Text from Public Spirit Showcases
THE HIRSHHORN TOWN PROJECT: 1955
In 1955, Joseph Hirshhorn decided to build a model town adjacent to his new mining operations in Ontario. He searched for an architect who shared his aesthetic interests, finally settling on Philip Johnson, a rising star with many high-profile clients. At this point in his career Johnson was closely imitating Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, whose work he valued for its simple beauty and air of sophisticated modernity. This is precisely the look that Hirshhorn wanted for his new town. Johnson was hired as principal designer and given creative control over the town project, while John B. Parkin Associates of Toronto were hired as the local firm.
These undated early schemes trace the evolution of the architect-client dialogue on workers’ housing. The compact city core, situated around what Johnson described as an “Italian piazza,” is consistent throughout all the schemes, but the configuration of the town’s residential zone changes from suburban-style single family houses on small plots (top) to duplexes (above) and then a quadrangle of twelve-family apartment blocks (below). Another early architect’s model (bottom) shows the central piazza dominated by a comically enlarged version of Marino Marini’s 1953 Horse and Rider.
1a. Undated Plan for Hirshhorn, Ontario. Philip Johnson Papers (PJ 11.11.60), Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York, New York
1b. Undated Plan for Hirshhorn, Ontario. Philip Johnson Papers, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, California
1c. Undated Plan for Hirshhorn, Ontario (facsimile). John B. Parkin Fonds,
Canadian Architectural Archives, Calgary, Alberta
1d. Photograph of Model (Early Scheme) for Hirshhorn, Ontario. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC
First Priority: Housing
Building a new town offered an opportunity to engage in the “social engineering” at the heart of Modernist urbanism in the 1950s, with housing, health care, and education incorporated at the earliest stages of the project. At the top of the planners’ list was collective workers’ housing to serve Joseph Hirshhorn’s newly opened uranium mines. In the letter at right John B. Parkin writes to inform Franc Joubin (Hirshhorn’s mining associate) of a forthcoming planning application that will stress the urgency of housing construction. In twentieth-century Canada, the settlements that arose around mining or lumber operations were often haphazard affairs, where workers lived in random groupings of trailers. These were improvised—and often somewhat lawless—communities with minimal infrastructure and a transient, take-the-money-and-run spirit recalling the gold rush.
Hirshhorn, Ontario’s public housing program is particularly remarkable in this light. The housing units are detailed in Philip Johnson’s site plan, elevation, and floor plan (left) for eight twelve-family apartment buildings. These were, in fact, the only fully developed plans made for Hirshhorn, Ontario, before the project was abandoned, though the building site was cleared and ready for construction. Education also appears on the agenda at this stage: Parkin, in his letter, recommends temporary schoolrooms in the apartment buildings’ basements.
1e. Site Plan for Hirshhorn, Ontario, Apartment Buildings. Philip Johnson Papers, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, California
1f. Plan and Elevations for Hirshhorn, Ontario Apartment Buildings (facsimiles). Philip Johnson Papers, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, California
1g. (Right) Memorandum to Mr. Franc R. Joubin from John B. Parkin, July 20, 1955. John B. Parkin Fonds, Canadian Architectural Archives, Calgary, Alberta
The Brief: A Planning Proposal for Hirshhorn, Ontario
The key document for Hirshhorn’s town project, a proposal to the Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs, consists of an eight-page written description, a photograph of the model of the town, and a land-use plan. Joseph Hirshhorn was clearly trying to keep his proposal low-key and practical when presenting it to the government. For instance, while he avoids mentioning the future town’s extensive cultural facilities in the proposal, in contrast, his statements to the press at this time were exclamations about the central role of beauty and culture. But at one point in the brief Hirshhorn summarizes his utopian vision with the phrase “…this town will be planned towards happy living….”
The land use plan included with the brief details the relationship between the city center, residential sector, and future industrial zone to the east. As he mentions in the Other Industries section, Hirshhorn was adamant that the town attract outside manufacturing or processing plants to these large industrial allotments, an effort to allay fears of concentration of power unique to the one-industry town. Yet Philip Johnson’s model makes apparent the dominant force in the town—the mining company housed in the ten-story office tower in the central plaza.
The town center plan, below right, demonstrates the axial symmetry of which the architect was so fond. Johnson reportedly based his design on his notion of “The Processional”—the series of symmetrical vistas and compositions a visitor encounters strolling through the Renaissance towns of Italy. Yet, at the same time, Johnson incorporated a nod to his master, Mies van der Rohe, in the layout of the central plaza, where the office tower and museum are placed off axis and perpendicular to one another.
1h. Photograph of Final Model for Hirshhorn, Ontario. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC
1i., j., k., l. Selections from the Eight-Page Document: A Brief Submitted to the Honourable W.A. Goodfellow, Minister of Municipal Affairs, Province of Ontario, Re. Proposed Town of Hirshhorn, Ontario, July 1955. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC
1m. (Above) Land Use Plan for Hirshhorn, Ontario. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC
1n. (Left) 2008 Topographic Survey Map Showing Location of Hirshhorn Town-Site in Red. (Map No. 2017360051200—detail). Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Toronto
1o. (Right) Map from the Eight-Page Document: A Brief Submitted to the Honourable W.A. Goodfellow, Minister of Municipal Affairs, Province of Ontario, Re. Proposed Town of Hirshhorn, Ontario, July 1955. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC
1p. (Below) Town Center Plan for Hirshhorn, Ontario. Philip Johnson Papers, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, California
The Publicity Drive
Numerous articles were published about the Hirshhorn town project thanks to a comprehensive public relations campaign. This letter (right) between the collaborating architects sheds light on the public relations strategy, in which the model of the town played a leading role. It was used in photo opportunities with the founder, the architect, and even former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson (above right), who visited to see his old friend Joseph Hirshhorn’s endeavor and to “do a little fishing.” The leading story in the following week’s Toronto Financial Post (above) and the Montreal Star article published the same day (right) give a clear picture of how the founder of Hirshhorn, Ontario, intended the town to look and function. Hirshhorn lists many details, such as the spacious streets, the preservation of the site’s existing trees, and a printing plant for a local newspaper, while repeatedly emphasizing the central role of culture and aesthetics. The centerpiece of the project was to be an art center (“Art Centre Counts Most”, Financial Post) designed to house Hirshhorn’s art collection.
Unfortunately it was the founder’s aggressive press strategy, at least partly, that led to the project’s termination. Hirshhorn’s bold pronouncements, when they appeared in print, disturbed both nearby communities and government authorities, who were given the impression that the plan was rushing ahead without the requisite round of negotiations and approvals.
Hirshhorn was very disappointed when the project was cancelled. He could not understand why Canada did not want to receive his gift of the “most beautiful town” and his famous art collection. However, some years later, Hirshhorn was able to exercise his generosity with the gift of a community center for Elliott Lake, a nearby town.
1q. Letter from John P. Parkin to Philip Johnson, July 21, 1955. John B. Parkin Fonds, Canadian Architectural Archives, Calgary, Alberta
1r. The Globe and Mail (Toronto), July 30, 1955. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC
1s. The Financial Post (Toronto)(July 30, 1955) (facsimile from microfiche). Newspaper Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC
1t. The Montreal Star, July 30, 1955 (facsimile from microfiche). Newspaper Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC
URANIUM IN CANADA: BEFORE 1955 AND AFTER
The Great Canadian Uranium Rush
Uranium is used to sustain nuclear chain reactions and is a key element in both the atomic bomb and the reactors used in power plants. As the Atomic Age dawned in the early 1950s, demand for this element spurred a stampede reminiscent of the gold rushes of the 1800s. The deep wilderness of locations like Northern Saskatchewan was invaded by scores of prospectors. Families even turned their summer vacations into prospecting trips, equipped with motor homes and Geiger counters.
It was in this feverish climate that Joseph Hirshhorn received a vague tip about a uranium cache in Western Ontario. When a few tests turned up gold, so to speak, a massive, secret “staking bee” was organized in which Hirshhorn claimed enough uranium-rich territory to yield 150 million tons of ore. The stake was so large and unprecedented that Hirshhorn became known as the “Uranium King.” These photographs (above) show Hirshhorn’s men prospecting with Geiger counters during the Blind River Staking Bee. The group was made up of both prospectors and lawyers, the latter sent to register the claims. The staking was conducted in secrecy to avoid a rush of prospectors, yet press reports were leaked (above left).
2a. Colliers Magazine (October 2, 1953). Artist’s Collection
2b. Financial Post (August 1, 1953) (facsimile) Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC
2c., d., e. Prospecting Photos: Blind River Staking Bee. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC
Joseph Hirshhorn’s uranium stakes in Western Ontario covered an area roughly the size of Manhattan. The claims, measuring forty acres each, are visible in the map at top. Hirshhorn made his discovery after analyzing local hearsay, consulting with the best geologists, and learning that non-radioactive residue on the earth’s surface could be a sign of much richer deposits below. Exploiting the claims shown on this map entailed drilling mine shafts as deep as 1,000 feet. The photograph below, published by LIFE, shows three of the reported seventy-two engineers employed in the design and development of the new uranium mines working on an extraction strategy for the estimated 1,500 tons of ore collected daily. The Pronto Mine (shown in the snapshots at left and whose location is also visible on claim #23526) was the first shaft to be opened. A jubilant Joseph Hirshhorn started the mine’s power supply in the autumn of 1953 (lower left). Once the operation was underway, Hirshhorn entered the mine (above) to view the uranium pebbles that would make him rich. In these early days, uranium was extracted in the same way as other minerals, as shown in this period film still (above left). The dangers of close contact with this radioactive element were only discovered later.
2f. Claim Map of Pronto and Pater Uranium Mines. John B. Parkin Fonds,
Canadian Architectural Archives, Calgary, Alberta
2g. Still from The Birth of a Great Uranium Area, A Technical Mine Consultants and Canadian Television Film Production. 16mm Film. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Archives, Washington, DC
2h. Joseph Hirshhorn Visiting Pronto Mine. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC, Record Unit 7449
2i. Pronto Hoist Building. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC, Record Unit 7449
2j. Pronto Mine. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC, Record Unit 7449
2k. Joseph Hirshhorn Starting Pronto Mine Power Supply. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC, Record Unit 7449
2l. Three-Dimensional Model. LIFE (August 1, 1955) (facsimile). Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC, Record Unit 7449
The Manhattan Project, a multi-government effort to develop the atomic bomb, required large quantities of uranium at a time when war-time dangers of shipping the mineral from established suppliers in the Czech Republic and Belgian Congo were at their height. Thus, the search for safer sources of uranium in countries such as Canada began in earnest in the early 1940s. The Canadian government established itself as exclusive broker to local uranium producers, selling the element only to “an unidentified customer.” For reasons of both security and profit, the practice continued in Hirshhorn’s day. When he made his uranium discovery, the Canadian government immediately placed an order worth $207 million. But the mineral had to be extracted and processed, which would take at least two years and cost millions of dollars.
As the project’s developer and director, fundraising became Hirshhorn’s most urgent task. He issued stock with names such as Peach Uranium (which rose from $1.50 to $145 a share), sought outside investors, and finally sold the majority of his own stake to Rio Tinto of London, part of the Rothschild financial group. The deal funded the construction of the drilling and processing operation, which produced its first shipment of uranium right on schedule in September 1955. This sale also made Hirshhorn a substantial profit. The mining magnate was celebrated in the financial press (Fortune Magazine, bottom) and welcomed to the New York Stock Exchange, where his uranium stock had made many investors rich (above). The cold, condescending treatment he had earlier suffered from the Toronto financial community was at least partly assuaged by a glowing feature in Canada’s national magazine, Maclean’s (below). His association with Rio Tinto ended in 1960, when he sold the last of his shares, then “took the money and bought art.”
2m. American Stock Exchange President’s Report, 1956–57. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC
2n. (Right) Maclean’s Magazine, October 29, 1955 (facsimile). Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC
2o. Joseph Hirshhorn at New York Stock Exchange Reading Algom Listing. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC
2p. Fortune (November 1956). Artist’s Collection
When Joseph Hirshhorn made his uranium discovery in 1953, the dangers posed by this element were largely unknown. Since then, uranium has come to be associated with a range of concerns, including the environmental damage caused by extraction and processing, health dangers posed by exposure to radiation, and uranium’s central role in fueling the Cold War arms race.
To celebrate the first shipments of uranium from Hirshhorn’s mines in 1955, investors were given tiny glass viles of yellowcake, a uranium concentrate. Forty years later, one of those viles, now cracked, was discovered by Hirshhorn’s widow in his desk drawer. What had seemed in the 1950s like a harmless souvenir led to a team of specialists in Haz-Mat suits evacuating Ms. Hirshhorn’s Florida neighborhood. A 1979 letter from Stewart Udall (the activist lawyer and former Secretary of the Interior under President Kennedy) to Joseph Hirshhorn attempts to determine if Hirshhorn and his associates knew about the health hazards of uranium exposure and whether they were taking the precautions to minimize those risks with adequate ventilation. Udall, a native of Arizona, was then working on a case against the US government for endangering the lives of Navajo miners in the Arizona mines, opened as early as 1949. According to the reply of Hirshhorn’s associate, Franc R. Joubin, by 1954, in Canada at least, ventilation was in place when the first miners went into Hirshhorn’s mines. This had become common practice in all forms of mining, due to the dangers of silicosis and other lung ailments.
The environmental effects of uranium mining were much slower to be discovered. Canadian artist Robert del Tredici started documenting the human and environmental effects of the Cold War arms industry in the late 1970s. Del Tredici’s book At Work in the Fields of the Bomb is a chilling document of the day-to-day procedures of an industry whose ultimate end is the facilitation of mass human destruction. Many of those operations occur near the site of Hirshhorn’s proposed town. One photograph shows an important processing plant for yellowcake just down the road from Joseph Hirshhorn’s private villa. In another del Tredici photograph, Stanrock Tailings Wall, taken just a few miles from the Hirshhorn town site, forty-three years after Hirshhorn’s first uranium claim was registered, a massive wall of radioactive mine waste forms a backdrop for a bleak and poisoned landscape. In a single photograph, the artist has managed to tell the story of the uranium industry’s vast ecological tragedy.
Hirshhorn’s uranium mining projects propelled the Cold War arms race. This is an ethical grey area, where direct lines of cause and effect are hard to trace. Yet the arms build-up and doctrines such as Mutual Assured Destruction were defining psychological events of the Cold War era. While Hirshhorn, Ontario, was being planned to house the workers at the supply side of the arms race, other planned towns were being designed for its receiving end. Clarence Stein planned a series of satellite towns around Washington, DC, to house federal government workers safely outside an inner “danger zone” (the zone affected by a nuclear blast). Stein was the author of Towards New Towns for America, a publication at the heart of the New Towns Movement in the 1950s, and a likely reference for the architects of Hirshhorn, Ontario. The New Towns Movement points to one of the great ironies of the Atomic Age: these utopian schemes, with the best intentions and with their unprecedented social infrastructure, were being built in the climate of uncertainty created by the specter of nuclear war. Two generations grew up with the terror of Mutually Assured Destruction, yet it is still easier to quantify the health and environmental fallout of the nuclear arms race than to gauge its psychological effect.
2q. Letter from Stewart Udall to Joseph Hirshhorn (and Verso), January 19, 1979.
Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC
2r. Robert del Tredici. Stanrock Tailings Wall. Exhibition Print.
Artist’s Photograph Caption: The wall of white sand in the back of the trees is made up of radioactive mill wastes from uranium mining in the Elliot Lake region of Ontario. More than 100 million tons of these tailings have been deposited directly into the environment. Some of them have been carried by the Serpent River System into the Great lakes. The radioactive piles are unmarked and are not visible from the road. They will remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years. Stanrock Mine, Elliot Lake, Ontario, Canada. August 25th, 1986
2s. Letter from Franc R. Joubin to Stewart Udall, March 5, 1979. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC
THE HIRSHHORN COLLECTION IN 1955
A Collection for Hirshhorn, Ontario
A close look at Joseph Hirshhorn’s art collection in 1955 reveals a number of interesting narratives and connections. It is unlikely Hirshhorn acquired these works for their place within art history, the way contemporary collections are often formed. Sources close to Hirshhorn recall that he collected art intuitively, following a “gut feeling,” and that he discovered new work through referrals from artists and art dealers. He described the charge he would get from a work as going “straight to the heart,” as if he were perceiving a kind of energy emanating from the piece. When he had this sensation, Hirshhorn would invest heavily in the artist’s work, often purchasing many of the works on display in an exhibition or in the artist’s studio. Hirshhorn made many early “discoveries” of artists who later entered the Modernist cannon, such as Joseph Albers and Jean-Paul Riopelle. Others, including Irene Rice Pereira and Vaclav Vytlacil, have become less prominent and are now primarily known to art historians.
Hirshhorn began collecting art seriously in the late 1930s, concentrating on such figurative painters as Raphael Soyer, Philip Evergood and Louis Eilshemius. He started to acquire abstract and surrealist work by the late 1940s. By 1955, Hirshhorn appears to have earned a reputation for collecting more cutting-edge abstract art. Franc R. Joubin—Hirshhorn’s principal uranium mining associate—described the collection in his autobiography, Not for Gold Alone:
The great majority of Hirshhorn’s collection to which I was exposed were works from 1945 to 1955 in the abstract expressionist mode. At first, I was not at ease in this near-total saturation with abstract moderns.
Joubin’s statement is the departure point for this analysis of the Hirshhorn collection as it appeared in 1955. This presentation includes the works displayed in this showcase as well as the virtual exhibition Abstract Art from the Hirshhorn Collection shown in the video.
The Hirshhorn collection in 1955 represents the bridge between the pre-war European avant-garde (de Stijl, Constructivism, Bauhaus, Surrealism) and the art of post-war America. This migration of ideas started when American artists such as Michael Loew, George L. K. Morris, and Vaclav Vytlacil (3b) visited Europe in the 1920s and 1930s to study with innovators like Fernand Léger and Hans Hoffman. But the real immigration of ideas occurred in the 1930s when these European “masters” began to flee Europe and establish their studios in the US. A number of artists arriving from Europe had left behind influential positions (most notably in the Dessau Bauhaus) and naturally sought new teaching opportunities. Joseph Albers, Hans Hoffman, and Laszlo Moholy Nagy became art professors at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, The Art Students’ League in New York, and The New Bauhaus in Chicago, respectively. The Hirshhorn collection is especially strong on works by the former students of Hoffman, who taught generations of abstract artists. These include Irene Rice Pereira (3c), Burgoyne Diller (3e), Albert Swinden (3f), and Jack Tworkov.
Others immigrated much younger, such as Jimmy Ernst, who with his artistic pedigree (he was the son of surrealist Max Ernst) soon developed a following after he came to New York in 1938. Still other artists, like Victor Vassarely (3d) and Maria-Helena Vieira da Silva, chose to remain in Europe, while Canadian Jean-Paul Riopelle moved to France in the late 1940s. Hirshhorn acquired some of their work during post-war visits to Paris galleries, but these European artists were also showing and selling their work in New York, which, by the 1940s, had become a global center of the art market. Hirshhorn made many of his discoveries and purchases of international artists at New York galleries like ACA or André Emmerich.
Joseph Hirshhorn purchased many works by Joseph Albers, who had both taught at the Bauhaus and was a central figure within the American movement of Geometric Abstraction (Study for Structural Constellation, 1954; above, 3a). The movement’s following generation is represented here by Burgoyne Diller (903-47, 1947(above, 3e) and Albert Swinden (Study After Triangular Movement, 1950; above right, 3f), whose gouaches on paper demonstrate an intuitive freedom—a kind of “loosening up”—in contrast to Albers’ strictly analytical linear study.
The Hirshhorn collection in 1955 included many late surrealist works in which figuration is almost completely broken down. Jimmy Ernst (Abstraction, 1952; above, 3h) placed abstract compositions against layered backgrounds that gave a sense of pictorial depth, while the Portuguese painter Maria-Helena Vieira da Silva created swirling, faintly naturalistic forms (Untitled, 1955; above, 3g). The American artist Man Ray progressed from surrealistic still lives to a total breakdown of recognizable subject matter. Hirshhorn started collecting Man Ray’s elaborate shaped canvases, which resemble paintings of abstract sculptures, in the late 1940s (Shakespearean Equation: King Lear, 1948; above, 3i, and Shakespearean Equation: Measure for Measure, 1948; above, 3j).
Other artists working before 1955 moved beyond geometry and the pictorial field to work with paint and canvas in new ways. The best known of these—like Jackson Pollock—were working under the umbrella of the New York School. But Jean-Paul Riopelle was simultaneously producing canvases in Montreal and Paris in which paint was presented solely for its physical properties of color and texture (Abstraction, 1952; above, 3k). Spatial Concept, 1951 (above, 3l) by Lucio Fontana, is a study for his famous slash paintings in which the artist creates compositions in real space by cutting and punching the canvas.
The works on view here and in the accompanying video were collected by Joseph Hirshhorn before 1955. If a Hirshhorn Museum had been built in Ontario, as intended, in that year, these paintings and drawings could have been included in its inaugural exhibition. The group as a whole tells a fascinating story of artistic progress during this time. Like Philip Johnson’s design for the 1955 Hirshhorn Museum, this selection bears traces of the artistic breakthroughs of the pre-war European avant-garde, and shows signs of a transatlantic dialogue and debate still fresh in the modernism of mid-twentieth-century America.
3a. Josef Albers (American, b. Bottrop, Germany, 1888–1976), Study For Structural Constellation: D-40A, 1954, ink on paper. The Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest, 1981 (86.45)
3b. Vaclav Vytlacil (American, b. New York, New York, 1892–1984), Construction,
1938–39, oil paint, tempera, graphite, and crayon on wood door with brads and nails. The Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest, 1981 (86.5319)
3c. Irene Rice Pereira (American, b. Chelsea, Massachusetts, 1907–1971[checking on dates]), Bright Depths, 1950, oil paint on canvas. Gift of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, 1966 (66.3995)
3d. Victor Vasarely (French, b. Pécs, Hungary, 1908–1997), Mindanao, 1953, oil paint on paperboard mounted on canvas. The Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest, 1981 (86.5264)
3e. Burgoyne Diller (American, b. New York, New York, 1906–1965), 903-47, 1947, crayon and graphite on paper. The Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest, 1981 (86.1448)
3f. Albert Swinden (American, b. Birmingham, England, 1899–1961), Study After Triangular Movement, 1950, watercolor, gouache, and colored pencil on paper. Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966 (66.4861)
3g. Maria-Helena Vieira da Silva (French, b. Lisbon, Portugal, 1908–1992), Untitled, 1955, watercolor on paper. Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966 (66.5425)
3h. Jimmy Ernst (American, b. Cologne, Germany, 1920–1984), Abstraction, 1952, gouache on paper. Gift of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, 1966 (66.1795)
3i. Man Ray (American, b. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1890–1976), Shakespearean Equation: King Lear, 1948, oil paint on canvas. Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1972 (72.185)
3j. Man Ray (American, b. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1890–1976), Shakespearean Equation: Measure For Measure, 1948, oil paint on canvas. Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1972 (72.186)
3k. Jean-Paul Riopelle (Canadian, b. Montreal, 1923–2002), Abstraction, c. 1952, oil paint on canvas. Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966 (66.4263)
3l. Lucio Fontana (Italian, b. Rosario, Argentina, 1899–1968), Spatial Concept, 1951, ink on paper. The Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest, 1981 (86.1855)
THE HIRSHHORN GUESTHOUSE: 1955
Before Joseph Hirshhorn developed his plan for Hirshhorn, Ontario—his utopian town of culture—he started to build a house in the area for himself and his family. This was the first project he offered New York architect Philip Johnson, with the town commission soon to follow. The selection of the site and the construction and furnishing of the house was described by Hirshhorn’s wife of the time, Lilly Harmon, in her autobiography, Freehand:
“I think we should have a house in Blind River,” says Joe. “I bought one hundred and forty acres there on Lake Huron. It’s called Bootlegger’s Bay. It used to be a spot to run liquor over to the States during prohibition.”
The aerial photograph above shows the site of the house, known as The Hirshhorn Guesthouse (it was planned as an annex to a much larger house). The site is also shown in the three small photographs, above right. Though this picturesque stretch of Lake Huron was already dotted with the summer homes of Canadian and American vacationers, the Hirshhorn Guesthouse site had been cleared for use as a garbage dump. Harmon describes siting the house:
In snow up to our knees and surrounded by wolf tracks, we choose a site for the modest house. The grand main one Philip Johnson envisions as being nearer to the lake and having ceilings twenty feet high.
4a. Aerial Photograph of Bootlegger’s Bay, Lake Huron, Ontario. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC
4b., c., d. Hirshhorn Guesthouse Site Photographs. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC
Joseph Hirshhorn wanted the Guesthouse built in record time. To expedite this process, Philip Johnson suggested using one of his earlier plans, created for a development in Wisconsin. The form of the house changed little from this initial blueprint, below left, with a “U” arrangement around a protected terrace. But it seems Johnson’s speculative design was not commodious enough, judging from the much larger living room in the final plan published in Canadian Art, below right. The redesign of the house started with the exasperated-sounding notes (“Very inadequate!”) made on the blueprint by Johnson’s collaborating firm, John B. Parkin Associates of Toronto. As is common, a Canadian firm was hired to manage permit applications and construction, in this case for both the house and town projects. Hirshhorn is seen in the photograph at left chatting with a contractor: the house is still under construction, but the furniture has already arrived from New York. Lilly Harmon writes:
Armed with blueprints, Philip Johnson and I go to Knoll Associates in New York and choose rugs, chairs, tables, beds, and all material for the new house in Blind River. It takes two hours and is totally painless. Three months from the snowy February in which we had chosen the site with wolf tracks all around us, the house at Bootlegger’s Bay is finished.
A curiosity of modern design in the bush country, the new house looks naked on the cleared land. The contractor stands proudly by as Ann, the girls, and I enter.
Although principal construction took three months, the letter from the Canadian firm displayed below shows that decorating and outfitting took much longer. Written approximately eight months after completion, a few sentences stand out among banal provisions like garage drainage: The exasperated tone returns here in the criticism of both the decorator (“cheesy” door handles) and the client, who is described as having given the contractor “quite a ride.”
4e. Blueprint for Hirshhorn Guesthouse (facsimile). John B. Parkin Fonds,
Canadian Architectural Archives, Calgary, Alberta
4f. Joseph Hirshhorn at Hirshhorn Guesthouse Building Site. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC
4g. Letter to Max Miller, February 27, 1956. John B. Parkin Fonds, Canadian Architectural Archives, Calgary, Alberta
The finished house was a vision of sophisticated modernity, neatly situated in the wilderness. It was carefully photographed (above left) and then published in a number of periodicals over the next several years. On August 1, 1955, LIFE published a photographic journal of the region affected by Hirshhorn’s uranium discovery (above). The article contrasted the typically brutal—even violent—boom-town culture of the miners with the “resort”-like environment enjoyed by the owners and managers. This opulent lifestyle is documented by the snapshot, below, of Hirshhorn and his associates relaxing on the Guesthouse terrace, as well as LIFE’s unpublished photograph of Hirshhorn, Lilly Harmon, and their daughters on the same terrace (right). Harmon writes:
After the article on Blind River appears in Life magazine, complete with shots of Joe and me at our house at Bootlegger’s Bay, I worry that the pictures seem like a blueprint for mayhem. Someone may try to kidnap the children. Wandering tourists peer into the house, every room of which has floor-to-ceiling glass sliding doors. A large truck, looking like something out of Grapes of Wrath appears on our lawn with a whole family and their children perched on top of the chairs and household possessions. They have heard in Ohio that this is a great bonanza and they have pulled up stakes to come to Canada.
It is this anything-goes disorder—where an itinerant family shows up on the lawn of a millionaire—that Joseph Hirshhorn was attempting to counteract with his perfectly planned urban environment. In Hirshhorn, Ontario, these families would be given a place to live, in clean, orderly public housing units with their own large glass windows. But unlike the integrated, classless social utopias imagined earlier in the twentieth century, these new units would be built far away from the glass-walled villas of Bootlegger’s Bay.
4h. Hirshhorn Guesthouse (Garden View), 1955. John B. Parkin Fonds, Canadian Architectural Archives, Calgary, Alberta
4i. Hirshhorn Guesthouse (Entry View), 1955. John B. Parkin Fonds, Canadian Architectural Archives, Calgary, Alberta
4j. Canadian Art (November 1960) (facsimile). Artist’s Collection
4k. LIFE (August 1, 1955). Artist’s Collection
4l. Joseph Hirshhorn and Associates at Guesthouse, 1955. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC
4m. Joseph Hirshhorn, Lilly Harmon and daughters at Guesthouse, 1955. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC