The Progressive Architecture of James R. Mowry
Today, many downtowns are an odd mixture of architectural styles including classical buildings, 1960’s-style street-level facades, parking lots, and the occasional “contemporary” structure that however well intended, can’t help but look conspicuously out of place.
While cities scrambled to redefine their character, there was no such problem in the suburbs. From a design standpoint, each new suburb was a clean slate. Suburban architecture could reflect fresh surroundings. New designs could be influenced by current trends rather than classical structures, and these new designs would cater to a new, mobile life style.
In 1964 we would Meet George Jetson, star of a new futuristic TV cartoon show. George lived with his family in Orbit City, where buildings had bold streamlined geometric shapes, stylish curves, upswept roofs and an abundance of glass. The year was 2064, but the architecture was mid-20th century modern.
It was 1964 when a unique building appeared next to the V Drive-In theater on the Vestal Parkway. Ken Wilson’s Chevrolet showroom was unlike any that had come before. The dominant feature was a stylish geometric concrete roof with no supporting walls. It seemed to defy gravity and there was nothing like it this side of Orbit City.
“It’s known as a hyperbolic paraboloid” said the designer of the building, James Mowry. The style was especially popular in the Northwest and except for Mowry’s work, there are no other structures of this type in the Southern Tier. Mowry took an interest in this style of construction after reading about the work of Mexican engineer Felix Candela. “This was one of my first projects,” Mowry said. The roof is thin-shell 3-inch thick reinforced concrete, poured on site, and supported at just two points. “I remember when it was built,” Mowry laughed, “The construction crew was worried that it might collapse, and as each wooden support was knocked out the workers would run!”
A few years later Mowry designed another hyperbolic paraboloid building in the area. Unlike the Vestal showroom, Valley Christian Reformed Church on River Road in Kattelville is made entirely of wood, and the contours are even more pronounced. “Locally it’s known as the snow plow building,” said long-time church member Ron Crawford, who remembers watching the construction in 1968.
For two decades Mowry was a prolific architect in this area. “He was probably the greatest local architect of that time”, said current architect James Bryden.
Soft-spoken and modest, eighty-six year old Mowry reminisced recently about his career. “My father and grandfather were builders, stone and brick masons, so as a kid I was always around construction,” he said. “I remember tracing floor plans out of a magazine and telling my father I wanted to be an architect when I grew up,” to which his father responded, “No you don’t!”
As an architect, Mowry was heavily influenced not only by Candela, but by the work and philosophy of Frank Lloyd Wright. Recalling visits to some of Wright’s creations, Mowry paused and said with some sentiment, “you get an emotional reaction when you go into one of his buildings”.
Mowry doesn’t recall how many buildings he designed in this area – there are many. Asked which are his favorites (besides the hyperbolic paraboloids), Mowry listed a few: Chenango Forks School and West Gymnasium at Binghamton University top the list. Next is the D’Angelo House on Larchmont Road in Vestal, for which he received an award in 1964 by the American Institute of Architects. Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence is evident throughout this house, as it is with another favorite, St. Margaret Mary's Church in Apalachin.
Mowry also designed Stephen’s Square in downtown Binghamton, a project that incorporated loft living spaces decades before the concept became popular locally.
The architectural character of many towns in this area was established over a century ago. Several decades later styles had changed dramatically, but unlike the other arts, architecture brings with it a sense of permanence. Introducing current stylistic trends into an established urban environment presents a fundamental problem. With no open spaces there are two options – either permanently alter the appearance of existing structures, or demolish and replace them. In either case, original designs are destroyed – gone forever.
But classic and contemporary architecture can coexist. Innovative progressive designs can be realized without destroying historic urban environments. The work of James Mowry is a perfect example.
Nearly 50 years have passed since Mowry’s Vestal showroom opened. Today, as structurally sound as the day it was built, the building sits empty and for sale. Mowry envisions it reopening as a restaurant, but whatever the future holds for this unique structure, you can be sure that like all of his creations, visitors entering the building will experience an emotional reaction.
It is interesting to note that many formerly modern structures such as Mowry’s hyperbolic paraboloids now face challenges similar to vintage urban buildings in the 1960’s. Tyler Sprague of the University of Washington writes of these structures, “their efficiency of construction (thin concrete or wood) makes them easy targets for demolition without regard for their history or unique design features.”
It is an interesting turn of events. As they say, “what goes around, comes around” – or as Bob Dylan put it in 1964: “The present now will later be past… for the times, they are a-changin’”.