6 Architectural Artists Whose Visionary Work Endures Today
The artists we've chosen to highlight in this story often worked on buildings and landscapes already destined to be important. But when they deployed their creative talents—in the areas of architectural tile, stained glass, mural design, ironwork, and architectural concrete—they gave each place a distinctive texture that made it truly unforgettable. Below, we celebrate the continued influence of their work on the built world that surrounds us.
Mary Chase Perry Stratton, 1867-1961
It’s hard to imagine downtown Detroit without the work of Pewabic Pottery. Architectural tiles from the 120-year-old company grace many of the city’s most important structures, from the Detroit Public Library to the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) to the Art Deco Guardian Building. (Pewabic’s work also appears nationwide, at places such as the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., and House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, Minnesota.) The handmade, color-saturated tiles convey a certain boldness, as did the pottery’s cofounder, Mary Chase Perry Stratton. “She was an artistic force,” says Kevin Adkisson, curator at the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where Stratton completed multiple commissions.
Born in 1867, the future ceramist spent her early years on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. Her family lived near the Pewabic copper mine, whose name was loosely derived from an Ojibwe word for “metal.” As they moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then Detroit, Stratton focused on art and design, attending the Art Academy of Cincinnati and the school of what is now DIA. A Detroit neighbor, Horace Caulkins, had invented a kiln called the Revelation China Kiln; Stratton, by then in her late 20s, peppered him with suggestions for improving it. Caulkins hired her as a traveling salesperson, and she developed a deep interest in ceramics.
When Stratton asked Caulkins to start an art pottery company with her in 1903, his answer was a resounding yes. Propelled by his business background and her artistic and managerial talents, Pewabic prospered. “The whole time Mary is doing this, the world is changing drastically,” says Annie Dennis, Pewabic’s education director and archivist. “Pewabic is part of the growing Arts and Crafts movement, and Detroit is one of the first cities in the U.S. to start an Arts and Crafts society.”
Stratton began designing architectural tiles and developing different kinds of glazes, including iridescent ones that drew upon traditional Middle Eastern ceramics. In 1907, the company moved into a Tudor Revival building designed by the firm of architect William Buck Stratton, whom she eventually married.
Horace Caulkins died in 1923, but Mary Chase Perry Stratton continued running the business until her death in 1961. Pewabic has operated as a nonprofit for the past 40-plus years, still making coveted architectural tiles and vessels using many of the techniques developed by Stratton and her colleagues. “She was always experimenting and exploring,” Dennis says. “She always had this hunger for knowledge within the arts and a passion for sharing it.” —Meghan Drueding
John La Farge, 1835-1910
When it comes to stained-glass artists, Louis Comfort Tiffany usually gets all the glory. But it was his contemporary John La Farge who held the patent for modernizing the artistic medium first.
The New York–born La Farge had originally studied law, but on a trip to France in the 1850s he practiced painting under Thomas Couture and hobnobbed with the Parisian cultural elite. While in Europe, La Farge likely also began his lifelong love affair with the work of Japanese artists. As a painter, he would often incorporate Japanese aesthetics into his watercolor landscapes and still lifes, becoming one of the first American artists to do so.
La Farge soon became known for his large-scale murals, which he painted in churches and government buildings. His murals still grace the interiors of places such as Trinity Church in Boston, the Church of the Ascension in New York City, and the Minnesota State Capitol.
In the 1870s, La Farge began to experiment with opalescent glass, a milky material that reflects and scatters light. He figured out a way to transform it into flat pieces and use it for windows, combining layers of the tinted opalescent glass to create vibrant effects and new colors. It was a distinct departure from the hand-painted leaded glass that had formed cathedral windows for centuries.
“[Opalescent glass] is colorful and chunky and looks like the candies in your grandmother’s candy dish,” says Krystyn Hastings-Silver, associate director of Lyndhurst, a National Trust Historic Site in Tarrytown, New York, that houses three windows believed by some to have been designed by La Farge. “And who does Tiffany learn that from? La Farge.”
La Farge had invited the younger Tiffany to see the process at his studio in the 1870s. In the following decades, both artists became involved in a bitter war of words and patent disputes, while competing for valuable commissions. La Farge’s stained-glass windows eventually appeared in noted buildings, including the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, and London’s Southwark Cathedral, but it was the shrewder Tiffany whose name is far better remembered. —Joe Sugarman
Oscar Howe, 1915-1983
In 1958, Yanktonai Dakota artist Oscar Howe submitted an abstract painting to an annual competition for Native American artists. Despite its subject matter depicting a Native dance, jurors rejected the painting because they didn’t consider the Modernist work to be “traditional Indian art.” Howe wouldn’t have it. “There is much more to Indian Art, than pretty, stylized pictures,” he wrote in a well-publicized letter. “Are we to be held back forever with one phase of Indian painting, that is the most common way? We are to be herded like a bunch of sheep, with no right for individualism, dictated [to] as the Indian has always been, put on reservations and treated like a child … .”
Howe would spend his life challenging popular conceptions of Native art while also educating generations of artists as a longtime professor at the University of South Dakota. “He had [tremendous] impact on Native art and breaking the stereotypes of what Native art was and could be,” says Taylor McKeown, collections and exhibitions curator at the South Dakota Art Museum, home to more than two dozen works by Howe. “He’s a beloved name in the state.”
Howe was born in 1915 on a South Dakota reservation and studied painting at the Santa Fe Indian School before returning home. His early work depicted realistic tribal scenes—ceremonies, dances, and customs—such as those captured in 10 murals he painted in the Mobridge, South Dakota, city auditorium as part of a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project. Another WPA project had him painting the dome inside the Carnegie Library, now the Carnegie Resource Center, in Mitchell, South Dakota. That mural, Sun and Rain Clouds Over Hills, depicted bolts of lightning and mythical thunderbirds, which were thought to bring rain to the sun-scorched Great Plains. Howe would also design murals for the Mitchell Corn Palace, a community building and tourist attraction whose facade is decorated seasonally with different varieties of corn, grain, and grasses.
By the late 1950s, Howe was developing a signature abstract style, using vibrant colors to depict Native themes. Before his death in 1983, he won numerous art competitions and displayed works in more than 50 solo shows. A 2022 retrospective, Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe, spurred The New Yorker to label him an “American master.” The exhibition’s national tour ends in September 2023 at the South Dakota Art Museum. —Joe Sugarman
Hildreth Meière, 1892-1961
Soon after the United States entered World War I in 1917, a genteel young woman named Hildreth Meière enlisted in the Navy as a draftsperson. “I’ll be learning accuracy, which never hurt anybody, all the time,” she wrote to her mother, according to The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière by Catherine Coleman Brawer and Kathleen Murphy Skolnik (Andrea Monfried Editions, 2014). “It will mean that after the war I can be of real use to an architect say or as apprentice to a mural man.”
It meant more than that. By the time World War II took place, Meière was one of the foremost muralists in the nation. Well-known architects such as Bertram Goodhue and Ralph Walker sought her out for her skill at designing intricate narrative murals that complemented and elevated their buildings.
She worked in various media: ceramic tile, mixed metal and enamel, glass, paint, and marble. And though she lived in her native New York City and Connecticut, she designed murals all over the country--including those gracing the walls and ceiling of Goodhue’s Nebraska State Capitol, her largest professional commission and one of her most famous.
Other standout settings among her roughly 100 commissions include Temple Emanu-El and St. Bartholomew’s Church, both in New York, and the Great Hall of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. “She was part of this movement at the time, this idea of [using] architectural decoration [to make] public spaces beautiful,” says Skolnik, an art and architectural historian and a board member of the nonprofit International Hildreth Meière Association (IHMA), founded in 2004.
Meière developed close relationships with the craftspeople who executed her designs, incorporating the tips she picked up from them into her blend of classical training and artistic instincts. “She was very precise about color,” says her great-granddaughter, Anna Kupik. “She didn’t settle. She was very observant of how the light would reflect in the spaces.” Kupik; her mother, Hildreth Meière Dunn; and her grandmother, Meière’s daughter Louise Meière Dunn, are all board members of the IHMA. The organization promotes Meière’s legacy and helps to preserve her murals. Despite the protected status of many of the buildings she worked on, some pieces, such as her painted canvas panels at the currently endangered St. Michael’s Monastery Church in Union City, New Jersey, remain vulnerable. —Meghan Drueding
Philip Simmons, 1912-2009
In the 1920s, a young Philip Simmons walked into the Charleston, South Carolina, workshop of Peter Simmons, a formerly enslaved blacksmith. The fusion of wrought iron, the strength of the anvil, and the capacity to weld and shape objects fascinated Philip. After an apprenticeship at the shop, Philip Simmons would become one of the most respected blacksmiths in the country.
Many of his hundreds of gates, grilles, and other ironworks in Charleston were commissioned by wealthy merchants for private properties. The Double Heart Gate at St. John’s Reformed Episcopal Church, which leads to the Philip Simmons Garden, is a public work that highlights the smith’s love of the “S” scroll motif. Simmons also proudly performed local repairs and restorations, including work at Drayton Hall, a National Trust Historic Site.
His mastery of the trade inspired a new generation of artisans. “He was working throughout the 20th century and really keeping local traditions alive,” says Christina Rae Butler, a professor of historic preservation at the American College of the Building Arts and the College of Charleston.
Simmons’ legacy has endured well beyond his death in 2009; architect David Adjaye was influenced by the blacksmith’s work when he designed the exterior skin of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, says Rossie Colter of the nonprofit Philip Simmons Foundation. The foundation was established to develop the Philip Simmons Garden, and it also opened his Charleston home and workshop—which once appeared on the National Trust’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places—as a museum in 2010.
Charlestonians remember Simmons as a soft-spoken, creative, and spiritual man, fiercely dedicated to his craft. In the 1970s, he was asked to create a design for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. After weeks of false starts, it was on the plane ride to the festival that he, according to Colter, “took out his sketch pad and pen” and developed the idea for the Star and Fish Gate, which is now owned by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and remains one of the blacksmith’s most lauded pieces.
“When he went to Washington, then everybody in Charleston realized he was something special,” says Colter. “He was not the village blacksmith anymore.” —Kayla Stewart
John Joseph Earley, 1881-1945
John Joseph Earley turned ordinary concrete into an art form. The son of a stonecutter who inherited his father’s business at 25, Earley developed a technique called “architectural” or “mosaic” concrete—a method of combining and exposing the small stones and other materials (known as “aggregate”) that, when mixed with cement and water, form concrete. Unless manipulated, concrete is typically gray and smooth, but Earley added texture and hue by scraping away the fine top layer to reveal colorful pebbles beneath. He used tiny pieces of ceramics, marble, glass, and stones to “paint” pictures or create intricate patterns.
Earley was born in New York but moved to Washington, D.C., as a young boy and would eventually leave a permanent mark on the city’s public spaces, bridges, and churches.
His first major commission remains his most visible. In 1915, the federal government hired him and his talented crew at Earley Studio to fashion the walls, stairs, sidewalks, obelisks, balustrades, and a 13-basin cascading fountain for the planned 12-acre Meridian Hill Park in the city’s Columbia Heights neighborhood. Due to budget constraints, the project wasn’t finished until 1936, but the results were spectacular. “The park is, perhaps, the most ambitious and successful example of Neoclassical park design in the United States,” reads the nomination form for its 1994 National Historic Landmark listing.
The studio went on to create designs for numerous sites in the Washington area and beyond, from the detailed depictions of angels in the city’s Shrine of the Sacred Heart to the Edison Memorial Tower in Menlo Park, New Jersey, to the exteriors of five “polychrome” houses in Silver Spring, Maryland, fashioned from slabs of brightly colored aggregate. Earley had a stroke in 1945 and died just after selling the business to his longtime partner for $1, but his studio would continue to create concrete works of art until it closed in 1973.
“Concrete has been used in construction since the Romans, and Earley’s studio had greater control of the material than pretty much anyone who’s ever lived,” says architectural historian Elizabeth Milnarik. “They could do miracles with the stuff.” —Joe Sugarman
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