My Milton Grenfell payback

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Proposal for Museum of the American Revolution, in Philadelphia. (Grenfill Architecture)

Strolling through the blogs of Traditional Building magazine’s website, I came across an article by Gordon Bock from two years ago about Milton Grenfell, a Washington, D.C., architect who designs classical buildings. Now, Milton Grenfell holds a lofty place in my heart not just for his work but for having sent a letter to the editor 17 years ago in praise of my writing at the Journal. At a time when deans and professors of architecture at Brown and RISD, among others, were regularly denouncing me on the Journal’s letter page, Grenfell’s letter was timely and extraordinarily gratifying.

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Milton Wilfred Grenfell

Bock’s piece on Grenfell, “Beyond the Call of Duty,” was written after the architect had won TB’s Clem Labine Award in 2015 for his efforts to promote traditional building and arts. TB’s Palladio Awards ceremony is coming up on July 18, in Salem, Mass. And in fact, it is for TB founder Clem Labine’s blog posts that I was searching for when I happened on Bock’s piece. So well written stylistically and of such elegance structurally is Bock’s essay on Grenfell, and so fully does he capture Grenfell’s ethos, that I might as easily have devoted this post to the writer as to the architect he celebrates. But it is Grenfell who once heaped praise on me, so this post is dedicated to him, long, long overdue.

(Posts on individuals, however marvelous, are generally beyond the scope of my blog, as requiring too much subtlety to attempt. In my whole run of 25 years as an architecture critic as an architecture critic at the Journal, I think I have thus memorialized only three: Henry Hope Reed, Antoinette Downing and Bill Warner.)

In a brilliant essay, “Of Time and Architecture,” Grenfell segues from describing the decline in the design and construction of factories as seen from the windows of Amtrak’s Eastern Seaboard line into philosophizing about the decline of architecture in America and, well, supposedly America itself. He writes:

We have been told that our society has grown wealthier over these last 200 years, yet our building record tells a different story. The record we read here is of a civilization entering a dark age. Instead of the settling of a continent as manifested in our nation’s first 200 years of building, begun in 1607, the last 200 years, in Wendell Berry’s memorable phrase, reflect the “unsettling of America.” The record along the rail line speaks of a people who no longer build for the future. And surely, underlying the barbarity of all dark ages is life lived without much attention to the future, much less any hope for it. For barbarians, like animals, only the present moment matters.

Or, as Theodore Dalrymple noted in regard to plans to demolish much of the city of Bath (thankfully thwarted), “The British are barbarians camped out in the relics of an older and superior civilization to whose beauties they are oblivious.” Our eyes tell us this is true of America today – surrounded as we are by evidence of how beauty is built, we continue to build ugliness instead. (I might quarrel over whether this has been the case since 1807, if I may be permitted to take Grenfell literally.) A growing beachhead of new traditional architects has been working against this sad and curious phenomenon, early as it may or may not have begun, for decades. Milton Grenfell is among the most elegant and prescient of its practitioners and theorists.

Here is his letter to the Journal, “Clone Brussat,” on July 19, 2000:

As a practicing architect and sometime town planner, I visit scores of towns and cities around the world, with your fair city of Providence being one of the places that it’s been my distinct pleasure to have visited. It was a double delight, therefore, to discover in The Providence Journal the trenchant, wise and finely crafted architecture/urbanism columns of David Brussat.

When compared with his ostensible counterparts in every other paper I’ve ever read, without exception, his bold and sensible essays stand out as diamonds from coal. He is a jewel that Providence should treasure just as surely as he treasures the many architectural jewels of your city. I suspect that for many I merely belabor the obvious, but I hasten to proclaim his prowess in the knowledge that, alas, a saint is often nowhere without honor except in his own town.

Could Mr. Brussat be loaned out, franchised, or cloned? How the modernism-blasted world of this land cries out for more Mr. Brussats, a man who cuts with lapidary clarity straight through modernism’s monolithic tyranny of the media.

Thank you, Milton!

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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4 Responses to My Milton Grenfell payback

  1. Erik Bootsma says:

    It was an incredible pleasure to have worked for him when I started out after graduate school. Glad to still call him a friend and colleague.

    An impeccable architect and an eye for detail and he never pulls punches on bad design!

    Like

  2. Thanks very much, Steve and Steve. It feels good to praise the praiseworthy. I do not do it enough, I fear.

    Like

  3. steve bass says:

    Thanks for this piece on Milton Grenfell – a good architect and civilized man.

    Like

  4. Steven Semes says:

    Well-deserved praise for a veteran who has contributed so much to bringing beauty back to our land.

    Like

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