Considering the city’s celebratory reputation, it seems oddly appropriate a pair of modern homes in New Orleans would be decorated with liquor bottles and ashtrays. Albert Ledner, the architect who utilized these everyday materials in his anything-but-pedestrian modern homes, didn’t include them as a nod towards sustainability or vices. They just fit into his playful, progressive, and unfussy take on modern architecture.
In a career that only covered 50 or so buildings, many of them now gone, Ledner embodied an unorthodox and organic approach to designing homes, riffing off modernist tropes with his own style. His handful of buildings in New York City, part of an long-running client relationship with the National Maritime Union, still stand out in a cityscape with designer architecture tucked around every corner. He was “an architectural animal, who designed like a fox running through the forest,” said his son Robert. His created homes with a confident creativity that inspired awe.
“I remember convincing my friend that we were aliens, and our house was a spaceship,” he recalls.
Ledner’s buoyant personality and creative vision could be credited as a product of his early environs, the city of New Orleans. His family also says part of it, at least his drive and creative problem solving skills, came from his grandmother, Beulah Ledner, a famous baker in the Big Easy whose Super Home Baking company, based in Metairie, specialized in the doberge layer cake.
Ledner, who always stayed connected to his hometown, would later design a custom oven for his grandmother’s sugary creations. According to his daughter Catherine Ledner, a photographer currently finishing up a documentary about her father’s life, his inventiveness and mechanical creativity is reflective of his interest, at an early age, of “taking things apart and figuring them out.”
Architecture seemed to scratch that itch, so Ledner decided to study at nearby Tulane University. After his first year, he enlisted in the Army Air Corp, training outside of Tucson. It was a fortuitous experience that led the young pilot to fly over Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin during a training mission. The experience inspired Ledner to drive out and explore. Wright and others were back in Wisconsin at the time, but after Ledner finished his tour of duty, then graduated from Tulane in 1948, he returned to briefly study with Wright before starting his own firm in 1949.
Ledner would spend most of his career working on residential commissions in New Orleans. He found luck with his second design, the three-bedroom Goldate House, a brick-and-cypress beauty that caught the eye of a photographer from House Beautiful on assignment in New Orleans. It led to decades of work and dozens of unique homes, often sporting sleek horizontal lines and razor-thin rooflines, some of which earned plaudits from magazines such as Home & Garden. The Abe Moradian Home from 1978, an exuberant ivory residence with an entryway that resembles a jukebox, has an almost postmodern pop.
Buildings to know
The striking Sunkel House from 1961, which contained the aforementioned ashtrays, stands out, along with his own home, as one of the best distillations of the Ledner approach. The square glass pieces (the type found in Denny’s restaurants) line the roofline of the angular home, which was once owned by former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.
Ledner’s largest and most notable projects consist of a series of building he designed in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City in 1963 and 1964. Ledner had landed a gig with the National Maritime Union, a seaman’s organization, based on their desire to give an old-fashioned profession a more modern appearance. Starting in 1954, he designed a series of union offices and union halls across the South, many with expansive, tent-like roofs that spread like polygonal petals, eventually working his way up to designing the organization’s new headquarters in New York City.
Ledner delivered with a trio of white structures that resemble ships sailing through the street grid (one, a dorm, even had porthole windows). Dean of New York architectural history Christopher Gray said their facades were “impudent in the face of doctrinaire modernism.” It’s a fitting tribute to an architect who hewed so closely to his own views. Two of the structures have been repurposed as the Maritime and Dream hotels.
Legacy and reputation today
Ledner, now 93, hasn’t officially stopped working, though his last new building was constructed in 1996. He’s still active in New Orleans; his fantastical home, blocks from a main levee, was damaged in Katrina, and required years to rebuild. After a half century, it seemed impossible for the architect to give up the home, adorned with a unique 12-pointed roof. Ledner appreciates the personal touch, and while his practice never became massive, it did make an impact.
“His legacy is his relationship with all the homeowners,” says his son. “It’s like he was a tailor. He personalized all the houses to each owners.”