My childhood was privileged, not because of money, but because it was dotted with a certain exceptional wonder, all because I am the daughter of an artist – in particular, an architect.
When I was little, Pop would come home from work, whistling with rolls of drawings in his arms. I’d be waiting in the foyer where he’d pat my head a couple of times and say enthusiastically as if he hadn’t seen me in weeks, “Well hello there, Shrench!” That was my nickname. I wasn’t sure what a “shrench” was but apparently Pop did and considered me one. He’d whistle all the way to his room where he’d empty his pockets of his wallet and keys and any miscellaneous Pop stuff – everything but the rolled up drawings. They were old blueprints from his office, something for the shredder, but for Pop and me, their blank backs were a canvas for something magical.
As we’d plop onto the floor of the family room, Pop’s eyes would twinkle that eternal glint that preceded any quintessential act of his, whether detouring to a scenic highway or embarking on a new sketch for his little girl.
“What kind of treehouse do you want today, Annie?”
“A big one!” I’d exclaim.
He’d pull a felt tip pen from among the five or six that clung to his shirt pocket at all times, and he’d gently jiggle his pen over the center of the page as he considered his first stroke. I would wiggle with anticipation as my next treehouse drawing, one of many in a collection of treehouse sketches, took shape.
Each precise line, each curl of Pop’s hand as he established the scope, each broad stroke of the branches that held the house, were thoughtful, purposeful, and practical. A structure needs proper stability after all. But soon, the magic would “pop” off the page so to speak: Quirky little windows in unexpected places, flowers that spilled over the railings, leaves that seemed to hug the little cottage, a tiny door at the base of the trunk, a mischievous cat peaking over a knot in the roots, and a swing with a little girl with red pigtails in a green dress smiling up at the sunshine.
Just before the picture was complete Pop would tell me to cover my eyes. When I opened them, I was on the hunt for a tiny gold bug, hidden somewhere in the drawing. Sometimes it took me seconds, sometimes minutes, and when I found it, I’d squeal with pride. Pop, his eyes twinkling even more and with that big joyful grin of his that could light up the darkest day, would delight with me.
I regarded these treehouses as I have any of Pop’s official projects that I’ve experienced as an adult. As with works of all visionaries, the real beauty of Pop’s talent lay in the finer points. He once told me that what he loved about architecture was the miniscule details found in a broad spectrum. For it is there in the details that art isn’t just seen, but felt.
Pop was a skilled sketch artist, something no longer required in architecture since the establishment of digital software. Before graduating from Tulane School of Architecture in 1962, he had to complete a class in which his craft was challenged with copying with exactness other artists’ works. At first thought this sounds like bad advice. But Pop said that it was in those hours of painstakingly capturing someone else’s ideas that his personal vision was born. After copying the details in the works of others, he would then draw his own versions. Filed away, connectively in the right side of his brain, his style was forming through study and practice, eventually creating the miniscule details of the broad spectrums of his future work.
If I think about it, the lilt in the voice of my favorite singers, the fluidity of the arms of captivating ballerinas, the composition in a particularly compelling piece of music, or cinematography that takes my breath away all stemmed from a student studying a master at one time. And it is never the broad picture that pulls me. It’s always the details that didn’t need to be seen but were chosen to be seen anyway by an artist who loved their craft so passionately that they honored it distinctively.
There were more famous architects out there than Pop. And as much as he would have enjoyed having his work remembered with such grand celebration, it was well in his heart. He told me recently, “What difference does it make if someone is better than you? Work with what you have.” What he had was an unending curiosity, a love of the “what if,” that contributed to the sense of wonder and whispered stories in the facets of his buildings.
When Pop was commissioned to design the Papal altar for the visit of Pope John Paul II to New Orleans in 1987, the design was reminiscent of a sailboat. What is obvious is that Pop was an accomplished sailor. But when you walk through his design, as he did on paper inside and out at the start of his process, you see a story unfold in an altar, positioned on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, its usage for the leader of an organization founded by St. Peter, a fisherman. The Pope is said to be steering the barque (or boat) of St. Peter. That day in New Orleans, as the sun came out just as Mass began, a pope and future saint, steered a ship of faith designed by my father. The curves of the altar’s canopy were a hint to the billowing of the sails of a barque – a miniscule detail in a broad spectrum.
I know enough to know that in the broad spectrum of my life with Pop, it is the miniscule details that I will remember the most: The concentration in his hand as he held a pen, how he smelled like instant coffee and ivory soap, how he smiled at my little girl the same way he smiled at me, the tiny picture he would draw to accompany the simplest note from him, the teaspoon of chocolate sauce in his iced milk after dinner, and that eternal twinkle in his eyes that always followed with something remarkable, whether a new treehouse drawing or some classic Pop buffoonery.
When I knew our time together here was drawing to a close, all I wanted was one more treehouse, just one more. But Pop was weak and I knew that too much reminiscence hurt his spirit. I resolved our treehouses to be just a sweet memory, a detail of my childhood left for my mind only. But as I write this in Pop’s house, the home he designed a decade ago for Mom and him, for the first time I see a familiarity in the tiny windows tucked beneath the peaks of the roof, the wooden beams that cross the main room, the three separate cottages on a connecting deck that meanders through lush greenery, and the big oak tree encircled by the front deck. I didn’t need Pop to draw me another treehouse because I’m inside one of his treehouses now.
I’ll always be an architect’s daughter and with that comes the privilege of visiting the buildings and places of worship designed by Pop – places where he literally left his mark on the world. And as I stand in his home, I’m reminded of the importance of detail, not just in art, but in life.