Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Monterey County Courthouse

Robert Stanton's Fragile 1937 Masterwork

One of my favorite styles of the 20th century is Streamlined Moderne. This week, while working in Salinas California, I came across an exceptional example of the period. It was Robert Stanton's 1937 Monterey County Courts Building. The building was commissioned as part of the Works Project Administration to replace the 69 year old Victorian Courts building that occupied the same site.

Inner Courtyard

The Courts building features an innovative plan with courts and offices surrounding a central courtyard. In reality, the courtyard was a necessity. It was precisely the location of Monterey's earlier courts. That was the building where Ernst Steinbeck (John Steinbeck's father) served as County Treasurer until 1935.

Once the stunning new courts building was complete, the old courts building was demolished and replaced by the courtyard we see today.

Courts Collonade

Streamlined Moderne emerged on the American scene in the middle 1930's. It featured clean spare lines and has became associated with Hollywood's golden age. In fact throughout the thirties "Streamlining" was everywhere. 

Streamline design manifest itself in all facets of day-to-day life. In Detroit cars like Chrysler's Airflow reflected streamline design. At sea the dining room of the SS Normandie was so cherished that much of its was removed and placed in museums. In Cincinnatti, Crosley created those much coveted streamlined bakeolite radios. Streamlining was associated in slippery designs that would encourage smooth air flow such as the Burlington Northern's glistening stainless steel Zephyr trains. In fashion, it was exemplified in Jean Harlow's dresses. Dresses so tight she couldn't sit between movie takes and had to lean on specially built slant boards. Even industrial designer Raymond Loewy created the iconic curvy coke bottle and Greyhound's Super Scenicruiser buses in the streamline style. 

The Leowy Designed Streamlined Hound

When Streamlining was interpreted into architectural design it became known as Streamlined Moderne or Art Moderne. It frequently featured curves and softened corners. Windows became linear and wrapped corners. And, unlike today's architecture, where artwork is simply an object added to a lobby or plaza at the completion of design, in streamlined moderne designs, highly stylized art motifs were integrated harmoniously into the architecture itself. It was art embedded or embossed into columns, terrazzo and light fixtures. This is expressed perfectly in examples such as Rockefeller Center.

In the Monterey Courts Building Stanton worked closely with California artist Jo Mora to create a series of sculpted busts, murals, bronze door medallions and stone column capitals. Of the 60 plus busts that grace the building we find John C Fremont, Juan Cabrillo and Padre Junipero Sera. Some of the bass-relief panels portray the succession of early inhabitants described in Steinbeck's East of Eden.

Busts of Monterey Pioneers

Samples of Jo Mora Busts

A Bas-Relief

Bronze Medallions

Joseph Jacinto "Jo" Mora was an Uruguayan-born artist. His mother was a French intellectual. His father was a Catalonian sculptor. The Mora family migrated to the US in 1880. At the age of 23 Mora arrived in Solvang California in part to live with Native American's. He also spent that summer on horseback visiting California's Missions. His works have come to grace the King City High School, the Bohemian Club and the Smithsonian.  Mora completed his work on the Courthouse at the age of 61. After the Courthouse project he devoted his time illustrating children's books about the west. He passed away in Monterey in 1947 at the age of 71.

Art Moderne was a perfect design for the budget strained depression. It exploited the simplicity of the Bauhaus creating a new style that sculpted simple materials such as poured-in-place concrete.

This building is a treasure. And, three quarters of a century later, it is irreplaceable. Sadly, it is in serious need of major refurbishment and restoration.  

Salinas is still the largest city in California between San Jose and Los Angeles, and up to the depression had the highest per capita income of any city in the United States. Its wealth during the early part of the 20th century resulted in it  becoming the home to many examples of exceptional historic Art Deco and Streamlined Moderne architecture.

Today, Salinas still feels authentic. It is not a sugar-coated tourist confection like its neighbors Carmel and Monterey. Roadboy recommends it to anyone seeking excellent examples of California Deco / Moderne architecture!

Here is a fine link to click describing some of Salinas' architectural inventory:  Salinas Art Deco / Streamlined Moderne

Roady's Travels © 2014

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