The Autobiography of Irving K. Pond is the revenge of one of history's losers.
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“I.K”, [Frank Lloyd Wright] said with almost no prelude. “I.K, I have been conventional too long! I am a genius, I know no conventions, a genius knows no law. A genius must and will live his own life. From today I cast aside conventions; from today I live my own life!” That was the gist of a ten or fifteen minute prattle, in which the words 'genius', 'life', 'conventions' were flung about like confetti at a carnival. At first, I thought that as usual architecture was on his mind . . . but the next day the papers carried as an item of news that our genius had 'eloped with the wife of a client.'
- from The Autobiography of Irving K. Pond: The Sons of Mary and Elihu
Except, of course, Irving K. Pond, is no loser, other than, perhaps, in posterity. With his younger brother Allen, he was one of the most important practitioners of Chicago architecture's first Golden Age, as certified by no less than the self-proclaimed “World's Greatest Architect”. At the opening of the new City Club Building in 1910, Frank Lloyd Wright declared that America had produced but three creative architects: Louis Sullivan, Wright himself, and “the Ponds, Irving and Allen.”
|City Club/John Marshall Law School|
|Northwestern University Settlement House|
Flash forward twenty years. Pond, coming to Chicago from his birthplace of Ann Arbor Michigan to take a temp job in the office of family friend William Lebaron Jenney, soon lands himself a permanent position with architect Solon Bemen just as the 26-year-old Bemen gets the once-in-a-lifetime commission of designing an entire city: a company town for sleeping car magnate George Pullman built on 4,000 acres 13 miles south of Chicago's center. In 1883, with the town well on its way to completion, young Pond leaves to make the usual Grand Tour of Europe, finding himself on Christmas Day in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore , where his eye is arrested by a striking figure slowly making her way down the aisle . . .
As the young woman walked, or rather seemed to float rhythmically down the aisle, I could see no right foot, for that leg was shortened and she was wearing a shoe with a light metal extension which in the shadows was little or not at all in evidence. I said to myself, “There goes the future Mrs. Pond.”For the next three days, Pond returned to the church, trying to work up the courage to talk to this enchantress. On the fourth, he found that she had returned to California. He corresponded with her for years before finally becoming engaged to her in 1889, an engagement which then lingered on year after year - “her father needed her!” - until “I suggested that our engagement might have been a mistake and that it would, perhaps, be better ended.” The poor woman, Pond informs us, never married.
I have reason to believe, through observation and experience, that this fascination exerted upon certain males by abnormality in one of the opposite sex, works equally the other way about, and that among women there are those to whom the physically exceptional in men makes a similar and equally potent appeal.
|Irving Kane Pond, 1912|
As an architect, Pond always kept himself far removed from the avant-garde mainstream. Frank Lloyd Wright, according to Pond, “has succeeded to Sullivan's throne and now holds the scepter. Never in my life have I been a hero worshipper-- never have I been willing to let some man, whom the mob acclaims, do my thinking and lay out a course for me.”
Pond wrote of Louis Sullivan as someone, “like myself, [who was] ill content to let his life flow forever between the restraining banks of hard and fast convention,” but he was quick to add, “I never counted myself one of the so-called Chicago School . . . ” When a member of that Pantheon finds his way into Pond's pages, you can pretty much bet they're about to be taken down a peg.
|Pullman Water Tower, courtesy Pullman Museum|
|Albany Park/Korean Bethany Presbyterian Church|
What might be mistaken for churlishness in The Autobiography is instead, I would submit, an impatience with the kind of Wrightian grandiloquence that bangs the drum as much to enthrall as to enlighten. The greatness of a Sullivan or a Wright - or a Niemeyer - is predicated on immodesty, on the malcontent compulsion to remake the world. Pond lacked that bravura gene and the poetry that goes with it. Wright is the splendid, hungry beast bringing charm and menace to the party in equal measure. Pond is the gentle craftsman remembered for the pleasure of his company - in person and in his buildings.
|American School of Correspondence, |
photo courtesy University of Chicago Medical Center
For the better part of a century after its completion, Pond's book was available only on microfilm held at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Finally in 2009, as edited by David Swan and Terry Tatum, it was issued as a handsome paperback. Swan has augmented Pond's original, very small selection of illustrations with 350 photographs and drawings. There's also a comprehensive list of buildings and projects.
|Northwestern University Settlement House|
As he concludes the meditation on his life, on family, friends and adversaries now mostly dead, battles long forgotten, buildings demolished, Irving Pond again turns to Shakespeare, to Prospero's speech near Tempest's end . . .
You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismayed: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great Globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep . . .
Finished May 9, 1939.
Irving Kane Pond, aged 82, died on September 29th of that year.
The Autobiography of Irving K. Pond: The Sons of Mary Elihu. Edited by David Swan and Terry Tatum, with an introduction by Guy Szuberla. Hyoogen Press, Oak Park, IL 588 pages. $40.00.