Gardens to Gables

Edward Durell Stone and Paducah’s Vision for the Future: What Now?

Architecture is much more than just shelter – it teems with symbolism. One of the first principles I learned in graduate school was the power of a building, and what messages the style, form, and materials convey about the owner or user. During the heady years after World War II, the United States boomed, and an air of optimism and innovation filtered into many facets of everyday life, including design. Paducah, Kentucky, embraced that palpable sense of possibility in 1962, declaring that “A new, well-planned, well-designed city hall will be a symbol of Paducah’s economic resurgence. It will be an indication to citizens and visitors alike that something new is happening in Paducah. The psychological effects of such a new building, having good land-use planning, and architectural design, will be of considerable value in changing Paducah’s image from that of just another Ohio River town to that of a community which has taken hold of its problems and is working toward their solution.”

The City Hall in Paducah, Kentucky, designed by Edward Durell Stone.

The City Hall in Paducah, Kentucky, designed by Edward Durell Stone.

That is one of the most direct and succinct statements I’ve ever read concerning a building and its intended role and message. Paducah was following the lead of cities across the nation (and across generations) in a cycle of rebuilding and re-branding, using architecture as the tool to shape perception for both citizens and visitors alike. And lofty as those words from 1962 are, Paducah (with the help of some federal funds) carried through with its mission, hiring internationally-known architect Edward Durell Stone to design the new city hall.

Model of Electronics Research Centers first phase of construction is examined by (from left) Dr. Albert J. Kelley, Deputy Director; Edward Durell Stone, architect, of the joint venture team which designed the facilities; and Dr. Winston E. Kock, Director. Public domain photo from Wikipedia.

Model of Electronics Research Centers first phase of construction is examined by (from left) Dr. Albert J. Kelley, Deputy Director; Edward Durell Stone, architect, of the joint venture team which designed the facilities; and Dr. Winston E. Kock, Director. Public domain photo from Wikipedia.

Stone, a native of Arkansas, never received a degree (like many other modern architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright and Bruce Goff) but is widely considered one of the most influential American architects of the 20th century. He was the principal designer of Radio City Music Hall and the 1939 Museum of Modern Art building, his first venture into designing in the tenents of the International style. During the 1950s and 60s, Stone churned out an impressive array of commercial, residential, and public buildings around the world.  The 1959 American Embassy Building in New Delhi, India, increased Stone’s popular appeal while drawing the rancor of many in the architecture world.

The American Embassy Building in New Delhi, India

The American Embassy Building in New Delhi, India

Does the Embassy building look familiar? The cantilevered overhang, the horizontal emphasis, and the columns – all are elements Stone used in the Paducah City Hall. The patterned concrete screen is one of my favorite feature of the Embassy Building – similar screens showed up on countless suburban homes across America in the mid-20th century. Although the screen minimized India’s sometimes oppressive heat and glare while still allowing light into the building, it  was ridiculed by architectural critics.

A detail of the overhang on the City Hall building.

A detail of the overhang on the City Hall building.

Paducah’s City Hall merges modern materials with traditional ones, just as the design combines historical elements in a new, modern fashion. Stone covers concrete, and the original lighting plan made the building look like it was floating. Light penetrates the building, eliminating dark hallways and corners, and on the interior, Stone designed a sunken central atrium with a fountain.

The facade of Paducah's City Hall.

The facade of Paducah’s City Hall.

But a bold vision of the future is not always the most palatable – and the notion that buildings of the recent past are now considered historic horrifies many people. And just because a building is designed by a world-famous architect doesn’t mean basic maintenance isn’t required or that certain aspects of the construction method, materials, or design may need to be tweaked as a building ages (hello Fallingwater and an untested use of concrete…and a roof with many leaks). Paducah’s grand scheme of the 1960s now appears close to collapse, as the city cites that building is  “showing significant signs of its age and limited functionality.”

A letter to the editor about the Paducah City Hall, in the Paducah Sun.

A letter to the editor about the Paducah City Hall, in the Paducah Sun.

The community has responded, and I am sure there are many voices calling for the destruction of a building some privately thought was ugly all along. Growth, Inc. appears to be leading the charge for the preservation of City Hall. I am all too familiar with the plight of resources of the recent past (Peoples Bank in Lexington is a timely example)- and of neglect of buildings by local governments. Typically, however, the situation has not been this ironic – a landmark building, constructed as a platform for a city’s rebirth and journey into the exciting new world of the Atomic Age…now bandied about as a candidate for demolition?
A historic postcard image of Paducah's City Hall.

A historic postcard image of Paducah’s City Hall.

 

 I do hope that Paducah does not betray the courage and zeal displayed in the 1960s by the construction of City Hall with the carnage of needless demolition. If the building doesn’t work for the city anymore – what role can it play? Should the hope held by past city leaders who pushed for a brighter future in the post WWII period be conjoined to a landfill just like the materials of a torn-down building? The same imagination and creativity, and willingness to think beyond the banal demonstrated by Paduach of the 1960s should be expended by Paduach in 2015 in the pursuit of fixing Stone’s iconic design and finding it a new purpose.
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5 Thoughts on “Edward Durell Stone and Paducah’s Vision for the Future: What Now?

  1. John N. Lewter on June 10, 2015 at 3:14 pm said:

    It’s a wonderful building, serene and calm, and the mature trees anchor it on the site. It’s not an off-the-shelf municipal building.

  2. Retta Folsom on June 12, 2015 at 7:38 am said:

    Please save this building! So many reasons to save as listed in the narrative. Zero reasons to demolish it.

  3. John Wiggins on July 9, 2015 at 2:46 pm said:

    I grew up in Paducah, and am an architecture buff. This building is one of the few within the city that can boast such an architectural pedigree. It would be a shame if a few civic leaders (with limited aesthetic appreciation) condemned this wonderful structure in the name of obsolescence.

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