MAS Context Spring Talks 2021

Charles Colbert at 100

June 23, 2021 at 12PM

Architect Charles Colbert would have turned 100 years old on June 23, 2021. To commemorate this significant date and to discuss the relevance of Charles Colbert’s work, MAS Context organized an online event on that day. During the program, artist, historian, and curator Francine Judd Stock and architect, critic, and educator John P. Klingman discussed the career of Charles Colbert. Evan Mather, independent filmmaker and landscape architect, introduced and screened his film A Plea For Modernism focused on Colbert’s Phillis Wheatley Elementary School.


On Charles Colbert

Architect Charles Colbert was born in Dow, Oklahoma on June 23, 1921 and was raised in Alvin, Texas. In 1943 Colbert received his Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Texas, Austin. He served in the United States Navy until 1946 and studied naval architecture at the University of Michigan. In 1947 he received his Master of Science in Architecture from Columbia University and accepted an assistant professorship at Tulane’s School of Architecture in New Orleans, where he taught from 1947 to 1949. Colbert served as the Supervising Architect and Director of the Orleans Parish School Board from 1949 to 1952, during which time he revolutionized the school system’s aging building stock, producing modern, award-winning designs for schools which garnered national praise. There were thirty new schools were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s.

Colbert’s practice focused primarily on schools, residential projects, office buildings, hospitality, and urban planning in the New Orleans area. Some of his projects include Hoffman Elementary (1948), McDonogh Elementary (1950), Motel de Ville (1953), Phillis Wheatley Elementary School (1954), Woodvine House (1957), Octavia House (1959), Kirschman House (1960), Swan House (1960), Louisiana Clinic (1963), Olivetti Building (1966), and the Belle Chasse State School (1976).

He served as the Dean of the School of Architecture for Texas A & M University from 1956 to 1957 and the Dean of Columbia’s School of Architecture from 1960 to 1962. In 1962 he was elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. Colbert taught at Rice University, Louisiana State University, and Tulane University. His award-winning designs were widely published. He published three books, including Idea: The Shaping Force.

His designs were featured prominently in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s exhibit Regional Modernism curated by New Orleans AIA Executive Director Melissa Urcan. In 2007 AIA Louisiana awarded him its highest award, the Medal of Honor, for his life’s work. He died in Metaire on February 12, 2007.

Idea has nothing to do with fashion or style. It is not interchangeable with theme or scheme, and it is not equivalent to concept, which deals with a generalized class of things and connotes resolution rather than invention. And idea is much more than systematic combinations and artful arrangements. I believe that a real idea alters thought, and changes human action after its occurrence.
—Charles Colbert
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Hoffman Elementary School, 2622 Prieur Street, New Orleans, LA. Sol Rosenthal and Charles Colbert, architects. From the book Idea: The Shaping Force. Courtesy of Francine Stock.

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Section showing sun control and ventilation, Hoffman Elementary School, 2622 Prieur Street, New Orleans, LA. Sol Rosenthal and Charles Colbert, architects. From the book Idea: The Shaping Force. Courtesy of Francine Stock.

Suggested readings:

Karen Kingsley, “Charles Colbert,” 64 Parishes.

Charles Colbert, Idea: The Shaping Force (Metaire: Pendaya Publications, 1988).

Francine Stock, “Is There a Future for the Recent Past in New Orleans?,” MAS Context, December 10, 2010.

David Schalliol, “Writing in Stone Veneer: New Orleans Public Schools’ Past and Future,” MAS Context, June 28, 2020.

John P. Klingman, “Mid-Century Modern Architecture of New Orleans,” Preservation Resource Center, May 1, 2021.

A Plea For Modernism (2011)
Evan Mather

A historic African-American elementary school was lost in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The Phillis Wheatley Elementary School served the historic New Orleans African-American neighborhood of Tremé since it opened in 1955. Celebrated worldwide for its innovative, regionally-expressive modern design, the structure had sustained moderate damage during the storms and levee breach of 2005. DOCOMOMO Louisiana advocated for its restoration via adaptive reuse. A Plea For Modernism is narrated by actor Wendell Pierce (“The Wire,” “Treme”).