Monday, 8 October 2012

Louis Kahn's First Job

Shortly after FDR was reelected, he ordered the NRA to found 99 exemplary communities throughout the United States to stem unemployment. One such kibbutzim-like village, Roosevelt, New Jersey ,originally called Jersey Homestead, was 50 miles southwest of New York City. Its thousand or so inhabitants this year are celebrating their 75th anniversary. Helen Barth, now 79, moved in with her garment factory parents, aged three, in 1936: it was the promise of fresh air, sunshine ,and the chance to garden that persuaded them to move from New York City. They had read about this planned agro-industrial experiment in the Yiddish language New York paper, the Jewish Daily Forward.

They paid the Feds $12 a month rent and a $500 move in fee. Their homes were 1920 Bauhaus, flat roofs, cinderblock ranchers, with floor to ceiling windows, on half-acre lots. According to their local historian, Michael Tichtin, their planning ideal derived from the British Garden City movement. Alas, because they could often make more money in the New York factories than in gardens off season, outsiders tended to move in to replace them on the farm lots. Their planned on site farm and factory ideal flopped after three years.

The great Social Realist painter Ben Shahn was their most famous citizen. Ben immigrated from Lithuania, aged 7, in 1906. He grew up in Brooklyn, where he apprenticed as a lithographer, studied painting, and early became the lefty with pro-labor beliefs that so influenced his mature work. He first visited the experimental Roosevelt, N.J. in 1937 because he was commissioned to paint a mural for the community center for all those unemployed Jewish needleworkers in New York. 

Alas by 1939, the idealistic experiment had flopped, Ben and his wife Bernada were antsy in their crowded Brooklyn apartment, so they rented one empty house for $14 a month (inflation moves!) but Ben warned Bernada, "just for a year because, you know, these towns can eat you up!” They stayed till he died.

Ben had a creative architecture pal Nakashima who lived in nearby New Hope, Pa. Jonathan recalls that his father gave him a go-ahead, “Do what you want, but don’t spend too much.” It was a oneser! He built another house on top of the one they had at first rented—designed by Nakashima! Mira, Nakashima’s daughter, laughed ,”the only second-story addition on a Louis Kahn base in the history of architecture.” Fresh out of Penn with his architectural degrees, Louie would build anything legal.

The two storey retreat created stories of his own, as Ben invited the heavy hitters of American art to visit him, The likes of Alexander Calder, that third generation Philly sculptor who was knocking ‘em out in Paris with his 3-D circus, and the great photographer Dorothea Lange. Even Albert Einstein had the neighbors buzzing! And Ben had a great eye for furniture so their simple little idiosyncratic home was further enhanced by the Nakashima bed and dining room table they bought on their first visit.

Mira loved to tell the story about how the impulsive Ben wanted to drag the bed and table straight to Roosevelt, even though their car was a convertible. They flipped the roof down—in the depth of winter—and sped home, after George had given Bernada an old woolen hat—and both of them a slug of whiskey. Ben used to say the table was cold for three weeks! Those warm walls were never cold, grace by Ben’s and Bernada’s art, not to forget the art of Rauschenberg, Tamayo et alia on their walls. In 2010 Jonathan and his wife Jeb had the sad experience of auctioning off all this Shahniana. (Vicki Hyman/Newark Star-Ledger, 11/13/2010.)

Indeed, his sculptor son Jonathan had come back to live there after a globally roaming artistic education- living for a time in Italy. He talked the unsuccessful factory brass into renting him gallery space . The factory has housed a variety of businesses besides Jonathan’s gallery: a packaging machinery firm, a T-shirt printer, hat and button manufacturers, even a parts entrepot for the geodesic domes erected in the vicinity. Jonathan also created the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in the village’s amphitheater. 

His other works include a display celebrating the life and achievements of Martin Luther King, Jr. for the NJ Transit Authority in Jersey City. His creations are also in the D.C National Portrait Gallery, the Vatican and Princeton Art Museums. He now teaches sculpture at the Art Students League in New York City.

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