The Unique Architecture of the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum

As one approaches the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum today, the first impression of a monumental and stark structure on a major highway seems ordinary.  In fact, an aerial view provides the only true understanding of the design.  Sited adjacent to the State Fairgrounds, the building originally evoked a very modern yet graceful presence along side a sparsely populated working class neighborhood.

Built in 1937-38, the project fell under President Roosevelt’s New Deal arts program, specifically the FEAPW, or Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works.  The city of Shreveport dedicated six acres of land to the state for the building.  The Louisiana Department of Agriculture’s Secretary, Harry D. Wilson, spearheaded the project and administered the facility as a permanent exhibit building to complement the adjacent State Fair and to showcase Louisiana’s agriculture, industry and unique wildlife.

The locally well-known architectural firm of E.F. Neild, Sr., D. Somdal and E.F. Neild, Jr. was project manager for the state and federally financed Exhibit Building.  The firm completed the newly renovated Louisiana Tech campus in Ruston, new buildings on the campuses of Louisiana State University and Northwestern State University in Natchitoches.  Edward Neild, Sr. personally completed several important projects in Caddo parish, including the Court House.  As a young judge, Harry Truman admired the work of Edward Neild. Truman later commissioned Nield to build the court house building in Missouri, the west wing portico of the White House, and the President Truman Library.

Federally funded projects across Louisiana in the 1930s and 40s reflected a Modernist approach for public buildings. Although not readily apparent from the street, the main structure is circular – with an open circular courtyard and a circular interior exhibit area.  The clean, block façade of the limestone structure opens to the street with columns and a portico, yet are contained within the “donut” of a building a plan that is functional, beautiful and unusual.

Covering one-eighth of a mile, the floor plan is curvilinear with four exterior doors and four interior courtyard doors, each facing the cardinal points of the compass.  In fact, the floor plan seems to resemble a crop circle with an implied cruciform.  With construction costs over a half million dollars, the innovative use of space gives the illusion of a much larger building. Visitors are constantly baffled when they find themselves back at the North front reception area with so much more to see.  Although a federally financed project, the architects were able to spend freely on luxury details like pink marble from Llana, Texas.

The structure consists of unadorned gray limestone.  Above the architrave, the exterior enforces the state’s prestige with a fine bas-relief of the state seal – a brown pelican feeding her infants.  The name of the building highlights the seal and a listing of all sixty-four Louisiana parishes flanks each side.  Carved in geographical order, the list begins with the northwest corner, in deference to Caddo Parish, and ends with the southeastern corner of Plaquemines Parish.

The building’s exterior uses the clean, vertical lines of the architrave framing the entry to impress and humble the viewer.  At the time of construction, the portico’s two massive 25 foot columns of hand-carved Texas pink granite were believed to be among the largest in the country.  And surprisingly, the columns are elliptical, rather than the traditional circular shape, enhancing the depth and creating perspective in the portico. The architect carries this Streamline Modern design motif throughout the interior spaces.

Between the columns and above the glass doors, the architect opens the interior space with a continuous two-story vertical window.  The use of a newly introduced material – aluminum – paired with elegant bronze, creates a geometrical framework attached to the glass, reminiscent of pioneer modernist Frank Lloyd Wright’s window designs.

Architectural Elements

The Fresco

Within the portico, Texas pink granite also covers the walls to a one-story level.  Above the granite is an allegorical fresco, which reinforces the theme of the interior exhibits – agriculture, industry and natural resources of Louisiana.  The two monumental figures, intended to be viewed at a distance from the Dixie Highway 80, which was at one time the main East-West route to Texas, soar gracefully above the doors right up to the three-story ceiling.  In contrast to the stark, hard lines of the building, illumination at night provides the portico with a soft and fluid effect, enhanced by ceiling panels of thinly carved luminous yellow Yule Creek Valley, Colorado marble. Read more about the Fresco and the artist, Conrad Albrizio here.

Reception Area

In contrast to the Spartan exterior design, the interior exudes an atmosphere of grandeur typical of municipal structures of the mid-twentieth century.  The reception area has three windows and three sets of doors on the south wall that align precisely with those on the north portico. The tall vertical windows alternate with exhibit cases around the inner courtyard circle, and provide changing atmospheric lighting patterns throughout the year.

Another surprise – the reception area is the only square-shaped space in the main building.  Multi-colored, impeccably matched panels of Ste. Genevieve County Missouri Rose marble banded with aluminum cover the walls up to the ceiling, and the “baseboard” area around the rotunda. The pink, gray and pale green background of the marble contains fossil corals, which are crystalline, and add a deep rose coloring.

Two paired “one-half” columns mirroring the elliptical pair outside portray the trendy Streamline Modern effect.  They visually anchor the entrance to the exhibit space, while structurally supporting the ceiling.

Towering above the space, the ceiling recedes in three squared banks of coving, hiding the lighting fixtures but also visually extending the height.  The horizontal aluminum banding also creates a two-foot visual molding, at the top of the wall.  The effect is one of light, open and inviting public space.

The Map

Directly in the center of the reception area is a plaster of Paris topographical map of the State of Louisiana.  Fourteen feet in diameter and positioned three feet below the floor, the map is another circular element in the design of the building.  The three foot high circular railing that completely surrounds the map allows the public to lean against it while studying it.  Constructed entirely of aluminum, the pattern repeats the Modernist fretwork on the doors, windows and the exterior fencing. To read more about the map and it’s artists Duncan Ferguson, click here.

The Courtyard

Visible through the south wall of windows and doorways of the reception area is the landscaped courtyard.  Centered in the circular courtyard is a circular fountain, recessed in the ground and surrounded by a patterned rail, exactly matching the map and railing.  There is access to the center courtyard from the doors located at all four compass points around the building, meaning that one can step outside at any point in the exhibit area without returning to the front door.

Visitors often overlook the unique structure of the museum because the design elements are so subtle.  The architects incorporated many innovative architectural concepts, new marketing and space planning techniques overlaid with beautiful architectural materials into a publicly acceptable “classical” style.

Fortunately there has been a resurgence of interest in historic buildings and a new appreciation for twentieth century public works, now accepted as historically significant.  The Louisiana State Exhibit Museum deserves recognition as part of the New Deal program but also because of the innovative Modernist design concept and reputation of the Shreveport architects, Neild, Somdal & Neild, who selected the artistic design team of Albrizio and Ferguson.  The Department of the Interior accepted the building on the National Register of Historical places in 1991.

Nita K. Cole, LSEM Curator and Archivist,  June 2015

LSEM South Entry, c. 1950

The Exhibit Area

The architect’s design becomes more understandable when studying the floor plan.  Upon entering the building at the north or south, the visitor has a choice of venturing east or west towards the exhibits.  Large windows with low glass display cases beneath them alternate with tall upright cases on the courtyard wall.  The large vertical windows provide natural light.  The exterior wall has enclosed display cases and in the center are larger glass display cases that can be viewed on two sides.  So theoretically, the visitor can first view the outside cases, then the inside cases, and finally the center cases on both sides, thus making four trips around.

By completely enclosing the exterior walls and opening the interior walls with glass, the architect removes the viewer from the noise and distractions of the highway.  The inward focus to the courtyard allows a peaceful retreat from the outside world and a visual “break” from the numerous exhibit cases and the concentrated information presented.  Banked seating along the center aisles also encourages reflective absorption.

The architect leads the visitor through the space visually in several ways – by the curved “infinity” walls and the pattern of the flooring.  A pink terrazzo floor runs along the outer edges and the broader yellow terrazzo creates two “aisles” with the center glass displays. Visitors are often told to, “Follow the yellow brick road,” when asking for directions.  This idea of “traffic patterning,” developed by early marketers in department stores to encourage shoppers towards particular merchandise, was also a fairly new design innovation.

The curvilinear space, the most innovative architectural element, simultaneously opens vistas and yet contains the visual space by restricting the line of sight.  In other words, only one quadrant of the building is visible at a time, but the subtle curving of the hard space, leads the eye towards the next quadrant.  The curvilinear spatial concept for public buildings, illustrated in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Building in 1936-39 and later magnified in the design of the Guggenheim Museum, is a hallmark of the Modernist approach.

Nita K. Cole, Curator and Archivist

The Museum Complex

On two sides of the main building are rectangular wings, separated by breezeways, originally designed for air circulation.  Aside from the grillwork on the aluminum doors, there is no exterior detail or ornamentation on either structure.  The west wing was originally designated as the Historical Gallery and still used for art shows.  It now includes the Clarence H. and Dorothy Dodd Webb Native American Galleries.

The east wing contains a 330 seating capacity auditorium, a “must-have” structure of the era.  During the early 1930’s, Neild, Somdal & Neild constructed a large number of Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works projects in northwest Louisiana for public school auditoriums, and buildings on the campuses of Northwestern State and Louisiana Tech.

References:

Robert D. Leighninger, Jr. Building Louisiana: The Legacy of the Public Works Administration.  University of Mississippi Press, 2012

Geology of Ste. Genevieve County, Missouri,” by Stuart Weller and Stuart St. Clair, Vol. XXII, Second Series, Missouri Bureau of Geology and Mines, Rolla, Missouri, 1928.

“WPA Frescoes: Shaping Louisiana’s Depression Era Economy,” by Mary R. Zimmerman in Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Shaping of American Political Culture, Volume One. Nancy Beck Young, William D. Pederson and Bryon W. Daynes, Editors. M.E. Sharpe Publisher, Armond, NY, 2001.

Louisiana National Register of Historic Places, Louisiana State Exhibit Museum, registered 2/20/91.

The USGS (United States Geological Survey) has digitized its collection to make the historic and topographical maps available to the public.