European Letter from an MIT Grad, 1931 December 17
Prologue: When J. G. C. received his masters degree in Architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1930 he was awarded a fellowship for a year of study and travel in Europe. He left in February, 1931 and remained there until June, 1932. These letters were written to his family in upstate New York. He became a successful architect in New York City, as well as an excellent painter.
The writer is my grand-uncle, and our family has enjoyed sharing these letters for generations. I think they're interesting because they are a window into the everyday life, travelling style, and speech patterns of a different era, and because in many you can see the effects of World War I and the Great Depression, and hints of preparation for World War II.
In this letter he doesn't travel, but stays put in Berlin working on designs for a Russian architecture contest in the offices of Erich Mendelsohn.
Berlin, Germany December 17,1931
Dear dad, mother and everybody,
Have you ever heard of or seen anyone who procrastinated more than I do about writing at a certain time, and then all of a sudden waking up several weeks later and finding that the letter was still only a fond hope and not a reality? Well, this time it wasn't exactly my fault, for when I said last week that I'd write on the week-end after the competition was finished I meant it. In fact, on that basis I am a few days ahead of schedule, for unexpectedly they extended the competition a few days longer... But now it's in, and here goes for the letter.
I don't know just how long this letter shall be for I have very little to write about except Berlin and what has happened in the office and around the town. To begin with, I am still very fond of Berlin, but in a much different way than Paris. It is just another city with some very nice spots, the people are nice, and try to make it very pleasant for you, in fact they go way out of their way to do things for you and to be nice, something that the French certainly will not do for a stranger. I have met some very swell people here, too. Might as well start in on that topic and get that completed. Went around to church one day, mother, believe it or not, I actually went to a service held on a Sunday morning. It was the one just before Thanksgiving; -- this great occasion of mine having taken place in the American Church, here in Berlin. The American Ambassador spoke and I met him afterwards and talked with him for awhile. Isn't he from Corning? I think I remember someone being choosen from Corning and I think it was for here in Berlin. Anyway, I attended which was the big event in my trip here in Europe. When I was in Italy I was in at least ten churches every day, but not to a service. So make special note of that one, mother, I'm real proud of it. Think I'll get another star in my crown in the after life, or maybe get a prong taken off from the pitch-fork?
Later on I met some American students here, and then joined the Students' Forum, an organization of American and English students that meets every Sunday afternoon and has some big speaker talk. We've had some marvellous speeches and speakers. Mahatma Gandhi was to speak to us a couple of weeks ago, he having already consented, but then he was called back to India after the failure of the Conference in London, and had to cut Berlin out of the trip. So he had his side-kick or next night-shirter speak instead. It was very good. Prof. Einstein is going to speak sometime in January or February, but I'm afraid I will be gone by that time and so shall miss it. Had a very good speaker from Columbia, a professor of Philosophy, the other day. They're all good, and make you think an awful lot, too. So through that source I've met some darn nice fellows and girls. One girl is a very good friend of Florence and Harold B-... Her father is an Engineer in Russia, but she got sick of the place and came back to Berlin to take an extensive course in German and night-clubs. I think she'll pass the exams in Nightclubs to perfection but will not do so hot in the courses in Deutsch. Such is modern youth, they can't all be as serious as I am. (The German nightclubs aren't so bad in my estimation either).
There are several fellows from Harvard and Boston University here also, so we have a regular Boston colony. And then there is a swell looking girl who graduated from West High in Rochester. She's living here with her family. Her dad is in some kind of Dental Supply business and he's connected with the German branch. She hates the place and wants to go back, and is just saving until she can get enough to get there, but where she'll go or what she'll do then she hasn't the slightest idea, but she is a darn swell kid. It seems as if I just meet some body that is darn interesting just a few days or weeks before I leave a place, or else they leave, such as was another case here, and then you never see them again. Probably better that way than sticking around though and making a big bore of oneself. I'll bet people get bored as the deuce with me, so I just keep moving. I also met another American Engineer who was just headed into Russia for a year -- wife and the swellest looking daughter you ever saw. It's a shame to waste such good looks on the Bolsheviks... They happened to know some people I knew back in Paris, so we got along splendidly.
Then the other night I went to a very interesting place. Went to a tea, only they had coffee, at Mr. Mendelsohn's home, about which I'll tell you later on, in the afternoon, had dinner that night with the other fellow who was in the office, in his apartment with him and his Hungarian wife. He's Czechoslavakian. She speaks French just a little better than I do, so we got along swell. Then we went over to this other place. The first and third Wednesday of every month this man to whom we went has kind of an open house. He lives up on the top floor of an apartment house, has a very nice wife; and they have a big time at these doings. Everybody comes sometimes as many as eighty. Last time, rather this time there were about fifty there during the course of the evening. And the most interesting people you ever saw. One was a very famous German artist, he'd make a swell Santa Claus at a kid's party with his long beard and flowing hair. Another was the best magician in Germany, at least that's what they said, and he was continually pulling cards, and half the furniture out of my pockets and ears. I felt as if I had been trying to walk off with the house. The funny part about it all was, when you got there. You stood on the side-walk, rung the bell, and a key fastened to the end of an electric light cord with a big light came unreeling down the side of the building. You'd take off the key and walk up, depositing the key for the next guy to get from the light. There were Turks, a man from Bombay, English, Swiss, Italians, Dutch, and of course being Berlin, a few Germans here and there, plus the Czeck, and his Hungarian wife with whom I'd gone. So you see it was quite a League of Nations. One German boy there was one of the finest pianists I've ever heard. He's accompanist for a very famous German quartet of singers that have toured the world. Gee, he played for about three hours straight, and what playing! He knew just about every piece that has ever been written, and he could play all the classics and in many interpretations so they really were marvellous. Then another one of his good points, he had a swell looking sister about twenty-one. And when a German girl is blonde and good-looking then they are good-looking. Just about everybody there spoke very good English, so you see I just am learning no German whatsoever. No matter where you go in Europe you can find somebody who speaks English, right beside you, and so I just never am forced to speak what German I know, which isn't much, but isn't getting added to very much just for reasons like those. So don't expect me to come home speaking several languages. You'll be lucky if you can understand my English when I get back.
I am learning to swear to perfection in German though, mother, aren't you proud of me. I've got all the German words down pat, and to add to my accomplishments, when I find occasion to express myself sometime in those words and phrases, if I've come to the end of my knowledge, and still want to say some more, and don't want to repeat myself, I have a couple in Czechoslovakian, and one in Hungarian that are excellent. So you see I am well prepared the next time the car stops in traffic or when I put a sock on,the foot continues right on through and the sock becomes an anklet. I have several of them like that, already, and more very soon. speaking about languages, when I was here before I was real proud of myself 'cause I could say one sentence -- "Haben Sie ein zimmer". Which meant, "Have you a room?" I finally got a chance to employ my knowledge after I left Munich, in Nurnberg. I knew the hotel I wanted and walked into the place with that sign, up to the important looking man at the desk. "Haben Sie ein zimmer?" I spit out. "Bitte?" spit he. So I repeated a couple more times, but fast losing confidence in my knowledge. Finally I asked him if that wasn't hotel Such and Such. He turned away in disgust and said no, it was an insurance office of the company of the same name as the hotel I wanted which happened to be down the street a few doors. So ever since then I've spoken English. I'm through speaking these foreign languages; the people are awfully dumb, can't understand a word I say.
The tea at Mendelsohn's was to show off his new house, very modern, to a few of us. Mrs. Mendelsohn is very very nice, and very attractive, and certainly dominated the scene and at the table. She had it all over any other woman who was present. There again, most everyone spoke English, and when they spoke German I could underestand quite a bit, and when I could say something in German I would, then they'd all start in trying to teach me more, but really I am very dumb in the stuff. ... Well, it seems as if I started this paragraph about Mr. Mendelsohn's house. It's very modern, and cost plenty, much more than he really got out of it I think. It appears to me to be more of a place to show off, kind of an exhibition home, rather than a home that is essentially to live in. All the lighting is indirect, which certainly is restful for the eyes, but takes just about ten times as much light to light the place up, although of course they do have the piano and floor and reading lamps and don't use the indirect lights, which is one reason why it appears to be a show place rather than a home. But it is nice. He has two Oil-O-Matic heaters in the house, one for the hot water. Europeans know nothing about oil heating or any of those things, and never heard of gas, or electricity for heating a home, just coal, and it seems in these cold days that they've heard darn little about that too. But Mendelsohn is real proud of the heating plant, and likes to mention that it is American. All the silver and glassware were designed to go with the house too, so everything from beginning to end is just a complete unit of design, and quite successful although there are many things that I don't care for. Even in a house expensive as that, the bathrooms are nothing to rave about and yet they are the best in Germany. Americans just don't realize how swell most of the things are along such lines, that have been developed by them just because they wanted more comfort, until they see some of these countries over here, and stick around in them during the winter.
It's very cold here in Berlin now, and a couple of weeks ago we had a very cold spell, want down to about twelve or fourteen above. Yesterday we had quite a snowstorm, and then again today so now there is a lot, I mean several inches of snow outside. They never seem to have much up here in Berlin, so I'm told, it comes and goes, but it is in Southern Germany where they have all the snow and the winter sports. Christmas is getting advertised over here just like in America, only they seem to have just about ten times as many Christmas trees as we do. I never saw so many, every street corner has several men on it with just piles and piles of trees stacked up. The Christmas decorations are nothing extra, but I understand that Paris is the place that the decorations are a wow! I'd like to see them.
One day just before Thanksgiving an American student of Architecture like myself called at the office. He wanted to see some of Mendelsohn's work so they put him on to me. We monkeyed around, and then for the next few days, in the evenings we saw Berlin together, and had a wonderful time. We had a big Thanksgiving dinner together in an American restaurant so we didn't miss any of the turkey, cranberry sauce, and all the rest that is supposed to go with the day. But I certainly did miss not being back in an American home somewhere that day instead of in a restaurant in Berlin. Of course I haven't been home for Thanksgiving for the last six times so I didn't miss that so much, but I know I shall think of you all a lot on Christmas and New Year's and miss being with you at that time. But another one and we'll make it. This fellow's name is B- and he lives in Columbus. Went to Ohio state and to Cornell. He's a peach of a fellow. Made a tour of about the same places I did earlier, Holland, Germany, Austria, Munich...
A couple of weeks back I had to entertain a co-ed from Tech. She was over here trying to see Germany in the winter time, and all alone, and called me up to ask me what she should see. Gee, if there was anything I ever hated in this life it was co-eds in Tech, and if there was anyone co-ed I ever hated it was this one, but in spite of that we got along quite well, and managed to have a very nice time, and I guess she enjoyed Berlin o.k. too, but if we were to return to Tech, I'd forget the short Armistice we had here and continue my hate for Tech co-eds. You should see the the photos that B- and I had taken one night together in one of those automat places. He has the worst ones, and has sent them home just to show his family what kind of a bum he picked up here in Berlin. If I ever meet them, they'll shoot me on sight I guess, 'cause the specimens in those pictures certainly looked as if they weren't good for much except cannon fodder. We had some times though I'll never forget, so we we're glad we have the pictures, too.
You'd love to see me domesticated at the office. It is way out in the suburbs, I take the electric train each morning, which takes only ten minutes and then a five minute walk. On the way to the office I stop in the bakery, buy my bread and rolls, then in a store and buy a can of sardines or ham or baloney, some butter, fruit, etc. and plod on to the office. At noon, Mendelsohn furnishes the coffee and there I sit alone with the other Germans, cutting my bread, opening my sardines (printed in English), oh yes, and the bottle of milk that is delivered at the office every morning for me, paid for on Mondays, and eating away on hard rye bread. It's a swell life if you like to be that domestic, but like mending socks, I don't get much of a kick out of it, but one must eat, and I don't want to have to go a mile or so to find a lousy restaurant, and also it is really a lot cheaper, and that half hour is a darn pleasant one, sitting around with the few fellows that are there, or the men that happen to be in that day for consultation on the Russian project. ...They are one peach of a bunch.
The office is situated on a street called "Nut tree alley" and is a very pretty place. It was an old residence, with much lawn, so it is a very pleasant place to work, and must be beautiful there in the spring and in the summer. Mendelsohn was laid up for a while with a "game" leg and when he came back to the office with his foot sticking out straight, and hopping around like a three legged dog, and with DuVinage his assistant all bandaged up because Mendelsohn's dog bit him, it's a swell sight. And to see the two of them going around the office is a scream, Mendelsohn hanging onto DuVinage because DuVinage can't hang on to him because of his bangaged hand, and DuVinage walking the best he can for the two of them, like a couple of old ladies that have grown up together in the poor house, and each think the other can't get along without her, and both needing help to get around. We all get together after they've gone out and go hopping around the room hanging on to everybody and everything. It really is funny but one must see them to really appreciate it.
Berlin seems to be very unrestful these days, and until Bruning's speech the other day it looked as if Hitler and his gang would soon be in power here in Germany, the results of which no one has much of an idea. It is certain though that he'd go much farther than Mussolini as far as saying what could be done and what couldn't for the benefit of his followers and not the country, plus refusing to pay any more reparations if at all possible, and working towards another war to get back Germany's colonies. If he gets in I'm afraid it will very soon lead to the absolute downfall of the German nation, but since the radio speech the other day, he has lost many followers, and he is fast losing his power. I thought I might be around when things began to happen, but I guess not, for they will be farther in the distance than my call on Germany will extend....
I really think that these couple of months here in Berlin are going to be worth more to me than any other two months so far in my life. I've really thought more about more things, gotten more serious about all things than ever before. ...
...I've been getting my expense account for all the time here in Europe compiled, and boy, maybe you don't get a shock to see what you spend for some things, such as films, pictures, and postcards (the post cards are for keeping a record of the famous buildings, etc. and not to send), plus postage, and lots of things like that. That one branch alone almost equals the hotel bill for the month. I had a very rude awakening when I got the stuff all listed, but I think it's going to be very helpful. Also doing this stuff here in Berlin, studying with Mendelsohn, etc. gives me a little clearer conscience. When most fellows come over here on a fellowship, they sit around and religiously make a sketch a day, and usually pretty darn poor ones at that. But unless I really feel like making a sketch I refuse to make one and spend the time seeing and trying to analyse the reasons for the different things that have been done. But all of which doesn't give me anything materially speaking to show for my trip and time spent. So really doing something like I am here, studying I mean, it helps my conscience a little bit, but, still doesn't give me very many sketches to show for my travels. I intended to make some larger sketches from small ones here, but gee, it's so cold, it just takes all the enthusiasm out of you to try to work in a cold room.
...Am I really getting to be like the Germans in this method of eating. When I have breakfast in the morning with the family, I grab the big rye loaf of bread under one arm like a Scotchman's bagpipe, and hack away at it like them all till I get a big enough pile of bread on which to lay the baloney, they jabbering in German and I doing my best to get them to understand my English. If I do say one word in German they congratulate me and tell me how well I speak their language. I can say "swell," "lousy," "Oh, yeah?" plus a good many other things, but those don't help me much when I land at a tea at Mendelsohn's.
You ask about clothes, I'm going to get along I guess on what I have, just about, but not much longer so when I get back I'll have to go more in debt to get enough to be able to wear so's I can go out hunting for a job. About the only thing I've bought here is socks, darn cheap ones so's I won't have to have them mended more than a few times before they get tossed out, but being cheap they're heavy so wear well, until all of a sudden they just kinda disappear all at once. I refuse to darn socks after those awful evenings spent trying to darn them in Sicily. Then I did buy that one shirt, I told you about, the one that has such long tails I can wear it as a night shirt when my pajamas wear out. I may get a new suit when I get to England for they are very cheap there, about the only thing that is cheap in England. I'll see how the money is by that time.
Now about the only thing I have left to tell you about is the work I've been doing in the office. I certainly feel well repaid for every cent and every minute I've spent to come here and study under Mendelsohn and the nice thing about it all is that what I've been working on and the way, has been just about ideal. It was much better, the work I happened to get in on than just ordinary office work on the erecting of some building here. Being a competition it had to be finished within a certain length of time, instead of being dragged out over months in which case I should've gotten only a small taste of the entire thing... I wanted to work with and under Mendelsohn just to see how a man of his calibre in architecture went about solving a problem, how his mind worked when he had a certain thing confront him, and I got a very clear and quite thorough picture and illustration of it all during this one competition. I was in on it all from beginning to end, and it was a type of competition, a type of program and building asked for, and the Russians have such big ideas that it lent itself to one's using one's imagination to the fullest extent, with the result that there are many very interesting things incorporated in it. For instance there has been provided spaces for the machines, and the designing of the walls of the interiors of the huge rooms in such a way that during a session, or during a demonstration by the people the entire interior can be turned into what they want, to inspire in the spirit of the people, by means of a continuous moving picture extending around the entire interior in an unbroken picture. For example if the people had just taken in the world's largest crop of wheat, as they did last year, or if they were getting ready to call on the people by the thousands to help with the harvest, the people would sit in here while the walls were turned into a sea of waving grain, with the tractors moving around and through it like a big army, and the movies would just go on and on while the people got more enthusiastic, and as the Russian government depends on being able to inspire the masses, and then produce almost any result they have in mind just due to sheer numbers, you can see it would be quite effective. Then again if it came time to call on the army and have the people get patriotic what could do more than to have thousands and thousands of soldiers, and with the movies, multiplied into millions, marching around on the walls, life-size at first and then enlarged more and more as the enthusiasm of the people got stronger and stronger. There are big "catwalks" running around the entire ceiling, several rows deep containing many, many spot lights by which they can throw the whole thing into any kind of a spectacle they desire. The railroad tracks run right into the section where the presidents sit, to carry all the new things that they wish to display to the people. This was adopted in place of the original idea (last letter) of a huge crane to swing it around because the crane tracks would have broken up the unity of the interior. But there are many, many ideas such as these incorporated into it all, along with those I told you about before, of the walls lowering into the floor to allow the opening up of the two rooms into one big arena, and the central portion of the floor being all broken up into small portions and rising and lowering like an orchestra platform in our large theatres so as to allow for any desired arrangment and position of diplomats, newspaper men, and the several hundred presidents assembled there, or for the staging of a big concert, or demonstration, or theatrical play, or the hundred and one other things that might come into the Bolsheviks' minds to do....
After the thing had reached the stage of the final drawings I was given the job of making a very accurate model of the land, with all the contours, for they played a great deal in the placing of it, and in the building itself, and a very accurate model of the building and all the surrounding buildings, which however were taken out for the photographing the final. I made two models, one not so finished which was for us all to play around on and try new ideas and make changes, and the other one in sections, to be put together and photographed. The finished one came out swell, and I have three very nice photographs of it from different angles, that Mendelsohn gave me. That is the photographs were swell up to the point where the photographer's assistant, before I could stop him, in changing it around from one position to another, picked it up, turned it upside down and the building fell off its site and smashed. Boy! did I get sore! I had to work like the deuce for an hour putting it back together, patching it up and trying to straighten up the edges, but being clay, like that you have, Ginny, all the sharpness of the edges was taken away, and it didn't have the freshness it had before. And unfortunately, the pictures of the best views after they were developed happened to be in two cases out of three the views taken after the dumbbell act. But they aren't so bad even at that, and Mendelsohn had three of the photos enlarged to enormous size to send with the other drawings, so there they were, rather there the building was looking very true to life and as if you were in a plane flying quite low over this very business like looking edifice. It was swell!
Then I had two perspectives to do, and one of them, the interior of the huge hall seating 15,000 persons, with all the rows of seats curving, and the big domed ceiling, with the balconies coming out in curves, the curved "catwalks" and the view looking through with the walls lowered so you saw the smaller room for 5000 also, I want you to know was some job -- drawing all these curves in true perspective, but after three days, and much work I got a swell looking thing out of it, and even Mendelsohn thought so, which was something. There were two more fellows in to help towards the end, on the final drawings, for we had about twenty or more to do. I also did the plans of the city immediately surrounding that section, showing the ways of approach for the demonstrations from the different parts of the city, and from "Red Square" where Lenin lies in a big glass tomb, as a mummy, only the Russians don't know how to make mummies like their forerunners the Egyptians, and Lenin is at present on his third trial as being one, and I understand they're planning on trying some more I cause he doesn't stand the gaff very well. They'll have to get him within the next few tries or there won't be any Lenin left, just a big smell around Moscow, and it has enough of those already. Then there was a map showing the new street-car systems, and the new subway that there are going to build, oh an ambitious program, no doubt. Whether or not it really all gets done remains to be seen, but those guys seem to accomplish everything they set out to do, and just about two years ahead of schedule every time, so it wouldn't surprise me a bit to see everything done. The fellows there said I had the best time working on the stuff for Mendelsohn couldn't bawl me out when something didn't please him, and he bawled those guys out plenty. He knew I'd make believe I couldn't understand, so he just never said anything but took it all out on them. I used to laugh at 'em just to help matters along. They all were darn swell fellows and I certainly got to like them a lot.
Maybe you read in the paper about the fifth of December that the Soviets had blown up the big church in Russia -- the biggest church in Russia I mean. It was a big occasion for not always does a government blow up with a couple tons of dynamite, one of the best pieces of architecture in its domain. Well, where that was blown up is where this building shall stand, to be completed within two years, to mark the finish of the first Five Year Plan. Two American architects were in the competition, Thos. W. Lamb, for whom I worked that summer in New York, and Joseph Urban, who did Zigfield's Theatre, where we saw "Show Boat" that time, dad, remember. Lamb isn't any good, but Urban might get something quite nice. Gee, I wanted to go to Russia, inquired about a job but as I'd be going only for the adventure of it, and as I'd have to go for some length of time if I accepted a job, I quickly decided against it. Just had a letter from this girl in Russia and she hates it now, and wants to come back, but can't till spring. Says butter is $10.00 a pound if you use American money, and everything else is proportionate. Nice place! but if you're working there you get paid accordingly so it all amounts to the same except when you go in as a traveler and then it's some hundred to two bundred bucks a week I am told. I have been reading a couple of books on Russia which are very interesting, neither for nor against. I've become quite interested in their plan, and agree with them in many ways and think they have some very good stuff and some very very bad stuff, also. As for their government, never, but as for some of their methods of running industries, and planning what should be made and where and how much, I am all for. It really is very fascinating reading no matter which side you read, or which side you are on. Have you read any of the articles in "The Nation" the last few months? There have been some very good ones there. If you have "The Nation" for November 18, 1931, save it for me will you, there is an excellent article by Stuart Chase in there on "If I were Dictator."
I guess that this just about brings me up to date with everything that I have to write about. It looks as if winter is here to stay now for there is no sign of any let-up either in the cold or the snow that we get every day or so. But it isn't like Moscow, the girl said that it's six below all the time and plenty of snow there now. I'm afraid it'll be at least New Year's by the time you receive this letter now, so here's wishing you just one swell time --'spose there will be the regular dance at the Richmond that I never failed to land at sometime or other. Anyway, celebrate for me. Guess I'll still be here in Berlin, but Paris soon after that, and then to get ready for Spain, after doing a little work there, maybe at the Ecole. You'll hear from me from Paris, or perhaps even before, who knows I may make a New Year's resolution to do better by the family and really keep it. 'Bye for now.