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In New Book, Eugene Mackey III Honors His Father And Gives Glimpse Of Architectural Inspiration

Eugene Mackey III was a college sophomore in 1958, pursuing a degree in English at St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minn., when all of a sudden his architect father, the late Eugene J. Mackey Jr., asked him if he’d like to make a father-son six-weeks tour of Europe. The college boy said sure. Who wouldn’t?

photo of Eugene Mackey Jr.
Credit Provided by Eugene Mackey III
Eugene Mackey Jr.

This first of several trips to Europe for Mackey pere et fils would be transformative. For the elder Mackey it was an opportunity to behold and to touch buildings and to pass through and experiences spaces that were familiar to him from books and pictures; he knew them well. But this experience would be richer, a visual and tactile baptism by submersion in the real McCoy.

For Gene the Younger, it meant a quick and decisive detour from John Milton to Sir Christopher Wren. The new route taken has been felicitous. He, like his father, has contributed mightily to the cityscape of St. Louis with architecture and to the good of the community through civic involvement.

The elder Mackey was one of the great men of architecture of the 20th century in St. Louis. He studied at Carnegie Tech and at MIT, and when no jobs were available to him on the East Coast, he took a position at the University of Kansas. Eventually he made his way to the Architecture School at Washington University, and from there into a partnership with another legendary St. Louis architect and teacher, Joseph D. Murphy. They created the celebrated firm of Murphy and Mackey.

Mackey the Elder left his mark on Washington University not only as a professor but in architectural accomplishments. The Olin Library he and Murphy designed continues to beat as the intellectual heart of the Danforth Campus. The McDonnell Science Building at the WU School of Medicine is distinguished by its rhythmic undulating façade, not to mention the functional 300,000 square feet of space for research inside it.

Mackey also designed the extraordinary Resurrection of Our Lord Church at 3900 Meramec in South St. Louis, a building that proclaims the gospel of modernism with great eloquence. He designed one of the most affecting and dignified public spaces in the U.S., the Court of Honor of the World War II Memorial, located south of the Soldiers Memorial downtown.

Although young Gene Mackey would sponge all this up at home, he initially set out on a liberal arts path rather than the art and business of architecture. The father-son odyssey in 1958 would change all that. Gene III said of his career, “All of it goes back to that trip.”

An egregious mistake made by artists of all sorts, as well as those who comment on art in its various manifestations, is to make rigid declarations and decisions boxed in by specific styles or by taking slavish devotion positions in defense or celebration of a particular architect or work being produced at a particular moment in time. The father-son Mackey Odyssey would have none of that. The trip, and indeed the brilliant vision of the trip, was to burrow into in the architecture of greatness and genius rather than to kowtow to modernism or exult in the glory that was Rome.

The travelers visited Belgium (where modernism was on show at EXPO 1958 in Brussels, and the United States was represented by a circular building by architect Edward Durell Stone), and thence to Germany, France and Italy. They saw everything from the Sainte Chapelle in Paris to Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamps, from the Pont du Gard at Nimes to Pier Luigi Nervi’s tobacco factory at Bologna.

cover of book by Eugene Mackey III
Credit Monograph Publishing

To see at first hand, as any serious traveler knows, is to believe, and quite often the immediate experience – the material manifestation -- takes your breath away. And there is a human impulse to try to memorialize the experience and somehow to capture what you’ve seen. Since the 19th century the mechanism for capturing such revelations has been the camera. No camera accompanied the Mackeys, however. The substitute for technology was a gold fountain pen, bond paper and a clipboard that provided a hard surface and a means of keeping the paper still.

Eugene Mackey the elder drew not only with skill but with inspiration, all along the way. I’ve always found drawings to be the most direct connection between the idea and the page, and Mackey Jr.’s drawings epitomize this. Although there is a strong enough whiff of verisimilitude to place the viewer firmly in space and time, nothing suggests a literal rendering. Rather, these lines are endowed with a passionate sense of discovery and originality.

Eugene Mackey Jr. died in July 1968. Eugene Mackey III’s sister Ellen Mackey gave her brother the European drawings two years ago; and in looking at them, he was catapulted back more than half a century in time, to this magical journey with his father, feeling his father’s enthusiasm once again and drawing inspiration from the drawings as well as from informed and exuberant commentary on spaces and buildings great and small.

“It was as if the ink were still wet on the page,” Mackey said over breakfast the other day. His father told him, “Never stop drawing,” and he hasn’t. The elegant lines of the father live on in drawings of the son.

Rather than returning these pages of inheritance to the box in which they came, Gene Mackey decided to organize them and to publish them, along with his father’s handwritten, lively and idiosyncratic narrative of the journey. The result is a magnificent homage of a son to a revered father, a gesture not only of gratitude but also of love.

How fitting it is for this book to come to life at holiday time, during moments of our existential passages when, for the genuinely fortunate, family connections are honored, and grown sons, sometimes reserved in demonstrations of affection, are permitted embraces or, in remembrance, tears of comfort and of joy.

“Impressions of a European Journey 1958” edited by Eugene J. Mackey III and  published by Monograph Publishing, Eureka, Mo., is $34.95 hardbound, and is available at the Bookstore of the St. Louis Chapter of the  American Institute of Architects, 911 Washington Avenue. Telephone 314-231-4252.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.