Shout Hallelujah 

Cravath Hall gets a renovation that Aaron Douglas would admire

Cravath Hall gets a renovation that Aaron Douglas would admire

The last time I toured Cravath Hall, it was 1996 and the brown brick and stone structure at the center of the Fisk University campus was in sorry shape. Mortar was crumbling; roofs and windows were leaking. Pigeons roosted and excreted in the upper floors.

Even more disturbing was the condition of the mural cycle by Aaron Douglas. This major monument of African American art history was painted for what was then the college library in 1930, during what Douglas called his “Hallelujah period.” The artist later said that just looking at them made him so happy he was afraid they would dissolve.

The murals didn’t dissolve, but they suffered sorely the onslaughts of time and nature. Dimmed by dirt and damaged by water, the oil on canvas works had also been muddled by duct work and partitions added when the building was converted into offices for the university’s administration. Douglas’ panoramic history of the African American—past glories and sorrows, future dreams—had become a muted and broken narrative.

But a $6.5 million renovation of the building, and an exquisitely careful $350,000 conservation of the murals, has made a new Hallelujah period for Fisk. The salvaged artworks have received most of the media attention. But Cravath Hall is a monument in its own right. Named to honor the university’s first president, Cravath was designed in 1929 by Henry Hibbs. The architect came to Nashville in 1916 from New York to oversee the construction of the Social-Religious building (Now Wyatt Center) on the Peabody campus. He stayed to become one of Nashville’s finest.

Like most architects of the period, Hibbs had command of a variety of styles. He designed the campus of what is now the Scarritt-Bennett Center at Vanderbilt University and the Rhodes College campus in Memphis. Hibbs also designed the robustly Roman American Trust tower and the stripped classicism of the NES building.

Cravath Hall is another example of Hibbs collegiate Gothic. But there’s more to the building than crockets and finials, depressed arches and mullioned windows. Hibbs was reaching into a more modern idiom with the massing of the structure—a three-story base topped by a six-story tower—which gives an aspirational lift to Cravath. The setback form reflects the deco influence—think Daily Planet—coming into play in the commercial skyscraper. “Nashville has lost most of its art deco buildings,” says Metro Historical Commission director Ann Roberts. “That makes the restoration of Cravath especially significant. “

In 1998, Fisk hired the Moody-Nolan architectural firm, with preservation consultant Michael Emrick, to oversee the repair of the exterior. By 2002, Fisk had raised enough money to begin the interior rehab. The architects were told to return the building’s original character as much as possible, while updating mechanical systems and functional spaces for current administrative needs.

“We took out all the bad stuff, opened up the building spacewise to its original state,” says architect Bea Thompson, principal in charge of the project. Administrative offices, including a handsome presidential suite with two fireplaces, occupy the first three floors, which once served as the card catalog, reference and reading rooms of the library.

“The biggest challenge was to hide the new mechanicals,” says project architect Brian Tibbs. “In the 1930s, there was no air-conditioning. Ceilings were later lowered, and ducts inserted, as A/C was added ad hoc.” In restoring the old card catalog room, the architects cleverly concealed climate control behind a false front—the faces of card drawers without the drawers behind. Replicas of the grillwork that had once screened radiators now conceal modern heating.

Out of respect for Cravath’s past, the architects retained or replicated original oak paneling and bookcases, and copied the original linoleum for the corridors. They also preserved the old library’s curious book retrieval system, a steel spiral at the center of the upper six floors—the tower—which originally housed the library stacks.

“Students were never allowed into the book storage area, which is essentially a masonry box into which a steel frame was inserted to support the shelves,” Thompson explains. When a patron requested a book, a librarian upstairs was notified by a message sent in a pneumatic tube. The librarian fetched the book, and sent the volume sliding down the runners of the spiral in a leather bin. “We put a glass panel in the wall flanking the spiral, and had replicated one of the leather boxes, so that people can see how it worked,” Thompson says. “The only other library we’ve found that used this system was at Yale, and Hibbs designed this one first.”

The team in charge of conserving the Douglas murals—Cunningham-Adams of Washington, D.C.—uncovered another curious fact when they began analyzing the artistic remains. “We’d been told that Douglas 'touched up’ the murals in the late ’60s, after his retirement as chairman of Fisk’s art department,” says George Adams. “What we found was that he’d totally repainted them—retaining the original imagery, but using a radically different palette.” Conservation work also revealed four paintings that had been completely hidden by house paint.

Adams and his partner and spouse, Christiana Cunningham-Adams, discovered the 1930 palette when they found a wall mural that had been covered by house paint before Douglas returned to repaint. The repainting was also obvious in places where the ’60s work had fallen off, revealing the original art beneath. “With every surface loss, we were looking back in time at 40 years of artistic development,” Adams says. “The original murals were painted in lyrical, soft colors and are much prettier. When Douglas came back, the points of light in the story stayed light to express hope, but he used darker, somber, richer colors in the intervening spaces. He’d realized as a mature artist that the African American story was not a lyrical story.”

The murals are executed in Douglas’ signature style. Silhouetted figures, cubist-inspired transparent rays, orphist-inspired concentric circles are all employed at the behest of simple, readable narration. The entire cycle depicted black history from the Old World to the New beginning with Africa and Egypt and working through slavery and emancipation to a freedom symbolized by the sun rising behind Jubilee Hall, a section of the mural now lost. Douglas synthesized the influences of classicism, modernism and African art to create for African Americans a collective identity rooted in a collective memory—and distinct from that of white America.

The detection of the repainting has enabled a reassessment of Douglas’ career. “I think now, much more than I did before the murals were conserved, that Douglas really grew as an artist,” says Amy Kirschke, a Vanderbilt scholar of African American art and author of Aaron Douglas: Art, Race and the Harlem Renaissance. “And I used to think that the murals Douglas did for New York’s Schomberg Center were his masterpiece. Now I think that designation belongs to the murals at Fisk.”

A special consideration for the Cunningham-Adams team was the treatment of the sections where Douglas’ work had been totally destroyed. “The question was how to put what remained in context,” Adams says. In the blank spaces, “We restated in paint the background geometric patterns of the original—not the foreground figures—in a soft way. The point was to recreate the memory of the original into the blanks. Otherwise, you’re just looking at fragments. We’re the servants of the artist. Our goal was to conserve in a way that, if Aaron Douglas walked into the room, he wouldn’t be horrified.”

“They made the right decision not to re-create, fake Aaron Douglas,” Kirschke says. “What’s new and what’s Douglas is obvious, but the whole is cohesive.”

At the rededication of Cravath Hall Saturday, Fisk President Carolynn Reid-Wallace gave a calm, if muted address, perhaps reflecting her sudden resignation announced the day before. Reid-Wallace quoted from a speech made at the 1930 dedication of the building. “Since the new library lifted up its proud head on the university campus, all Fisk heads are lifted up.”

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