Cool & Collected (Literally)

Categories: Articles

By Sarah Leavitt

Cool & Collected: Recent Acquisitions, an exhibition highlighting items from the National Building Museum’s collection, features objects representing many different facets of the built environment. These unique objects tell the stories of design, construction, engineering, and  play, that are rarely available for public viewing. This is a wonderful occasion to celebrate the interesting and unusual gifts we receive from donors all over the country.

Terra Cotta

Helen Hayes (Folies Bergère) Theater, Terra Cotta from Façade. Gift of Landmarks Preservation Commission. Photo by Museum Staff.

The Museum’s extensive collection includes 50,000 drawings from the Northwestern Terra Cotta company of Chicago. To supplement this vast trove, we also accepted donations of pieces of terra cotta from historically important buildings, including several in Chicago and New York City. Cool & Collected features three examples from our recent terra cotta acquisition, including some from the Steuben Club in Chicago for which we also have the building drawings. One of the most poignant pieces is a gold-and-ivory colored diamond, manufactured by the Federal Terra Cotta Company, which once was part of the façade of the historic Helen Hayes theater on Broadway in New York. The Helen Hayes was demolished in 1982 to make room for the Marriott Marquis hotel. Horrified by the destruction in the historic theater district, many New Yorkers protested and sought new ways to protect these buildings. Meanwhile, parts of the Helen Hayes survived—the box office was sent to the state museum in Albany. Some pieces of the terra cotta were transferred to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, who later donated a portion to the National Building Museum.

Underground Homes

Diverse forms of housing have long been an important component of the built environment, and an important theme in our exhibitions and collections. Recently, the Museum received a complete sales kit, donated by the family of a salesman who worked for the Underground Homes company. During the Cold War era, many families built small shelters in the backyard and stocked them with non-perishable foods. However, a few families built entire houses underground to protect them in the case of thermonuclear—or other—disaster. The structure conceived by the Underground Homes company were elaborate 10-room houses with gardens and special controls for air and light to simulate different seasons. Only a few of these houses were actually built, though one was displayed to much fanfare at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Some people believe that the house was never dismantled and still lies today under the fairgrounds in Queens.

Ray Kaskey

The largest group of objects featured in Cool & Collected comes from the studio of architect and sculptor Raymond Kaskey. Anybody who has walked around the National World War II Memorial  in Washington, D.C. is familiar with his work, but he has also designed architectural ornamentation and civic sculpture for concert halls, airports, public buildings, and memorials across the country. In Cool & Collected we feature several maquettes, or scale models, from his studio. Among the most interesting materials are the items documenting the process he goes through to design his sculpture. For example, for the bas-relief panels on the World War II Memorial that depict Americans at war, Kaskey and his team did research at the National Archives and spoke with war re-enactors to figure out how the soldiers should be properly dressed and what equipment should be depicted in the panels. Seeing these items gives us new insights into the work of one of our great civic sculptors.