This is the third in a series of examinations of legends related to architecture and whether they are true or false. Today we learn whether Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel was an impervious as they claimed, discover the amazing tribute to a former Geology professor Ohio State did with design of one of their school buildings and marvel at the strange circumstances that allowed the design of the famous clock in London’s St Pancras Station to be saved!
Today is a “Grab Bag” day here at Entertainment Legends Revealed, where each time we feature a different area of the world of arts and entertainment (that is not featured on the other four legends of the week, that is). Each time you will see grab bag legends from one of these following 23 “Grab Bag” categories
ARCHITECTURE LEGEND: Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for Imperial Hotel in Tokyo led to the Hotel being unaffected by the 1923 Great Tokyo Earthquake.
STATUS: False Enough for a False
The second Imperial Hotel (the first one was destroyed by fire in 1919) was designed by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright had long been fascinated by Japanese culture and he envisioned (and designed) the hotel as a hybrid of Japanese and Western architecture.
Earthquakes have long been a danger in Japan, and Wright decided to design the hotel to protect the building from being damaged in an earthquake.
This has led to a legend that has been passed around a number of websites under the heading of CONFIDENCE (where stories about famous people being confident are shared). The citation is to a January 1993 issue of Bits and Pieces magazine (the magazine that motivates people!).
Frank Lloyd Wright is among the most innovative architects this county ever produced. But his fame wasn’t limited to the United States. About 70 years ago, Japan asked Wright to design a hotel for Tokyo that would be capable of surviving an earthquake. When the architect visited Japan to see where the Imperial Hotel was to be built, he was appalled to find only about eight feet of earth on the site. Beneath that was 60 feet of soft mud that slipped and shook like jelly. Every test hole he dug filled up immediately with water. A lesser man probably would have given up right there. But not Frank Lloyd Wright. Since the hotel was going to rest on fluid ground, Wright decided to build it like a ship. Instead of trying to keep the structure from moving during a quake, he incorporated features that would allow the hotel to ride out the shock without damage. Supports were sunk into the soft mud, and sections of the foundation were cantilevered from the supports. The rooms were built in sections like a train and hinged together. Water pipes and electric lines, usually the first to shear off in an earthquake, were hung in vertical shafts where they could sway freely if necessary. Wright knew that the major cause of destruction after an earthquake was fire, because water lines are apt to be broken in the ground and there is no way to put the fire out. So he insisted on a large outdoor pool in the courtyard of his hotel, “just in case.”
On September 1, 1923, Tokyo had the greatest earthquake in its history. There were fires all over the city, and 140,000 people died. Back in the U.S., news reports were slow coming in. One newspaper wanted to print the story that the Imperial Hotel had been destroyed, as rumor had it. But when a reporter called Frank Lloyd Wright, he said that they could print the story if they wished, but they would only have to retract it later. He knew the hotel would not collapse.
Shortly afterward, Wright got a telegram from Japan. The Imperial Hotel was completely undamaged. Not only that — it had provided a home for hundreds of people. And when fires that raged all around the hotel threatened to spread, bucket brigades kept the structure wetted down with water from the hotel’s pool. The Imperial Hotel isn’t there anymore. It was finally torn down in the 1960s to be replaced by a more modern structure.
Baron Kihachiro Okura did, indeed, sent Wright a telegram stating:
Hotel stands undamaged as monument to your genius Congratulations
And it was this that Wright, naturally enough, shared with reporters (it was not like lots of other people had any direct information to contradict him). And it was this telegram that spread the “the hotel was unaffected by the earthquake” legend.
It was not true, though.
First of all, let me note that a lot of Wright’s ideas turned out to be excellent, particularly in terms of the 1923 earthquake. The idea about the wires and pipes was ingenious. And the water outside worked exactly as planned.
However, pieces of the building’s stonework did fall off, the center of the building slumped and more than one of the floors bulged. According to a great study on the earthquake’s effect on the Imperial Hotel, Robert King Reitherman noted:
The Imperial Hotel experienced some non-structural and structual damage in the 1923 earthquake: the dining room floor bulged and required cutting and shimming of concrete columns to re-level it, and fans, kitchen equipment, lights, partions and other similar non-structural items were damaged. The insurance companies’ damage rating system used a five point scale. The Imperial Hotel was listed in the category of second-best performance, or light damage. There were other large buildings which were rated in the first category.
But beyond that, besides just the simple “the claim was that it was completely undamaged and it was damaged” part, there is something even more important to note about the hotel design. The “float like a battleship” idea Wright had with the mud? Well, that might have worked if it ever came to that, but that design also led to the building sinking in the mud, thereby messing with the foundation of the building to the point where it was not in good shape when it was replaced in the late 1960s. A new highrise Imperial Hotel debuted in 1968 and remains there to this day. In fact, Reitherman also notes that the mud actually CONDUCTED the seismic waves, so the fact that the building sunk into the mud actually hurt the building MORE. In other words, if not for Wright’s battleship idea, the building’s columns would have been affected LESS and the building might not have been in a serious state of disrepair by the 1960s. It is worth noting, though, that the relative small size of the hotel was a bigger reason for renovation than its condition (they wanted to utilize the space to build up).
Still, as Reitherman also notes in his work, Wright did have a lot of good ideas (including stuff that was truly state-of-the art, like seismic separation joints, located about every 20 meters along the building), he just did not make some perfect earthquake resistant building, which the legends say that he did.
Thanks again to Reitherman and his fascinating paper, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel: A Seismic Re-Evaluation.
ARCHITECTURE LEGEND: Ohio State University’s Orton Hall was designed in a peculiar fashion to honor the school’s first president, Dr. Edward J. Orton, Sr.
Dr. Edward J. Orton, Sr. (1829-1899) was a geologist who was also the first President of Ohio State University. He served in that capacity from September 17, 1873 – June 21, 1881. He taught geology at Ohio State from 1873 until his death in 1899. Similarly, he was the school’s official geologist from 1882-1899. He did this despite suffering a semi-paralytic stroke in 1891.
In any event, in 1892 the school unveiled Orton Hall to honor their first president. Here is a modern day picture of the hall, which includes the Department of Geology and Mineralogy’s offices and laboratories of Paleontology, Historical Geology and Sedimentology, the Orton Geological Museum, and the Orton Geological Library (the Library was dedicated by Orton’s son, Robert Orton, Jr., the first Chairman of Ceramic Engineering at Ohio State, in 1920)….
But here’s the interesting thing about Orton Hall, and the reason that the Hall has been entered into the National Register of Historic Places. You see, in honor of Dr. Orton, forty kinds of stone were used to build the hall – the forty kinds of stones are the same that are found in Ohio’s bedrock! Not only that, but the stones were arranged by how they appear in Ohio’s bedrock. The older rocks make up the lower part of the building and the younger rocks are found toward the top. Isn’t that fascinating?
What a tribute to a great geologist!
ARCHITECTURE LEGEND: After being destroyed, a local retired railway worker restored the famous platform clock at St Pancras Station as a piece of his barn.
St. Pancras Station was a railway station built in London in 1868 as the southern terminus of the Midland Railway’s Midland Main Line.
The years were not kind to the station, though, and it had to fight off calls for demolishing the station entirely throughout the 1960s.
By the time the 1970s came along, the station was “safe,” but was still in a state of disrepair. To make some money, British Rail decided to sell the platform clock in the station to a collector from the United States for 250,000 pounds. Sadly, while dismantling it, the clock accidentally fell to the ground and was smashed into many pieces.
This is where the story gets really weird.
A railway worker who was there at the time, Roland Hoggard, collected the smashed pieces and took them back on a train to his home in Nottingham. He then spent the next year and a half putting the clock back together! He eventually installed it on to his barn! Here is Hoggard with the clock…
That, in and of itself, is pretty damn cool. However, as the World Architecture News reported at the time (2007 – they were the ones who got the photo of Hoggard), this was even more important than just a cool story about a guy installing a famous clock in his barn (the clock was made by the same people who made Big Ben’s clock!!). You see, when St. Pancras was being renovated, they wanted to re-build the platform clock, but they didn’t have any schematics for it. So luckily, they just went to Hoggard’s house and copied the original clock (specifically the design AROUND the dial, where there was an ornate pattern).
Here is the new platform clock…
Pretty awesome, right?
Thanks to the World Architecture News for the information!
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org