Saturday, June 7, 2014

Biloxi's Magnificent Ohr-O'Keefe

In some ways the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, MS, is a work in progress, in other ways it is a project that was not meant to be completed, and still in other ways some are offended by its completion.
Museum campus model on display in the Mississippi Sound Welcome Center

“The six-acre sun-dappled campus, which will have cost $40 million when complete, houses the works of George E. Ohr (1857-1918), arguably the most audacious craftsman of the turn of the 20th century, in buildings designed by Frank Gehry (born 1929), arguably the most audacious architect of the turn of the 21st.”

This entry is the first of three that will cover our visit to the Museum. Interestingly enough, the first two entries will cover the architecture of the buildings and the third will cover the works of George Ohr in the museum.

In 1997, the Ohr museum shared space in the Biloxi library, but then-director Margie Gowdy thought it was time for the museum to find a home of its own. Gowdy hired Robert Tannen and Jeanne Nathan to help with the planning. Former Biloxi Mayor Jerry O’Keefe became the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum’s major private benefactor.

The four visited Frank Gehry’s California studio, where, to everyone’s delight, they discovered that Gehry was already aware of the work of Biloxi’s “Mad Potter.” Gehry, known for splendidly unruly creations such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, famously said that he intended his Biloxi buildings to dance with the trees (this will be more evident in tomorrow's entry).

In 2004, ground was broken on the set of small jewel-like structures that could be built into the Biloxi shoreline without disturbing the intertwined oaks.

However, Katrina’s wrecking ball winds and an estimated 30-foot wave of seawater exploded across the Ohr-O’Keefe campus on August 29, 2005, drastically changing the construction schedule. Gehry’s hurricane-resistant designs, secured with 60-foot-deep pilings, might have survived even Katrina’s fury if the floating Grand Casino, which was as long as a city block, hadn’t been deposited on the museum grounds, crushing the African American Gallery flat.
Half of the 36 oak trees were lost. Coastal Biloxi was ruined.

But with the help of the insurance money, the community leaders’ energetic tenacity fueled the drive to rebuild.

The photos below were taken from the tower of the Mississippi Sound Welcome Center and from the ground looking upward toward the tower.
View from the Welcome Center south toward the Gulf; the roof of the Gallery of African American Art is visible

Gallery of African American Art, above and below


View from the tower of the City of Biloxi Center for Ceramics, including the brick walkway (in the photo above) and the roof lines (below)

Right angles are almost as scarce as Ivory-billed woodpeckers in the five museum structures conceived by Gehry.


Some of the glinting metallic walls bend like sailboat jibs (these will be apparent in the next entry). Rooflines bob and tilt like chipped ice in a julep.



View directly below the tower

A 70-step brick staircase elegantly descends and descends and descends from treetop level to the earth.

Not everyone passing by on Beach Boulevard appreciates Gehry’s design. “Some are put out,” museum director Denny Mecham said, “highly offended.” Of course, she added, “a lot of people didn’t like George Ohr either.” And heaven knows Ohr’s less adventuresome neighbors might have had some reservations about his five-story pagoda-roofed rambling pottery shed, painted, as Mecham described it, Pepto-Bismol pink.

The angles of the buildings structure and the lines of the metal strips and mortar in the bricks create different views as one moves around the buildings.

More on the Museum’s buildings tomorrow.


Much of the history and descriptions are taken from an article by Doug MacCash of the Times Picayune, November 05, 2010. (nola.com/arts/ index.ssf/2010/11/the_ohr-okeefe_museum_designed).