Moorish Revival

On August 21, 2016 · 3 Comments

Occasionally Twelve Mile Circle likes to feature lesser known architectural styles in articles such as Rock Cut, Pueblo Deco, Egyptian Rivival and Octagons. I came across another one I found both fascinating and rare that I wanted to share: Moorish Revival. This design became modestly popular during the second half of the Nineteenth Century and the first half of the Twentieth Century. Europeans and North Americans looked nostalgically upon Middle Eastern themes and it reflected in their architecture too. Onion domes, horseshoe arches and ornate design elements came from the Moors, a medieval Islamic culture from North Africa and Spain. Architects found the style particularly suitable for theaters, synagogues and the temples of fraternal organizations. I selected a single example from each category.

Georgian National Opera Theater

Tbilisi opera house
Tbilisi opera house. Photo by Henri Bergius on Flickr (cc)

Georgians always loved opera and long flocked to their magnificent theater in Tbilisi (map). The opera house first opened in 1851 at the beginning of the Moorish Revival although it underwent several stressful episodes during its history. It burned twice. It also survived Russian and Soviet occupations. It then nearly fell during Georgia’s 1991 civil war:

"One day a group of paramilitaries gunned down the front door, telling us they needed the opera for shelter," he remembers. "After the gunmen left we had no front door and a wall riddled with bullets. When we opened again after the fighting, I wanted to cover that wall in glass and put up a big sign saying: ‘This is not how you treat culture."

The opera house underwent an extensive multi-year renovation recently, reopening in January 2016.

Great Synagogue of Stockholm

Great Synagogue of Stockholm
Great Synagogue of Stockholm. Photo by Erin on Flickr (cc)

I wondered why so many of the notable synagogues built in the 1800’s adopted Moorish Revival designs. The Museum of the Jewish People provided an explanation.

The style of these synagogues, inspired from the oriental architecture, especially Moorish, was intended to evocate the glorious past of the Jewish people in the land of Israel and in medieval Spain, while the size and location of the synagogues in the city centers expressed the newly acquired legal status and social respectability of the Jewish community.

The Great Synagogue of Stockholm (map) offered an excellent case study. The building held 900 people at a time when "the entire Jewish community of Stockholm had less than two thousands members." The year of its completion, 1870, also coincided with the lifting of the last legal restriction placed on Sweden’s Jews.

Tripoli Shrine Temple

Milwaukee Tripoli Shrine Center
Milwaukee Tripoli Shrine Center. Photo by Nels Olsen on Flickr (cc)

Masonic organizations — branches of the Freemasons — came in many different forms and affiliations. The Shriners offshoot began in the 1870’s in New York City. This happened during a height of fascination with Middle Eastern themes.

Billy Florence had been on tour in France, and had been invited to a party given by an Arabian diplomat. The exotic style, flavors and music of the Arabian-themed party inspired him to suggest this as a theme for the new fraternity. Walter Fleming, a devoted fraternity brother, built on Fleming’s ideas and used his knowledge of fraternal ritual to transform the Arabian theme into the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (A.A.O.N.M.S.).

They adopted Moorish trappings, most famously the red fezzes they wore on their heads. Their logo also featured a scimitar and crescent. Their fraternal meeting places became Neo-Moorish monuments they called temples. The Tripoli Shrine Temple in Milwaukee, Wisconsin followed these principals upon its construction in 1928 (map). It attempted to emulate the Taj Mahal. Oddly while the Taj Mahal was Mughal not Moorish, I guess it was considered "close enough" to be lumped in with Neo-Moorish when adapted in the US.


Opa Locka City Hall
Opa Locka City Hall. Photo by Adrian Salgado on Flickr (cc)

If 12MC had to pick a place that went most completely overboard with Moorish Revival themes, I would respectfully bestow the title upon Opa-locka, Florida (map). Glenn Curtiss, its founder, had already been a successful aviation pioneer and entrepreneur. He then developed several towns in Florida during the latter part of his career.

Curtiss’s interests were not restricted just to vehicles of transportation. In 1921, he essentially left the aviation business and moved to Florida to become a highly-successful land developer. With friends, he developed the Florida cities of Hialeah, Miami Springs, and Opa-Locka. Opa-Locka was intended to be his crowning achievement, a planned community resembling something from the Arabian Nights.

Curtis built his Opa-locka dream world north of Miami. It even reflected his passion in street names such as Sinbad Avenue, Caliph Street, Ali Baba Avenue and Aladdin Street. Municipal buildings, shopping centers and residences alike adopted a Neo-Moorish style unrivaled anywhere outside of the Middle East. They were all thoroughly Americanized of course. Oddly the name of the town itself came from its earlier Native American inhabitants, from a Seminole phrase meaning "a big island covered with many trees and swamps."

The city fell into a long, steady decline after an adjacent Naval Air Station closed in the 1950’s. NPR reported in June 2016 that the state took control of Opa-locka’s finances and targeted city officials for corruption investigations. Many of its residents lived in poverty in those Arabian Nights houses. What a shame.

Going in Circles

On July 13, 2016 · 0 Comments

For the obvious reason, any geographic feature related to circles will make it onto the pages of Twelve Mile Circle eventually. I collect examples as I encounter them until I have enough to write an entire article. This is the latest batch.

Circle, Montana

MappingMainStreet_CircleMT-7 by Kara Oehler on Flickr (cc)

Circle, Montana proclaimed itself to be "A Great Place to be Around" although it lacked a circle. The town followed a typical grid pattern of squares and rectangles with its boundaries aligned to cardinal directions (map). It didn’t appear to represent a case of squaring the circle either. Did the circle represent something other than a geographic designation? Of course it did, as the town explained,

… inherited its name from the brand of the Mabry Cattle Corporation who came here in 1884. It was common at that time for a ranch to be known by its brand rather than the company or major owner’s name. In 1905 Peter Rorvik started a store and post office in the old ranch house and naturally name the Post Office "Circle". The little town catered to ranchers and farmers. When McCone County was formed in 1919 Circle won the county seat, an important factor in the towns growth.

The town grew until 1960 when its population peaked at a little more than eleven hundred residents. It hemorrhaged population every census afterwards and housed barely six hundred residents by the 2010 Census. It seemed to suffer from a lack of opportunity, a common fate for isolated villages located far away from the cities. Circle even gained some minor media attention for its remoteness. The website Quartz described it as "the spot that is the farthest from any Starbucks in the continental United States—more than 192 miles from the nearest green-aproned barista."

Atlanta’s Original 1-Mile Circle

Twelve Mile Circle once discussed the odd circular layout of numerous Georgia towns founded in the Nineteenth Century. The notion appeared in articles such as Shaped Like it Sounds and Georgia’s Enigma. I didn’t realize the same situation also applied to Georgia’s powerhouse capital, Atlanta. Multiple annexations and decades of sprawl obliterated all evidence of its original circle long before any of us lived. I credited reader "Bo" for bringing this curious footnote to my attention a few months ago. He found a tantalizing reference to its original one-mile radius in Wikipedia’s Atlanta Annexations and Wards page.

The roots of Atlanta extended back to a settlement called Terminus, so named because it marked the southeastern terminus of the Western & Atlantic Railroad in 1837. The railroad marked this spot with a stone Zero Mile Post bearing an appropriate inscription. Georgia also used the marker to anchor a transportation hub for railroads converging from multiple directions. Subsequent planning led to a slight realignment of the Zero Mile Post to its present location in 1842 (map) and the town became Atlanta. Indeed, Atlanta began with a radius of a single mile that later expanded to 1.5 miles in 1866, then 1.75 miles in 1889, then finally ignored the premise of a circle altogether and it grew wherever it wanted.

The marker still existed at its 1842 location although its placement became quite unusual. A modern building covered the geographic footprint of the Zero Mile Post so the city moved the marker underground, into the building’s basement. Various websites including one provided by the National Park Service described how to find it.

The Western and Atlantic Railroad Zero Milepost, within the Underground Atlanta Historic District, is located under the Central Ave. viaduct, between Alabama and Wall sts. It is inside a building that currently houses the Georgia State University Security Office. To reach this site, enter the parking garage at the corner of Central Ave. and Alabama St., take the elevator to the basement, and ask for directions to the Security Office.

A June 2016 article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution provided updated information and a dose of bad news. The Georgia Building Authority owned the now vacant building. That placed the marker off limits and closed to the public. Maybe that will change when tenants reoccupy the space.

Teapot Dome

Teapot WY 1
Teapot WY on Wikimedia Commons (cc)

I considered a dome somewhat circular so it seemed to fit the theme. I noticed a reference to the Teapot Dome Scandal and decided to find the alleged dome. A little context may be in order for the 12MC audience. I always considered Teapot Dome to be such a ridiculous name for a scandal, like it couldn’t have been all that serious given its silly title. However, it came to signify the single greatest act of political corruption in United States history when it happened in 1922. It was the Watergate of the early Twentieth Century.

The U.S. Navy began shifting fuel for its ships from coal to oil, making oil a strategic asset. The government set aside several reserves so it would always have enough oil for its vessels should a hostile nation ever cut-off the supply. It designated one of the reserves at Wyoming’s Teapot Dome (map) and commercial oil companies could not drill there.

Warren Harding then became President in 1921 and appointed a bunch of his cronies to powerful government jobs. This including Albert Fall who became Secretary of the Interior. Fall then convinced Harding to transfer responsibilities for the reserves from the Navy to the Department of the Interior. Fall also took bribes from a couple of his oil baron friends and allowed them to drill within the reserves. Wyoming officials blew the whistle on Fall and the story caught fire in the newspapers. Fall went to prison for accepting bribes, a first for a sitting Cabinet-level official. Harding also probably would have been impeached if he hadn’t died in office. Oddly, those who bribed Fall escaped convictions.

Teapot Dome used to look a lot more like a teapot before its "spout" broke off.

Rock Cut, Part 2

On May 11, 2016 · 2 Comments

I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I stumbled across the existence of an entire genre of structural design known as Rock Cut Architecture, described in the previous article. I could hardly contain my glee although there was still a lot of work to be done. There were so many examples from widely varied parts of the world that I couldn’t fit them all into a single article. That made this follow-on post necessary, with additional illustrations from several more nations.

Ellora Caves, India

Great Kailasa From Above
Great Kailasa From Above by Craig Moe on Flickr (cc)

India became such an epicenter for buildings and rooms carved from stone that it had its own distinct subcategory, Indian Rock Cut Architecture. It wasn’t just one culture or religion either. Followers of several beliefs and faiths practiced and perfected this art. These structures rose in numerous places. One of the best was the Ellora Caves in Maharashtra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

These 34 monasteries and temples, extending over more than 2 km, were dug side by side in the wall of a high basalt cliff, not far from Aurangabad, in Maharashtra. Ellora, with its uninterrupted sequence of monuments dating from A.D. 600 to 1000, brings the civilization of ancient India to life. Not only is the Ellora complex a unique artistic creation and a technological exploit but, with its sanctuaries devoted to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, it illustrates the spirit of tolerance that was characteristic of ancient India.

A Hindu Structure known as Cave 16 or the Kailasa temple (map) was particularly impressive. This massive structure unfolded on multiple levels, so large and complex that it had to be carved from the top down. It dated to the reign of Krishna I in the Eight Century.

Yungang Grottoes, China

Yungang Grottoes
Yungang Grottoes by Olga on Flickr (cc)

Sites featuring rock cut architecture in India were often called Caves by English speakers, and in China they were Grottoes. I didn’t know why. I simply observed that China placed a close second to India in terms of rock cut prevalence and impressiveness. There were several expansive sites, notably the Yungang Grottoes near Datong in Shanxi Province (map). These were Buddhist structures from the Fifth and Sixth Centuries. Buddhism moved north from India as did a penchant for rock cut architecture. At Yungang, devotees carved more than 250 openings and 50,000 statues into the Wuzhou Shan mountains, "a classical masterpiece of the first peak of Chinese Buddhist art."

Vardzia Monastery, Georgia

Vardzia by Tony Bowden on Flickr (cc)

Vardzia in Georgia (map) represented an instance of carving into stone for protection as much using it as a convenient building material.

In desperate circumstances people are often driven to perform feats of mythical proportions. In the late 1100s the medieval kingdom of Georgia was resisting the onslaught of the Mongol hordes, the most devastating force Europe had ever seen. Queen Tamar ordered the construction of this underground sanctuary in 1185, and the digging began, carving into the side of the Erusheli mountain, located in the south of the country near the town of Aspindza.

Once completed, the Vardzia Monastery contained multiple levels and thousands of rooms, stretching over a half kilometre of mountainside. Invaders weren’t a problem although natural forces took a heavy toll. An earthquake caused many of the cells to collapse after only a century.

Coober Pedy, Australia

Underground House at Coober Pedy
Underground House at Coober Pedy by Matthew Klein on Flickr (cc)

The popularity of rock-cut architecture faded many centuries ago. The technique was incredibly labor intensive. In the meantime, other building techniques and materials continued to improve. Nonetheless, this distinctive style survive into the modern era although generally during unusual circumstances such as those found at Coober Pedy in South Australia (map).

Coober Pedy was one of those places that probably had no reason to exist except that it happened to sit atop enough gemstones to crown itself "Opal Capital of the World." Otherwise it was a harsh desert climate not particularly conducive to civilization. For one, there weren’t any local material available to build anything to shelter those who mined for opals. However, the surrounding bedrock was perfect for digging into so local inhabitants did just that and created what were known as dugouts. People simply carved into hillsides.

The early Coober Pedy dugouts were indeed the holes that had been dug in search for opal. Today opal mining in the town area of Coober Pedy is not allowed any more. But hey, you can always renovate or expand, Need another shelf? Dig a hole in the wall. Shelf not big enough for the new stereo? Dig a bit deeper. A walk in robe? Dig a big hole. Another bed room? Not a problem! And always the off chance of finding some opal… In reality nobody digs by hand any more. Any new building work is done by modern tunneling machines.

Many homes and businesses in the area were created as dugouts, as were two churches, one Catholic and the other Serbian Orthodox. Residents of these structures also benefited from a constant comfortable temperature. Whether the desert at the surface hit scorching hot or freezing cold, it always remained nice underground. Rock cut architecture might not be an optimal choice in most places today although it seemed to be a great solution for Coober Pedy.

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