Casa Klumb

Front view of Casa Klumb, with Henry Klumb standing in from of the reflecting pond (left) and his wife Else standing next to the entry stoop (center right).

Casa Klumb was one of the highlight subjects while teaching a course on History of Modern Architecture during my academic tenure in Puerto Rico. Even as a student in Architecture School, the almost inaccessible house had an aura that fired-up the imagination of many of us.

Now, the fire that consumed the property provoked the publishing of these notes. Moreover, the aerial videos shared on social media platforms of the house engulfed in flames prompted me to think of the last act of Los soles truncos (a dramatic comedy in two acts) by René Marqués, where a house — the symbol of a prosperous life in previous times — was consumed by fire (along with the main characters) as an act of immolation.

This thought transformed the rage and sadness I felt by this terrible loss and offered a certain sense of relief while I accounted for the state of disrepair and neglect that Casa Klumb had been suffering for decades.

A brief history

The Henry Klumb House in Sabana Llana, Río Piedras, a neighborhood of San Juan, was initially known as the Cody Ranch. The house was a nineteenth-century casona, and it acquired architectural significance from the considerable alterations performed by the German-born architect Henry Klumb in 1949.*

Klumb and his wife Else bought the house in 1947 and lived in it, along with their two sons until 1984, when both parents died in a car accident. The property remained unoccupied since then and was acquired shortly after in 1986 by the University of Puerto Rico. Despite this, it was abandoned, bearing significant degrees of deterioration over the years.

In 1997, already in a grave state of disrepair — but still retaining much of its architectural integrity — it was included as a Regional Monument in the United States National Register of Historic Places. In 2012, it was elevated to the status of National Monument by the same entity.**

Large-format photograph of Casa Klumb
at MoMA’s exhibition Latin America
in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980.
Photograph of the exhibition by John Hill; https://www.flickr.com/photos/archidose/; accessed 05/10/2015.

In 2014 efforts were made to include the house within the World Monuments Watch’s List or endangered structures, and in March of that year, Comité Casa Klumb (a committee to oversee the restoration of the house) was created.

These efforts alongside the inclusion of Casa Klumb among the subjects at the exhibition Latin America in Construction: Architecture (from) 1955 (to) 1980 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the Spring of 2015 where all signs in the right direction pointing towards its preservation.

Despite raising monies and awareness for its restoration; multiple events difficulted taking the affirmative actions required to avoid its destruction and loss.***

Klumb’s intervention

The original house was a typical Caribbean casona with pitched-roof, its floor raised from the ground (for ventilation purposes), with an open veranda or balcony throughout. Klumb’s intervention resulted in the substraction of elements rather than adding to the existing structure. In a series of strategies that appeared to adhered more with Le Corbusier’s Open Plan approach, Klumb eliminated — almost in their entirety — the enclosing walls of the house to allow continuity between the public spaces and the veranda.

Casa Klumb, Main Floor Plan, 1949
Henry Klumb, FAIA

Thus, the living room (in the front) and the dinning room (at the back) — maintaining the original turn-of-the-nineteenth-century layout — were left completely open, exposed to the natural breeze and exterior conditions; only the roof (and the fact that it was raised from the ground) provided shelter from the natural elements. The surrounding vegetation, a unique feature of the house’s siting as illustrated in the original photographs (and sketches) below, allowed an additional layer of protection.

Main living room with original furniture designed by Henry Klumb and Stephen Arneson; ARKLU (Photograph from the professional archive of Henry Klumb at AACUPR)

The bedrooms remained partially enclosed. However, large operable windows and pivoting doors (with louvers) allowed for privacy while allowing cross ventilation. When opened, the doorways provided visual and physical connection with the balcony and public areas of the house. A few additional walls throughout the house, were lifted a few inches from the floor and did not touch the ceilings, to allow for the uninterrupted flow of air. The exterior wall of the main bedroom was articulated in plan to be ”floating” (detached from the rest of the encircling walls) and thorough slim swing doors, provided direct passage to the veranda and an additional form of air circulculation.

Henry Klumb reading. The exuberant palm trees provided privacy from onlookers. The tensile structural elements along the veranda guardrails, added by Klumb, were required once the removal of perimeter walls, to help withstand the pull forces exerted on the roof by strong storm winds.
View from the veranda of the reflecting pool in the front yard. Loose gravel pavement was used throughout the periphery of the house because the crunching sound of steps notified them (and their dogs) of trespassers and visitors.
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View of the main living room, the low wall divided the study or home office.
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View of the veranda and dining room table.
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Details of the dining table structure and rotating mechanism.
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Floor plan and axonometric view.
Sketched floor plan (probably by Klumb) illustrating the spatial relationship and location of mobile and built-in furniture throughout the house. (Image from https://www.facebook.com/AACUPR/photos/a.147654355334879/422045364562442/)

Additional notes on the history of the house

The original casona belonged to José Ramón Latimer and his wife Esther C. Cody, who rented out rooms for people visiting from the mainland. Before Klumb purchased the property for himself, and for a brief period of time between 1944 and 1945, the Cody Ranch served as the residence for Richard Neutra and his wife Dione Niedermann.

Both Klumb and Neutra served as design consultants under the government of Rexford Tugwell. However, the collaboration between them was far less cordial as imagined. Family letters written by Dion Neutra, while their sojourn in the Island, portrayed the competitive relationship of her husband and Klumb, almost as nemesis.

She explains, how they managed to rent an available room at Cody Ranch and how it was like to live in Puerto Rico. In the end, the Neutra’s left Puerto Rico after not being able to secure additional work and pursued his carrier elsewhere. Klumb on the other hand, remained and made a life life for himself and his family in the island.

Notes:

*Henry Klumb, was born in Cologne, Germany in 1905. He emigrated in 1927 to the United States to become an apprentice at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin North in Wisconsin. He left Wright’s apprenticeship after five years, and worked briefly with Louis I. Kahn and Louis Metzinger, forming the Cooperative Planners firm in Philadelphia during the Great Depression.

In 1944, Klumb was invited by Rexford Tugwell (Governor of Puerto Rico at the time) to work as a design consultant at the Public Works Design Committee. A few years later, he established the Office of Henry Klumb in San Juan from where he designed all types of private and public projects all over the Island.

** For a copy of the registration form visit: https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/4183ae4d-6f2d-4918-82b0-682a3b7ed16c (Accessed 11/12/20)

For National Register list of properties in Puerto Rico, including Casa Klumb refer to: https://www.nps.gov/state/pr/list.htm?program=all (Accessed 11/12/20

For World Monuments Watch refer to: https://www.wmf.org/project/henry-klumb-house (Accessed 11/12/20)

*** The exhibition celebrated the 60th anniversary of the show MoMA organized in 1955 about Latin American architecture built by 1945. At that time, the architectural production of a decade was presented and in representation of modern architecture in Puerto Rico, two works were exhibited: the Caribe Hilton Hotel by Toro y Ferrer Arquitectos and the Sanctuary of San Martín de Porres by Henry Klumb.

For additional thoughts on the work of Henry Klumb and MoMA’s exhibition refer to: https://anonymousarchitecture.co/2019/01/10/henry-klumb-two-buildings-one-idea/

*** The house was owned by the University of Puerto Rico, a public entity enduring significant challenges due to the economic recession. Not to mention the impact of natural events like hurricane Irma and María in 2017 and the political turmoil that forced the exit of the sitting governor; all circumstances that somewhat justify the inaction to save the structure.

Acknowledgements

All photographs are from the professional archive of Henry Klumb at AACUPR, Archivo de Arquitectura y Construcción de la Universidad de Puerto Rico (University of Puerto Rico’s Architecture and Construction Archive) unless otherwise noted.

The author made all hand sketches during a guided tour organized by the restoration committee as part of a series of activities to raise awareness of the house condition and raise funds for its rehabilitation. High-quality print outs of these sketches were donated for auction, alongside other work by myriad artists, architects, and historians during a fundraising event.

Henry Klumb: Two Buildings, One Idea

The seed for this post was originally a discussion on the architecture of Henry Klumb* sponsored by the Preservation Committee of Puerto Rico’s Architects and Landscape Architects Association (CAAPPR) and docomomo_puerto Rico, the local chapter of the International Organization for the Documentation and Conservation of Modern Movement, that I proudly presided at the time.

As expected, I have slightly edited the text.

On March 29 (2015) opened the exhibition Latin America in Construction: Architecture (from) 1955 (to) 1980 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It celebrated the 60th anniversary of the exhibition that MoMA organized in 1955 about Latin American architecture built by 1945. At that time, the architectural production of a decade was presented and in representation of modern architecture in Puerto Rico, two works were exhibited: the Caribe Hilton Hotel by Toro y Ferrer Arquitectos and the Sanctuary of San Martín de Porres by Henry Klumb.

In the later exhibition, although it included architecture produced in a span of a quarter of a century, only one work from Puerto Rico was selected; Henry Klumb’s intervention of a traditional nineteenth-century hacienda in Río Piedras.**

In the assembly of a large-scale exhibition like this one, omissions are understandable, especially since including a whole sampling of works and figures from multiple countries is most certainly not an easy task. The problem — or rather what bothers me to this day — which is what somehow happened with the works chosen to represent Puerto Rican modern architecture 60 years ago — is that MoMA seems to perpetuate the promotion of IMAGES before IDEAS.

To reduce the architectural production of a quarter of a century in Puerto Rico to one surrounded by exuberant nature, or open to natural ventilation is to limit architectural ideas to mere tropical iconography. Whether or not intentional, it is somewhat offensive that peers do not acknowledge architectural sophistication in the Antillean Region.***

In the 1955 exhibition, its curator, Henry Russell Hitchcock, chose to describe the Sanctuary of San Martín de Porres — when comparing it to the ecclesiastical work of Oscar Niemeyer — as lacking dramatic spatial effects, just for the simple fact that its scale is not as monumental as the work of the Brazilian architect.

Referring to the diagonally arranged piers employed by Klumb at San Martín as light deflectors — dazzled perhaps by the fact that the chapel is open to natural ventilation — Hitchcock wasted the opportunity to recognize the spatial idea behind the structural elements.

With the piers, as designed and built, Klumb recognized the religious commitment of the Order of Preachers, also known as the Dominican Order, to amplify and promote the spread of the gospel.

If the first Dominican churches in the New World resorted to monumentality to carry over the word of God, at San Martín, Klumb used the angled walls to dramatize the diffusion of the Dominican ecclesiastical message.

More importantly, it surprises that despite the fact that the 2015 exhibition had the support of the Architecture and Construction Archive of the School of Architecture of the University of Puerto Rico (AACUPR in Spanish), curators wasted the opportunity to include a more representative work. Henry Klumb’s Dominican Friars Convent built in 1958 in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, would have proved a better example.A work in which the late architect, 10 years after having conceived San Martín de Porres, had enough time to rethink and mature the spatial ideas and architectural details he would rehearse in Cataño.

The following analytical drawings further illustrate the point.

Abstract axonometric animation on the evolution of the spatial ideas at play at the Sanctuary to San Martín de Porres the Dominican Convent.

The photographs and sketches above illustrate how the diagonally arranged piers provide a dual spatial experience. On both buildings, while attending mass (looking at the altar) the angled piers become a solid plane that frames our attention towards the liturgical event. In contrast, looking away from the altar the piers become a transparent plane that allows the interior space to extend beyond its built boundaries.

In contrast to the tight suburban lot where Klumb had to erect the sanctuary, the site at the convent was larger. Therefore, the spatial quality achieved at San Martín, aided by the hanging plants and low concrete walls, was further expanded at the Dominican residence, not only at the church space, but throughout the complex.

At the time of the lecture on this subject (in 2015) many of those present at the event did not know the Dominican Seminary. And that should have made us think, that while we recognized the omissions of the exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art, we also needed to reconsider ours locally. MoMA’s omissions are justified because any exhibition constitutes an act of summarizing. And anyone that summarizes, at the same time undoes and, as result, remakes history.

Notes:

* Henry Klumb, was a German architect born in 1905. He emigrated in 1927 to the United States to become an apprentice at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin North in Wisconsin. After five years, he left Taliesin and worked briefly with Louis I. Kahn and Louis Metzinger, forming the Cooperative Planners firm in Philadelphia during the period of the Great Depression. In 1944 he was invited by Rexford Tugwell (Governor of Puerto Rico at the time) to work as design consultant at the Public Works Design Committee. A few years later, he established the Office of Henry Klumb in San Juan from where he designed all types of private and public projects all over the Island.

** The exhibition catalog included a black and white photograph (right image at the second illustration above) of La Parroquia Nuestra Señora del Carmen in Cataño, Puerto Rico designed by Henry Klumb in 1959. For an earlier post on Casa Klumb, please refer to: https://wp.me/p1hCI1-a2

*** Despite the myopia with which MoMA decided to carry out the exhibition, Dr. Enrique Vivoni (former director and founder of the Architecture and Construction Archive of the School of Architecture at University of Puerto Rico; entity that preserves the historical documents of myriad architectural firms of the Island) clarified in the commented bibliography section that he was asked to produce for the exhibition catalog, the existence of an analytical/critical tradition of architecture in Puerto Rico.

Our critique of MoMA’s short sightedness has also been diagnosed by others. For example, on the introduction of Aalto and America, Stanford Anderson calls-out MoMA’s myopia when they organized the Finnish architect’s Cenntenial Exhibition and “…gave spare attention to Aalto’s relationship with America, which is all the more surprising for the fact that New York, and indeed the Museum itself, figured largely in Aalto’s experience of America.”

from sketch to space, part one

Until last year (2017), while working at Jorge Rigau, FAIA -Arquitectos PSC (jorgerigau.com), I collaborated in the restoration of San José Church in Old San Juan, the second oldest church in the New World. Originally built by the Dominican Order, its construction began in 1532, and spanned until mid-19th Century, with several restoration efforts undertaken during the 20th Century.

As an overseer of the conservation effort under the Patronato de Monumentos de San Juan, I recorded minute details of existing conditions, as well as restoration techniques, and on-site solutions and recommendations.

Customarily, architecture projects rely heavily on construction plans; and while historic preservation endeavors are not exempt of including such drawings, on-site sketches and recording field notes tend to have greater weight. First, because surprises abound; second, since — more often than not — complex tasks need to be translated to workers; and finally, because preservation is mainly about restoring traditions, and on-site instructions — I strongly believe — is one of them.

In this post and a series following, I’ll illustrate how some of those graphic instructions aided at the restoration of myriad elements throughout San José.

While assessing a structural fracture at the Virgen del Rosario Chapel a wall niche or hornacina was discovered behind cement plaster. In what seemed like an attempt to address the structural crack (or change in liturgical aesthetics), the niche had been sealed off from view.

Throughout time, a series of earthquakes affecting Old San Juan had structurally compromised the church and several openings had been repaired. Even if well-intentioned, most too often this repairs where performed with incompatible or feeble means and methods.

Notwithstanding, vestiges of the original niche were still visible under the improvised enclosures. Therefore, we opted for reconstructing the niche, albeit ensuring an appropriate structural reinforcement of the fractured wall above. The sketch above illustrates our response; restoring the original half-round niche and providing a half-dome to structurally stabilize the damaged lintel, allowing the safe distribution of gravitational forces towards the reinforced brick masonry base.

The photo below shows a bricklayer erecting the masonry base that supported the half-dome. The voids between the brick masonry of the new niche and the uneven surfaces of the rubble masonry wall were carefully filled in with a compatible mortar in order to provide a solid substructure. The subsequent images show the finished hornacina within the space.*

* We decided just to include our sketches, photos of the process and images of the finished product. But in Puerto Rico, for far too long, traditional means and methods of construction like brick, stone or rubble masonry, had been lost. During the mid-20th Century, disguised as a way to withstand hurricanes, traditional construction including wood had been replaced by reinforced concrete (and eventually steel) construction.

Needless to say, throughout the restoration process of San José workers encountered multiple difficulties. Regardless of their avid skills, many initially lacked the discipline to deal with the minute details pertaining traditional construction; careful selection of materials; consistency of mortar mix production; and most importantly, the need for erecting work ensuring geometrical precision in order to withstand the effects of gravity.

Workers quickly learned the fact that masonry construction is not as forgiving (not to say malleable) as reinforced concrete; therefore there were many failed-starts. Fortunately, in all instances, workers’ pride for their craft and perseverance worked in our favor. The finished product not only ended as imagined, but it also performs as intended.

Casa Vives, Ponce, Puerto Rico

A few years ago my wife Claudia Rosa-López and I led a group of students from Polytechnic University in documenting this house. With their set of drawings they earned a Third Place award at Peterson Prize, sponsored by the Historic American Building Survey of National Park Service. Today, the students’ drawings can be accessed at the Library of Congress site through this link: https://www.loc.gov/item/pr1528/

Built about 1860 and designed by French immigrant architect Juan Bertoli Calderoni, Casa Vives in Ponce, Puerto Rico is an outstanding example of a 19th-century Puerto Rican urban residence with commercial spaces on the ground floor and residential spaces above.

Casa Klumb

The Klumb house, previously known as el Rancho Cody, was acquired by Henry Klumb in 1947. The house belonged to José Ramón Latimer and his wife Esther C. Cody who rented out rooms. In 1949 Klumb remodel the structure which was a traditional pitched-roof wood structure raised from the terrain with a surrounding balcony that opened directly towards the outside.

The intervention instead of consisting of additions to the original layout was more about subtraction as if adhering to Mies’ “less is more” predicament. Klumb eliminated — almost entirely — the enclosing walls to allow continuity between the public spaces of the house and the veranda. Thus, the living room (in the front) and the dinning room (at the back) — maintaining the original layout — were left completely open. The bedrooms remained partially enclosed and large operable pivoting windows allowed for privacy while allowing cross ventilation and when opened visual and physical connection with the balcony.

Klumb, his wife Else and their two children Peter and Richard lived in the house until 1984 when Klumb and Else died as a result of a car accident.

After their death, the house was acquired by the University of Puerto Rico in 1986, but was left abandoned to its current state of deterioration. In 1997 it was included as a Regional Monument in the National Register of Historic Places and in 2012 it was elevated to the status of National Monument by the same entity. In 2014 the house was included in the World Monuments Watch and in March Comité Casa Klumb was created to aid at the restoration of the structure.

Here are a few drawings I made during a visit to the Casa Klumb organized by the committee as part of a series of activities aimed at raising awareness of the house condition and its future restoration.

IMG_1791.JPG The living room

IMG_1792.JPG The dining room

IMG_1790.JPG The dining room table

IMG_1789.JPG floor plan and axon

sketching por la isla: tren urbano

Here are some sketches I made on our last tour sketching por la isla. This time we decided to draw from the “Tren Urbano” (San Juan’s only metro line).

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inside the train car; the curved buildings of el monte housing complex (where I live); tunnel entrance; san juan’s courthouse façade detail; and grab bar detail.

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rum testing laboratories’ building at san juan’s botanical gardens; and escalators atrium at centro medicos’ station.

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covered platform at cupey station.

sketching por la isla: yauco y san germán

Estos son algunos bocetos que realicé el pasado sábado mientras acompañaba a Jorge Rigau y su curso de Historia del Caribe.
Here are some sketches I did last Saturday on a trip with Jorge Rigau’s course on History of Caribbean Architecture.

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Condición urbana (parque/plaza) en Yauco; diagrama espacial de la residencia Franceschi (tipo sala-pasillo-comedor) y alzado parcial de la Villa Ange del arquitecto Pedro Méndez.

20120201-000428.jpgFachada frontal de la Ermita de Porta Coeli y un diagrama de la condición urbana (parque/plaza) en San Germán.

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Diagrama espacial de la Residencia Acosta y Forés (tipo A-B-A), perspectiva del mediopunto en la sala y un detalle de los estarcidos del área del comedor.

20120201-000552.jpgDiagrama espacial de la Residencia Ortíz Perichi y una perspectiva de la Residencia Vélez del arquitecto Henry Klumb.

convento de las carmelitas, thomas s. marvel

Designed in 1976 by Thomas S. Marvel, the Carmelite Sisters’ Convent in Trujillo Alto is often considered one of the best examples of early brutalism in Puerto Rico. It is troubling how closely it was modeled to resemble Le Corbusier’s convent of La Tourette. However, its proportions lack the mathematical correctness and spatial aspirations of the French masterpiece.

In truth, the similarities lie only within the use itself, the materials employed and its siting. The Convento de las Carmelitas rests on top of a small hill in a somewhat pastoral setting. Exposed concrete or “betón brut” was the main construction material employed.

There is no way to access the main cloister unless one becomes a Carmelite Sister (or a robber, as one of the sisters told us). The only spaces that welcome visitors are the refractory and the chapel which can be accessed through an entrance courtyard. Here’s a view of that space looking towards the main gate, the belfry and the chapel’s entrance. I have also included an interior photograph of the chapel to illustrate the lack of proportions and poor spatial qualities.

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