Pre-Nazi Swastika Architectural Details

On March 30, 2014 · 4 Comments

I experienced the joy of traveling within the Twelve Mile Circle — the Delaware geo-oddity for which this site was named — while visiting with some dear friends last weekend. In Wilmington, at Rodney Square specifically, I glanced up and noticed the wonderful Egyptian Revival architectural details on the Wilmington Public Library. I’d been sensitized to the style because of my earlier Egyptian Revival Churches research, which provided evidence that I’ve actually learned a few things while publishing this rag. Now I could bore my companions with tales of trivial knowledge.



Architectural Detail on Wilmington (Delaware) Public Library
My Own Work

Then I noticed the swastika. I already understood that it was an ancient symbol existing for thousands of years before the Nazis co-opted and defiled it, converting it into a symbol of hate.(¹) As the US Holocaust Memorial Museum explained:

The swastika has an extensive history. It was used at least 5,000 years before Adolf Hitler designed the Nazi flag. The word swastika comes from the Sanskrit svastika, which means “good fortune” or “well-being”… In the beginning of the twentieth century the swastika was widely used in Europe… Despite its origins, the swastika has become so widely associated with Nazi Germany that contemporary uses frequently incite controversy.

I couldn’t have agreed more. The Wilmington swastika jumped like a bolt into my consciousness by its mere existence, even while I understood its historical usage intellectually, a reflection of severely negative connotations forever associated with its symmetry. Edward Lippincott Tilton, a master architect of public libraries in the United States, could not have foreseen the result of his decorative choice when he designed the building in 1922 and likely would have been appalled had he not passed away before the war.

The Wilmington Public Library included various architectural details based on classical ideals. None of them became the least bit controversial except for the swastika. Feel free to check some of them out by clicking the left-and-right arrows on the Flicker image above or from what you can spot on Street View. I’m a fan of the little owl sculptures on the second-floor window ledges.

I posted my discovery on the 12MC Google+ page(²). Reader "Benjamin" kindly posted a couple of links including a vintage photo with an advertisement for Swastika Sodas and a page on the Early Use of the Swastika in WA State. That led me to wonder about the prevalence of swastikas as a North American architectural detail during the early 20th Century, before such usage became unthinkable.

More examples survived than I could have possibly imagined, both in clockwise and counter-clockwise orientations. Below are just a few that I noticed either photographically or on Street View.


Skillman Branch Library, Detroit, Michigan, USA



Opposite Ends by Charles Dodds on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license

Notice the decorative fret running around the Skillman Branch Library perimeter which included both attached and standalone swastikas (it was also visible in Street View). The building was constructed in 1931/32 and originally called the Downtown Library until its extensive renovation and re-opening in 2003. The Skillman Branch may be known best as the location of the extensive National Automotive History Collection.


Lampposts, Glendale, California, USA



[Glendale Lamppost Swastika by Jeremy Sternberg on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license

The City of Glendale, California erected a series of cast iron lampposts along some of its busier downtown commercial and residential streets in the 1920’s, notably on Broadway between Glendale Avenue and Brand Boulevard. More than 900 vintage lampposts included decorative swastika bands within their design. In response to a complaint, the City Attorney conducted an extensive evaluation in 1995 and concluded,

The contention was that these approximately 2 inch by 3 inch symbols encircling the base of these old lampposts, were Nazi swastikas, were offensive and should be removed… Not a scintilla of evidence exists to indicate that the counter clockwise swastika design at the base of the lampposts was intended as a political or other statement in support of any group or organization.

The City Attorney offered several alternatives including "take no action and preserve the lampposts as they are." An April 2011 Street View image seemed to confirm that selection.


Jefferson County Courthouse, Birmingham, Alabama, USA



Columns at Jefferson Co. Courthouse, Birmingham, Alabama, USA

Swastikas also appeared on columns outside of the main entrance to the Jefferson County courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama. This granite and limestone Art Deco building dated to 1929, as designed by the noted Chicago architectural firm Holabird & Root.

The building’s National Register of Historic Places application listed numerous exterior architectural details.

Bas-relief sculpture adds subtle and sometimes elegant decorative detailing to the facade. Particularly notable are the series of sculptures by Leo Friedlander symbolizing attributes associated with the seat of justice and cultural and political influences from the county’s past. Over the west entrance the panels depict the Indians, the Spanish, the French, early American settlement, the Confederacy, and the English. Other panels of the building symbolize vigilance, power, justice, and mercy. Columns topped with the American motif of New World corn flank the main entrance. Handsome Art Deco lanterns also mark the entrances.

Nowhere did it mention swastikas.


The Travellers Hotel, Ladysmith, British Columbia, Canada



The Travellers Hotel, Ladysmith, British Columbia, Canada

North America usage of this motif wasn’t limited to the United States, as evidenced by the façade of the Travellers Hotel, in Ladysmith, British Columbia, Canada, constructed in 1913:

The large and highly detailed Traveller’s Hotel building speaks to the prosperity and optimism that existed in pre-war Ladysmith… an excellent example of an Edwardian-era, commercial style building… The most striking features are the brick swastika symbols on the front facade. At the time of construction, the swastika was a relatively common symbol of prosperity and peace; during World War II, concerns were expressed about the symbol’s association with Nazism. The building was not altered in response to these concerns and the Traveller’s Hotel remains in substantially original condition.

Today the Travellers Hotel Cooperative hopes to "revitalize and reopen" this historic hotel.


Kimo Theater, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA



Kimo Theater, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Native Americans, including the Navajo and other tribal nations of the US Southwest that used swastika-like decorative designs. This was carried forward into the Kimo Theater in Albuquerque. I couldn’t find a decent public domain or creative commons photograph to embed, nor a decent Street View image, although one good photo existed on the City of Albuquerque’s Kimo Theater swastika page. The Kimo Theater, first opened in 1927 and now owned by the city, represented the "flamboyant, short-lived architectural style" known as Pueblo Deco.

Thus, the Kimo Theater (map) wasn’t a throwback to ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome. It represented Native American, particularly Navajo artistic elements, for whom the swastika represented "life, freedom and happiness."


(¹)For example, and as noted previously in 12MC to represent a Buddhist temple in Japan or the name of a town in Ontario, Canada.

(²) I try to post unique tidbits, breadcrumbs and non sequiturs on each of the various 12MC pages, whether here on the flagship site within those "completely unrelated" footers or on satellite locations such as G+ or Twitter. Readers won’t get the full 12MC experience on any one site; they all contribute to the whole. Often I use Twitter to announce new articles, mock spammers and conduct nonsensical public conversations that chase away readers which is why I can’t seem to get my subscriber base to grow. Imagine that. I often use G+ to mention weird 12MC visitors from oddball locations and such. Nobody uses G+ although I still like to keep it alive. There will never be a 12MC Facebook page, though. There’s no particular rhyme or reason for what I post where except in very general terms

On March 30, 2014 · 4 Comments

4 Responses to “Pre-Nazi Swastika Architectural Details”

  1. Mr Burns says:

    A few years ago, our little town re-did the main street downtown. As part of the re-do, they laid brick in patterns evocative of our famous old mill.

    You can see the mill here: https://www.google.com/maps/@39.201591,-96.301417,3a,50.6y,55.22h,89.69t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1s-5y9SLCA4dFUsPnP2VF-Ig!2e0

    And check out the brick patterns here:
    https://www.google.com/maps/@39.203254,-96.305037,3a,49.2y,64.61h,69.16t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sANKHTDlA8xG1gm1lGaH-Rg!2e0

    Not long after the bricks were put in somebody called one of the TV stations in Topeka claiming we had swastikas on our sidewalks. A camera crew was dispatched immediately, of course. They found no story, since pretty-much anyone can see that they don’t even begin to look like swastikas. Fortunately, it was a slow news day, so their “non-story” ran. It’s kept anyone else from claiming to see evil symbols in the walkways, at least so far.

  2. Alex says:

    They’ve been used a fair amount as a decorative element in Britain (quite possibly due to the Indian connection). There was a bit of a brouhaha about a month back over a FOI request regarding some on Essex County Council Building (thankfully now generally forgotten about)

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-essex-26337662

  3. Peter says:

    San Diego has this swastika-shaped building complex. It’s located on, of all things, the Navy SEAL training base.
    http://goo.gl/maps/3lM61

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