One of architect Albert C. Ledner’s best known projects started out with a joke.
It was the spring of 1961, and Ledner, only 37 but with more than 20 New Orleans homes to his credit, was visiting his clients, Pat and Adrian Sunkel. They were discussing ideas for a new four-bedroom home on Park Island, a knuckle of land on Bayou St. John just then being subdivided. The couple were avid smokers, lighting up throughout the design sessions and at one point, Ledner became captivated by the amber glass ashtrays littered throughout the Sunkel home.
“I just threw it out there, sort of kidding,” Ledner, an acolyte of Frank Lloyd Wright, recently recalled. “But they were beautiful, very warm, with sort of a circle inside of a square. It was very architectural. So I said, ‘These are very interesting, maybe we can work them into the design, as a decorative element.’ And they immediately said, ‘That’s a great idea, let’s do it.”
Within a few months, Ledner and the Sunkels were unpacking boxes of ashtrays, 1,200 in all. Hundreds would form a dentil motif just above the eaves of the otherwise white and black-brick single-story home. Others decorated light fixtures, anywhere the hazy light might give them a rosin glow.
Architecture has the ability to uplift and enliven, maybe to draw a smile, but rarely a grin. Buildings last, jokes don’t. Among Albert Ledner’s significant charms is that the joyousness of his architecture is matched by its thoughtfulness. His flourishes would not work if they did not actually work.
Such splendor would have remained the product of a popular local practitioner if he had not also bestowed, on New York City, a trio of its most delightful buildings: what are today the Maritime and Dream hotels and the Mack Pavilion of Lenox Hill Hospital, better known as the Overbite Building. All were built through an unlikely partnership with the National Maritime Union. Their jutting prows and porthole windows conjure ships run aground—what would be an obvious gesture if it were not so effective.
“Playing around with things, it’s hubris in a way, using an interesting object or idea in a way it was never intended to be used,” Ledner says.
That a humble home builder from the Big Easy made such an impact on the Big Apple is as unlikely a feat as it is unknown. Nearly 93 and still working, Ledner, like many of his midcentury contemporaries, is enjoying a renewed appreciation.
Leading the way is Albert’s daughter, Catherine, a successful portrait photographer, who has been working on a documentary about her father for the past two years. Co-directing with her cousin Roy Beeson, another photographer, she hopes to elevate Albert the same way he did ashtrays and seamen.
The film Designing Life falls into that curious niche of children making documentaries about their architect parents. “We want them to get the recognition they deserve, but we want to recognize them, too,” Catherine Ledner said. “We know how hard they’re working, but the work often comes first.”
Many of Albert Ledner’s roughly 50 buildings are gone, though most have taken on a new life. Existing as they do in a city often beset by nostalgia and floodwaters, Catherine’s task, and those of midcentury admirers in New Orleans, possess a special urgency.
“He was one of a half-dozen practitioners in the 1950s and ‘60s and onward that shaped the city.” John P. Klingman, a Favrot Professor of Architecture at Tulane University and chronicler of local designers. “He was never working in a large firm, he was always doing his own thing. He was an individual.”
As with so many of his generation, World War II had a profound impact on Ledner’s life, though his revelations were far from the battlefield. Following his first year at Tulane University, Ledner enlisted in the Army Air Corp. While stationed at Davis-Monthan Field outside Tucson, he took a trip to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous compound, Taliesin West.
Ledner had first discovered Wright’s work in the library, while looking for inspiration beyond the confines of New Orleans’s slavish adherence to classicism. Ledner found Wright’s naturalistic style beguiling. “It permeates your innermost feelings,” Ledner said. “It’s hard to say what it is.”
After the war, Ledner went home to finish his degree, but still he felt the pull of Usonia. Upon graduation in 1948, he headed for the original Taliesin, in Wisconsin. Ledner had hoped to work under Wright on his G.I. Bill, but the architect was having difficulties with the government and was no longer accepting grant money. He did appreciate that Ledner had brought his toolbox, as well as his portfolio, and offered the would-be student a job as caretaker, with the promise of an apprenticeship.
Ledner had only been at Taliesin for three months when he heard from a friend in New Orleans who had asked him to design his first house. The young architect decided to leave Wright’s studio and head back down south. “As I got to know people in the Fellowship, I began to realize, the longer you stayed in that atmosphere, the harder it was to escape,” he said. However, Ledner never fully strayed from his mentor’s path.
Though that first house did not work out, a second quickly did, with a clear foundation in Taliesin. The three-bedroom Goldate House had a gridded single-story layout decorated with brick and sheathed in local cypress, all centered on an interior garden. A photographer for House Beautiful happened to be looking for modern homes in New Orleans and chose to feature the Goldate. Ledner was suddenly established.
By 1954, he had completed a half-dozen homes and a few small commercial properties around New Orleans, each more daring than the last. That was when an attorney friend introduced him to his most significant client, the National Maritime Union, which was looking to build a new hiring hall in the port city.
Though it had none of the portholes that would become a signature later, the hiring hall had a circular layout, creating a soaring meeting room at its center. Offices and ancillary space were at the sides, beneath a folded, 12-point roof, one point of which serves as the entrance. (It still stands as a rather dramatic doggy daycare.)
Similar halls soon followed in Mobile, Alabama; Baltimore; Houston; Galveston, Texas; Norfolk, Virginia; and San Francisco, as well as the headquarters in Manhattan (the Overbite Building, 1963) and a dormitory and extension (now the Maritime and Dream hotels). There was even a pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows in Queens.
Having built all he could for the union, Ledner’s forays outside his home state effectively came to an end. He could have parlayed his heightened profile into bigger commissions—Ada Louise Huxtable wrote favorably of the headquarters in The New York Times—but he never felt the desire. At his peak, Ledner had, at most, four other architects at his studio.
“I really don’t think about wishing I did this or that,” Ledner said. “I’ve always lived for the moment, I guess, and looking for the future. In fact, I’m glad I never got bigger. Friends I’ve known who got bigger, they’re not doing work anymore, they’re just directing what gets done.”
There were some lean years in the 1970s and ’80s, when Ledner spent time working at his mother’s bakery. Albert credits his mother Beulah—the originator of the locally-renowned Doberge Cakes—with his inventive spirit, and among the projects he undertook for her was designing a new bakery in 1970 as well as a tube-like oven to mass-produce the cakes, a venture that never took off.
The commissions never fully stopped, as Ledner continued to find clients enamored with his whimsical take on the world.
“He would develop a very simple idea about the design or construction, but it was always very unique in its expression,” said Wayne Troyer, a local architect who befriended Ledner two decades ago and now works with him on his projects.
Most of Ledner’s time is now dedicated to helping buyers of his old homes bring them back to life. He finished his last new home in 1996, though an owner of one of the old ones hopes he might create something new for his daughter.
Among the homes he has helped resurrect is the Galatoire House, originally built for a descendant of the famed restaurateurs, where old church windows were installed upside down, creating a curtain wall of giant glass scales. And there is the Leonard House, just next door, which uses sculptural Cointreau bottles for sconces—though unlike the Sunkels, the Leonards did not regularly imbibe the inspiration. They just liked the light.