Through our nearby family we are able to stay some weekends in New Orleans, an opportunity which delights us given that we live up in ‘the country.’ Our son and his family reside in what is called the “Irish Channel,” an historic neighborhood close to the Mississippi River and on high ground that did not flood during Katrina. Like much of New Orleans, that neighborhood is filled with old houses, some in excellent condition and others looking blighted by years of hot and wet weather.
While visiting our family there, we became acquainted with a very unique New Orleans local bookstore, The Garden District Book Shop, located incongruously in what seems to have been a former roller skate facility. The building now houses this book seller, as well as a coffee house and other vendors. It was here that we discovered Errol Barron’s remarkable and yet relatively small book featured in the image above.
Having once aspired to be an architect, having a longterm interest in architectural history, and having dabbled in watercolor painting, Errol Barron’s work immediately captured my attention. For this is a beautiful book, filled with color illustrations, and very affordable. The images in the book are the fruit of a sabbatical that he took in 2009, while most often visiting the sites for his paintings by bike.
Barron, as a career-long faculty member of the Architecture department of Tulane University, knows well the field that provides the material for his watercolor paintings, and also the substance of the profession and vocation he has pursued. Underlying all his work is the evident hand of a highly skilled draftsman, in both the historic sense of someone who draws well, and in the more formal sense of someone who is well-prepared to render architectural plans. His attention to scale and proportion, especially with regard to building facades, is particularly evident.
Through his dedication to his life’s work, Barron has nurtured generations of students. His beautiful as well as informative illustrations help us appreciate why this has been so. He has a sharp eye for what to notice, as well as a developed skill with which to communicate what he sees.
My regret here is that, in commending his beautiful work, I need to rely upon photos I have taken of his printed book. So why isn’t this book available in digital download book format, especially for the sake of its many compelling images?
Below is one image that is available on the internet, which for me captures part of the mystery of the appeal of New Orleans. Barron’s book’s subtitle says a lot – “drawings and observations of America’s most foreign city.” An aspect of the curious beauty of much of New Orleans is the juxtaposition of well-cared-for historic homes with attractive landscaping, and properties where the wear and tear of time is unavoidably evident. The latter clearly sets apart the former, and the former so often has a visually compelling character.
Having acknowledged the limitations of some of these images, I offer here a few that I have photographed from the paperback version of the book. Note how the book cover (depicted above, with an evident visual seam down the middle) reflects a similar use of a split photographic image of two pages within the book.
Barron’s sketches and watercolor paintings help us appreciate how there are at least four significant cultural influences that have contributed to the historical life of Louisiana and what might be called the ‘gumbo’ of its architecture: Spanish, French, English, as well as African, the latter of which is more likely evident in landscape (and culinary) selections. For it is thought that some of those transported here in slavery from Africa may have brought seeds of certain plants with them. Predictably, some of the above-mentioned cultural influences are more visually evident than others.
Below is an image of Barron’s rendering of the St Charles streetcar, an iconic image.
For me, Errol Barron’s book, New Orleans Observed, is a beautiful discovery that provides ample inspiration.
My thanks to my son, Anders, and his family, for the lead on this posting. Through visits with them I have come to love New Orleans despite its problems and or challenges. I want to note that I have no personal relationship with Errol Barron nor any commercial relationship with the publication of his remarkable work.