Friday, June 16, 2017

Erling Owre

Little did I know that when I met Erling Owre in the summer of 1955, I was in the presence of an architect who, 60 years later, would be lauded as one of the architectural heroes of his time, yet largely unknown and unsung. He was the architect who designed the towers which house the ventilation system for the Holland Tunnel. I was given that information at the time, but it did not mean a lot to me.  The phrase, "ventilation system," does not call forth much of a "Wow!" But when you see them, "Wow!" is appropriate. There are four of them, two on the NYC side, two on the Jersey City side. Here are photos of one on the Jersey City side:

Holland Tunnel Ventilation tower, Jersey City side, but with NYC skyline behind
Air view, with Jersey City in background

Facade, showing some of the "Byzantine" detail

Here is what architectural historian John Gomez had to say about Erling Owre's towers in a talk he gave a few years ago:

Clifford Holland, one of history's greatest tunnel engineers (who gave the tunnel its name), worked with other brilliant scientists and scholars from 1920 to 1927 to create a vehicular tunnel system that would be the envy -- and wonder -- of the mechanized world.

When the tunnel opened in 1927, it spoke to the advent of both the automobile and Modernism. Sure enough, Holland -- who died before the tunnel's completion, leaving the project's completion to his team of engineers, including the famous Ole Singstad -- commissioned the best scientists and engineers from scientific government agencies and universities to conduct intricate physiological and mechanical tests that would successfully prevent motorists from inhaling car exhaust. The whole engineering task at first seemed impossible. The tunnel, experts argued, was too long to be properly ventilated. The digging itself through sludge and bedrock would be challenge enough. Build a bridge instead, they said. Even Thomas Edison expressed his doubts.

Holland, fueled by engineering obstacles, proved his critics wrong. By 1925, his innovative ventilation system was in place -- all that was needed was a worthy architectural enclosure.

But Holland's focus went beyond ethereal engineering. His mechanical magnum opus had to be inviting. The entire machine, to him, would have to be breathtaking. Only the most progressive architects could bring his tunnel to architectural life.

The Norwegian architect Erling Owre was his first and only choice. Trained at the famed Polytechnic Institute in Trondheim, Owre brought a Scandinavian sensibility to the drafting table -- minimalism, craftsmanship, form. He would have been schooled in the traditional -- medieval motives like the Romanesque, the Byzantine and the Gothic -- but also the newly established Bauhaus in Germany, Russian Constructivism, and the architecture of Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. The Art Moderne movement raging across America at that time was largely ignored by Owre -- his towers would be original works that had no contemporary, not even in his native Norway where Modernism was already the norm.

For Holland he erected edifices from spectacular steel girders, colossal poured-in- place concrete columns and yellow cathedral brick -- all expressed through slender strings of rounded arches, corbeled courses, glass louvre panels, small gargoyle heads and striking cantilevered bases.

Owre's ventilation towers opened doors for him in mid-career. Thereafter he was the supervising architect on the Lincoln Tunnel ventilation shafts, the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel -- each more mechanically forward, each more architecturally advanced.

At another time Gomez wrote:
Norwegian architect Erling Owre designed four innovative 10-story ventilation structures, two of which were placed in the water with steel foundation piles reaching far down into the Hudson River's bedrock. Owre subtly graced the towers with Byzantine elements visible only up close - but it is the combined influence of Bauhausian architects, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright that looms and lingers.

I didn't know back in 1955 that Erling had gone on to design three more tunnel ventilation towers. The man I know was unassuming, gentle and very kind to me. He, and his wife, Gertrude, lived two doors down from my late wife Shirley's parents, Fred and Florence Harris, on Fort Hill Circle, State Island. I probably met him for the first time when I preached that summer at the Brighton Heights Reformed Church, where the Owre's  and the Harris's were members. He liked my sermon, and seemed to take something of a shine to me. He was, among other things, an avid fly fisherman. He took the time to teach me how to cast a fly rod - not on a stream, but on his front yard, using a ball of cotton at the end of the line. He gave me a fly rod - a registered split-bamboo rod, made by a well-know craftsman. Fly fishing never took hold with me, and I never used it, but I still have it. It's a beautiful rod. The other thing I remember about Erling is that he loved his coffee very black. A pot sat on the stove all day and got stronger and stronger, and he had several cups a day. He and Gertrude were at Shirley's and my wedding late in August that summer, and he and Gertrude housed my father and mother, who had flown out from Iowa for the wedding (my father officiated). Erling was 78 years old when I first met him - though he was still active as an architect - and I saw him only a few times afterward when we would go to Staten Island for visits to Shirley's parents. He would have gotten to know Betsey as a toddler. He died in February of 1961, at age 84. I wish very much that I had gotten to know him better; I really wish he could have given us a tour of his towers!

By the way, all of this was triggered as we were driving down the Garden State Parkway last Monday, and we went by signs to the Holland Tunnel. That got me to reminiscing with Ellen, and then I did some research on the internet.  Most of this information would have been inaccessible to me just a few years ago. 

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