The legacy of Francis Gassner lives on today through the expressive structures that story the streets of Memphis as well as his namesake award presented yearly by AIA Memphis. But who was the man bodying forth a dynamic vision of Mid Century Modern architecture throughout the post-war 50s and the Civil Rights 60s in Memphis?
Born in New York City in 1927, Gassner met and married his wife Dolly when he was 18 years old. The couple’s origin story traces back to the heart of bohemia in Greenwich Village where Dolly worked in fashion as Francis studied and practiced architecture while moonlighting as a stand-up bass player in a jazz combo.
After earning his degree in architecture at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), Gassner moved to Memphis in the 1950s and practiced architecture up until his passing in 1977. Over the course of two prolific decades in Memphis, the mid century visionary co-founded Gassner & Nathan Architects in 1958 (which became Gassner Nathan & Browne) and designed award-winning residences, university buildings, places of worship, and community facilities that still endure today.
Francis Gassner’s Prominent Works
Hollis Price Library
In 1963, HBCU LeMoyne-Owen College commissioned Gassner Nathan & Browne to build the Hollis Price Library named after the first African American President of LeMoyne-Owen College. Built in the Modernist tradition of the Barcelona Pavilion, the Hollis Price Library appears as a “cube of cantilevered masonry” and is said to possess a floating quality when seen from the exterior. The 117,000 volume collection of books is lit by a skylight and housed behind glass strip windows set in a concrete frame. Library visitors are greeted by a large, beautiful mosaic mural celebrating brotherhood created by artist and Civil Rights activist Ben Shahn.
Completed in 1974, the C&I Bank Building was the brainchild of Gassner’s firm and won several local and national accolades such as the AIA Memphis Chapter’s “Design of the Decade” award. Authors Eugene Johnson and Robert Russell point out the building’s exterior as possessing “the geometric purity of a child’s triangular building block” in their book Memphis: An Architectural Guide. Rather than toting home new toasters or umbrellas as was customary for banks to give in gratitude to new clientele, new customers left the bank with small crape myrtle plants in their hands as a memento linked to the lush foliage housed in the lobby under the dramatic glass facade. “Think English Conservatory meets German Bauhaus”, notes The Commercial Appeal. Despite demolition plans in 2007, Gassner’s daughter rallied to ensure the building would live to see another day. Today, the 200 Madison Avenue address houses the Visible Music College, which would have likely brought a smile to the face of the former stand-up jazz bass player and avid pianist Gassner was.
One year before his death, Gassner and his partners designed a community space that would become a convening place for one of the largest Jewish Reform congregations in the United States. Built to accommodate 1335 people, Temple Israel was constructed using steel and masonry. The semicircular, skylit sanctuary was designated as the original focal point of the temple and the designs featured stained glass and wood to imbue the space with what author Louis G. Redstone describes as “desired feelings of intimacy.” After undergoing renovations, Temple Israel continues to serve the community as a space for prayer, inspiration and learning.
Francis Gassner’s Philosophy of Architecture
For Gassner, the value of architecture was inextricable from the impact it would have on the surrounding environment. “Architecture is a reflection of the attitude of the community–a physical manifestation of what we think is the good life. It can be a vehicle to enhance man’s dignity. If it doesn’t do that, it is a failure,” said Gassner. As congregations of worshippers, new generations of students and everyday Memphis residents still set foot to this day through the architect’s iconic structures, Francis Gassner’s enduring works serve as a monument to his Modernist vision of architecture as a cohering force for community.
For more on Francis Gassner’s Memphis handiwork, check out our Fall 2021 issue for a full tour of a Gassner-designed home in Memphis!