Good, Ordinary

Volume 51, Issue 3, Michael J. Crosbie

Recently I have been looking into the life of Connecticut architect Louis A. Walsh. Never heard of him? Not surprising. Walsh was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, in 1877 to parents who had emigrated from Ireland. He attended local schools in Waterbury, and then entered Columbia University’s architecture program (which had been moved out of the School of Mines at the insistence of legendary architectural educator William R. Ware, head of the architecture program—just to give you an idea of how architecture was viewed as some species of infrastructure back then).

Walsh graduated from Columbia in 1900, and went right back to Waterbury. He traveled a bit through the western part of the US for just a few years, working for architecture firms. Walsh returned to Waterbury in 1904 and opened his own practice. He designed all kinds of projects—mostly apartment buildings and schools—then developed a specialty working for the Roman Catholic Church in Connecticut. This was a boon for Walsh. He designed lots of churches, rectories, convents, parochial schools, parish halls, and Catholic hospitals. Even with a brisk practice, it appears that Walsh kept his operation modest in size. He liked to work alone (an early, unsuccessful partnership with an older architect might have accounted for his preference for flying solo). His practice was always located in Waterbury, where he worked and lived until he died, in December of 1963, aged 86, at Waterbury Hospital.

Most of the buildings designed by Walsh that I have managed to find appear to be highly competent works of architecture, if not award winners. Walsh was a traditionalist—not surprising, given the time he studied architecture. Connecticut is dotted with his buildings. The highpoint of his career is a design completed in 1930 for St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield, Connecticut, which is a striking example of Collegiate Gothic architecture (a style he excelled at). He was a leader of the profession as well. Walsh chaired the state chapter of the American Institute of Architects and was active in the organization. But he was never a famous architect—which in a strange way makes him the perfect role model for the concerns of this issue, which focuses on the relationship between sacred places, their congregations, and the wider communities they are part of.

Walsh was a good, ordinary architect who designed a lot of good, ordinary buildings. Many of his works are still in service (St. Thomas Seminary is currently restoring its beautiful chapel, designed by Walsh). At a time when there’s much focus in architecture culture on the new, the bold, the odd, and the viral, architects like Walsh, who focused on creating good, ordinary architecture (which is much harder to do than it looks) continue to be unsung and their work not held up for emulation. We used to call this “background” architecture, which makes up the building stock of most cities and towns across the country. These buildings aren’t in history books, but they make their contribution to the communities that raised them, are well built, and rarely insult one’s intelligence. There is genius in their simplicity, honesty, directness, and sincerity. Today, there seem to be fewer and fewer good, ordinary buildings being constructed, designed by good, ordinary architects like Walsh, who appears to have made a commitment to the city he was born and grew up in, practiced in, raised a family in, and died in. The profession and the places we create could benefit from lauding the work and commitment to community of good, ordinary architects.

Michael J. Crosbie is the Editor-in-Chief of Faith & Form and can be reached by email at [email protected] Back to editorials