Built in 1911 and owned by the Mormon Church, the ornately decorated 500-room hotel is a marvelous Italian Renaissance-styled structure, faced in granite, terra cotta and brick, and topped by a massive beehive, the state's symbol. The gracious landmark stands proudly across the street from Temple Square, offering a welcomed secular contrast to the ecclesiastical architectural oddities there.

Not clear in the announcement was whether the church plans to demolish the hotel or to convert it. All the church said was that the space the hotel now occupies is needed for offices and worship, implying that whatever is done to the landmark, it no longer will be accessible to the public.

If so, that would be truly unfortunate. The hotel is very much part of the city's history, which one would think the church would want to preserve, having played such a formative role in shaping it.

In contrast, in Helena there seems to be a growing appreciation for preservation, not only adding to the city's sense of history and pride, but also in generating tourism. The latter is becoming crucial in the Montana capital of 25,000 persons. Once a thriving mining town--with a population that in 1865 was estimated at 600,000 persons--Helena is at present struggling economically, as is most of Montana and Wyoming.

As a result, public and private interests in the city, with the help of the state, have been sprucing up a wealth of local landmarks. These include the state's original governor's mansion, a sturdy Victorian, designed and decorated with an Eastern flair in 1888 by Edgar Hodgson; a downtown studded with Richardsonian Romanesque-styled structures, and a cluster of dated commercial buildings called Reeder's Alley. All rate a few stars and a detour.

Also surviving in Helena are a smattering of impressive century-old mansions and a noble Gothic-styled church, the Cathedral of St. Helena, built in 1913 and patterned after the great cathedral of Cologne, West Germany. And just outside of Helena, at a charming potter's retreat known as the Archie Bray Foundation, is a gold mine of exquisitely designed ceramics.

But these attractions and others, such as the persevering Old Faithful Inn and the recent renovation of the Lake Hotel in nearby Yellowstone Park, are the stuff of articles for the travel section, and would be better described and detailed there.

Vacations for me also are a time for trying to make a dent in the growing pile of books I had set aside to read. Here again one's vocation intrudes, happily.

I finally finished reading "New York 1930: Architecture and Urbanism Between the Two World Wars," by Robert A. M. Stern, Gregory Gilmartin and Thomas Mellins (Rizzoli: $75), a sequel in style, substance and minutiae to the earlier and well-received "New York 1900."

Stretching to 848 pages of mostly double-columned, eye-straining print, relieved somewhat by more than 600 illustrations, the heavily footnoted, inconsistently paced history for the most part is, in a word, engrossing.

Picking it up in the evenings over the month it took me to wade through, was to go back in time to a burgeoning New York, where architecture sought to match the city's expanding ego.

This was a time that saw the construction of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, Rockefeller Center, Park Avenue penthouses and Broadway dream palaces, culminating in the New York World's Fair of 1939-40. This also was a time of boom and bust, of the Depression, of grand public works and of shifting styles, all of which designers were riding like waves in a stormy sea.

Though "New York 1930" wallows in that sea, it more than survives as an ambitious architectural history. The subject and the nostalgia it stirs simply overwhelms the generally overwritten text, oddly enough just like the glorious image of the city itself overwhelms its harsh reality.

And just as "New York 1930" transported me back to that city and time, "Katsura Villa: The Ambiguity of its Space" (Rizzoli: $75) transported me to those magical grounds outside Kyoto in Japan.

While the text by the Arata Isozaki and notes by Osamu Sato, translated by John Lamb, offer some interesting insights into the history and interpretation of the imperial retreat, it is the exquisitely composed, sensitive photographs by Yaushiro Ishimoto that illuminate the book. The descriptive word for this stunning effort is evocative.

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