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A center of progressive architecture during the mid-twentieth century, New Orleans is home to an impressive inventory of modernist buildings. Based in both the International Style and the regional vernacular, the city's modern aesthetic responded to place and climate with the use of innovative forms and construction techniques. Founded during the city's postwar building boom, Curtis and Davis Architects and Engineers developed a modern style steeped in local tradition and adapted to the local context. One of the area's most prolific firms, Curtis and Davis created some of New Orleans' most memorable modern architecture, including the Louisiana Superdome, the Rivergate Convention Center, and this 1963 gem- the Automotive Life Insurance building.
Located on Canal Street in the heart of Mid-City, the Automotive Life Insurance building greets the busy thoroughfare with a facade of glass and a forest of concrete columns. Designed by New Orleans-born architects Nathaniel C. Curtis, Jr. and Arthur Quentin Davis (Curtis and Davis Architects and Engineers), the building thoughtfully preserves the scale of the mostly-residential neighborhood, its two-story office block set back from the street in deference to the surrounding historic fabric. On the exterior, tall, almost Gothic-like arches encircle the building's translucent core, the gleaming white forms contrasting with the lot's bright green landscape. Recalling the New Formalism of Minoru Yamasaki, the structure is a corporate cathedral- its slender colonnades and series of delicate groin vaults a deliberate synthesis of innovative engineering and classical detail. An entry court with water features marks the transition between the street and the striking white portico, creating a formal procession from the public to the private. On the interior, ancillary spaces are arranged around a central two-story court in an apparent nod to the historic courtyards of the French Quarter.
Designated as a city landmark in 2010, the Automotive Life Insurance building now houses the Mid-City branch of the New Orleans Public Library. A case for Modernism's resilience and adaptability, the Curtis and Davis gem survives as a testament to the city's progressive brand of modern architecture.
You can visit the building at 4140 Canal Street.
Image at top:
Frank Lotz Miller, photographer. Automotive Life Insurance Company, Mayor Victor H. Schiro Photograph Collection, City Archives, New Orleans Public Library.
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