- Henry Howard: Louisiana’s Architect by Robert S. Brantley
This copiously illustrated volume is a fascinating and well-researched biography of Louisiana’s most prolific antebellum architect, Henry Howard, who practiced in New Orleans and its vicinity between 1837 and 1884, designing and building many of Louisiana’s most iconic buildings. Unfortunately, by the time of his death much of Howard’s work was unfashionable and easily forgotten by a public that had become infatuated with exuberant Victorian styles. Worse still, many of Howard’s buildings were attributed to his contemporary James Gallier, whose place in history was assured by the book American Builder’s General Price Book and Estimator (1833), which was widely available. Robert S. Brantley seeks to set the record straight about Henry Howard and his remarkable contribution to Louisiana’s architectural and urban heritage.
Howard was born in 1818 into an Anglo-Irish family in Cork, Ireland. Howard’s father was a house builder, and Howard took up the same profession, eventually immigrating to New York in 1836 hoping to study architecture with an American architect. Thwarted in New York, Howard moved to New Orleans in 1837, where he applied his talents with great success until his death. Howard helped shape the built environment of the city and its hinterland with his various interpretations of the Greek Revival style, leaving a significant body of work that today so enriches the spatial and visual experience of New Orleans. He was adept at all building typologies, as evidenced in his Carrollton Courthouse, Saints Peter and Paul Church, and St. Anna’s Asylum, although he is best known for his sumptuous town houses and plantation houses. One of his best-known works is the Pontalba Apartments in Jackson Square, an urban intervention that finally brought definition and scale to the famous park at the heart of the original city.
The book is a compelling read. The author has expertly intertwined the man and his work so that to talk about one is to necessarily talk about the other. The narrative is chronological, beginning with Howard’s training as a builder in Ireland, where he absorbed the Regency style of the early nineteenth century, [End Page 676] particularly its innovative room arrangements and geometries. This style, the author claims, is the source of some of Howard’s unusual plans for houses, like the famous Woodlawn Plantation and its nearly identical neighbor, Madewood Plantation, in Assumption Parish and the very unusual Belle Grove Plantation in Iberville Parish. Whatever his inspirations, Howard was an innovative and meticulous architect.
The author draws from a large number of primary sources, most especially from the papers of Howard, but also from court records, census records, and various family archives. The book is exceptionally well illustrated with historic photographs from various archives, especially commissioned color photographs, plans from the Historic American Buildings Survey, and the carefully drawn and watercolored cadastral plans of the New Orleans Notarial Archives. The illustrated catalog at the end of the book shows just how prolific Howard was. The book is a feast for the eyes. Unfortunately, none of these images are numbered either in the text or in the captions. Anyone browsing through the book who is particularly taken by an image will be obliged to read carefully through the text of the pages before or after the image in an attempt to find more information.
The research is sound, but social and cultural historians might be disappointed by the lack of analysis and interpretation of Howard’s unusual plans for these slaveholding households. Brantley’s goal, however, was not to write a cultural history. He sought to recover the work and reputation of a remarkable architect whose legacy is part of New Orleans’s unique heritage. Brantley has accomplished this goal admirably.