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Louis Curtiss
Caricature of Louis Curtiss, from As We See ‘Em: A Volume of Cartoons and Caricatures of Kansas Cityans, 1908.

Midwestern Maybeck? Louis Curtiss’s Life (and Death) Outside the Canon
How and why does an architect become famous? What difference does it make to anyone other than the architect and his cohort?

Outside of Kansas City, Missouri, where he lived and worked between 1887 and his death in 1924, Louis Singleton Curtiss is virtually unknown. Within, he is sometimes called the city’s most innovative and important local architect. [1] His powerful patrons included newspaper publisher William Rockhill Nelson, streetcar magnates Thomas and Bernard Corrigan, and railroad and restaurant entrepreneur Frederick Henry Harvey. For them and others he designed buildings around Missouri and as far afield as West Virginia, Illinois, Texas, Nebraska and New Mexico. Typical of his times, Curtiss began as a revivalist serving up competently prepared, if unremarkable, historicist fare to his Midwest clientele. This changed around 1903 when more progressive currents — Prairie Style, Vienna Secession, and Art Nouveau — first touched his work. [2]

More significant than this fashion consciousness, however, was his emerging artistic maturity and confidence, his growing ability to synthesize diverse elements in creative and unexpected ways, resulting in an increasingly cohesive, consistent and distinctive body of American modern architecture. At their best, Curtiss’s designs are comparable in their creative eclecticism to those of far better known contemporaries such as Bernard Maybeck or Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue. Moreover, Curtiss was a structural innovator of the first order, designer of some of the earliest buildings in the world to employ caisson foundations, rolled steel columns and glass curtain-walls. Yet he remains an enigmatic figure about whom little has been written and little is known. A look at Louis Curtiss provides a view into not only a fascinating and largely forgotten early 20th-century American practice but also into the mechanisms and implications of architectural fame.

Publications on Curtiss are few. Most important are: a slim, menacingly titled, hard-to-find book of 1991, Stalking Louis Curtiss, by Kansas City historians Wilda Sandy and Larry Hancks; and a short though pioneering article published in 1963 by Fred Comee, a traveling architectural metals salesman who became interested in Curtiss while working in Kansas City in 1957 and began investigating him in his spare time. [3] From these one gains an outline, much of it speculative, of the life and architectural output of a private and peculiar man.

Louis Curtiss, Bernard Corrigan House, Kansas City, Missouri, 1912. [Photo from the Historic American Building Survey, courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress.]

Born Louis Curtis (he added the second “s” by 1887) in Belleville, Ontario, Canada, in 1865, Curtiss may have studied architecture at the University of Toronto and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris; local newspapers of his era sometimes said he did, perhaps because he told them so, but no records have been found to support these claims. [4] Chicago city directories show a “Louis Curtis, draughtsman,” living in that city between 1884 and 1887 [5]; it’s not clear that this is the same man — Louis Singleton Curtiss — who arrived in Kansas City in 1887 and began drafting for the architect Adriance Van Brunt (apparently a cousin of the more famous Henry Van Brunt, who moved his office from Boston to Kansas City that same year). Between 1890 and 1892 Curtiss served as assistant to the Superintendent of Buildings for Kansas City, in whose employ he seems to have proposed and designed the pioneering caisson foundations used at the old City Hall (1890), three years before similar foundations were first used in Chicago at Adler and Sullivan’s Stock Exchange Building. [6] In 1890, Curtiss partnered with Frederick C. Gunn, and over the next 10 years they built at least a dozen buildings, including Kansas City’s stately Renaissance-revival Baltimore Hotel (1898), and the domed, Beaux-Arts Missouri State pavilion for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In 1895-96 and again in 1898 Curtiss traveled to Europe. The specific purpose of the first trip is unknown, though by its end he’d submitted a design for a “palais de justice” to a Paris salon. During the second trip he made studies related to his work on the Baltimore Hotel. [7]

On his own after 1899, Curtiss designed more than 200 buildings and projects, including private houses large and small, apartments and hotels, restaurants, theaters, churches, courthouses, banks, private clubs, automobile garages, railroad depots, and office and retail buildings. [8] He maintained a small office staff — an assistant architect, a draftsman, a young apprentice and a messenger — and he appears to have done all his own structural designs. Exposed to smallpox in 1905, he was quarantined for several months. After his illness, Curtiss’s work grew more independent from academic revival styles, more his own — idiosyncratic, inventive, overtly modern. Over the next 10 years he produced his most distinctive and important designs: the Boley Building in Kansas City (1908-09), with its white terracotta-clad corners and cornices framing six-story glass screens hung from cantilevered floor slabs, arguably the first building in the United States to employ true glass curtain walls (nine years before Willis Polk’s far more famous Halladie Building in San Francisco) [9]; the Bernard Corrigan House (1912), a large, steel-framed, reinforced concrete residence on Kansas City’s Ward Parkway that combined Prairie Style design features (low-slung horizontality, broad overhanging eaves, rows of casement windows, built-in planter urns, art glass) with lavish surface ornament inspired by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Vienna Secession; and the starkly modern railroad buildings in Joplin, Missouri, and around Texas, with their rationalist emphasis on the structural frame, their broad expanses of glass and over-sized Secession-style ornament.

Louis Curtiss, Boley Building

Louis Curtiss, Henry G. Miller House

Top: Louis Curtiss, Boley Building, Kansas City, Missouri, 1908. [Photo by Keith Eggener] Middle: Louis Curtiss, Henry G. Miller House, Kansas City, Kansas, 1921. [Photo by Nate Hofer] Bottom: Louis Curtiss, Jesse Hoel House, Kansas City, Kansas, 1916. [Photo by Nate Hofer]

After 1914 the volume of Curtiss’s work dropped off dramatically, a decline he experienced alongside other progressive American architects of this era. Scholars have linked this downturn to the outbreak of war in Europe and the resultant nationwide economic slump, and to a widespread shift in taste away from progressive modes like the Prairie Style toward more reassuringly conservative revival styles. [10] In Curtiss’s case the downturn was also likely connected to the recent deaths of two important patrons, William Rockhill Nelson and Bernard Corrigan. [11] Whatever the specific reasons, Curtiss’s glory days were past. The last 10 years of his life were spent designing relatively modest modern houses around Kansas City. Most involved a synthesis of Arts and Crafts and Prairie Style themes, with Spanish Colonial or Orientalist accents: low pitched or hipped red tile roofs, walls of rough stone or stucco, built-in planters, extensive terraces, elaborate wooden lattices — painted red like Chinese lacquer — screening ample glazing. The Jesse Hoel House of 1916 and the Henry G. Miller House of 1921, both located in Kansas City’s Westheight Manor subdivision, are exemplary. [12] Curtiss was lucky to complete one or two such commissions per year.

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