An internationally acclaimed architect who hails from Shreveport-Bossier City is bringing a local architectural icon back to life.
“Whatever I was going to do,
I wanted to do it right.
I’d measure it,
I’d photograph it,
I’d build models.
I wrestled with moving it.”
Christopher Coe, an Airline High School graduate, went to LSU, then Louisiana Tech University, where he decided to pursue architecture. He earned a master’s degree in architecture from Yale University. He left Shreveport in 1987 for Los Angeles in 1987 to work with renowned architect Richard Meier as a project designer on the Getty Center.
“Dad was an Air Force guy, stationed at Barksdale, four different times over a 25-year career,” Coe said. “All four of us kids graduated from the same high school. This really has been home. I always loved Shreveport. I loved downtown Shreveport.”
He also fell in love with the John Preston House, a home that represented a break with local architectural traditions. Shreveport architect William B. Wiener – who won acclaim in the 1930s for his International-style designs – created the house for an average Shreveport family, says Louisiana Tech architecture professor Guy Carwile.
Carwile, who’s studied the Wiener brothers and their work extensively, is one of Coe’s close friends.
“John Preston owned an automotive repair shop, so he was definitely middle class,” Carwile said. “John Preston and his wife Gladys, they searched out William B. Wiener. This is the smallest house either brother ever built. The house was designed in 1934, published in 1935. The Wieners hadn’t done a lot of modern buildings up to that point.”
The exterior featured an asymmetrical façade and large steel windows, all elements of the modernist style in Europe that would be known as the International style. The interior was traditional, at the family’s request, with four boxy rooms that didn’t fit the home’s exterior.
“These guys were so enamored of this atheistic, but they had to concede to the wishes of clients,” Coe said.
As Coe considered leaving the L.A. fast lane life, he decided to make the Preston House his retirement home. He bought the crumbling house in 2010 and started weighing how to showcase the International style while making it functional inside.
“I spent years on it,” he recalled. “I didn’t want to mess it up. Whatever I was going to do, I wanted to do it right. I’d measure it, I’d photograph it, I’d build models. I wrestled with moving it.”
He ended up moving the 900-square-foot house from Jordan Street to College Street because the original lot didn’t have enough room for an addition he planned.
Now the house swarms with activity as construction workers revamp the interior of the original house and build the addition, which will include a garage and a three-story International-styled tower. Coe’s office and studio will occupy the tower, while he and his family will live in the original house. Landscaping in front and a garden and pool in the back will complement the International design.
“I realized that I can open up the floor plan (in the original house) and it will still be true to its roots. The funny round shape in the house is the guest bathroom. That’s the only wall that will be in the main house,” Coe said.
Weather caused construction delays, but now Coe hopes to have the Preston home finished in September. “I just want to sit on the back porch and have some iced tea,” he said.
Like Coe, the Wiener brothers were local boys who returned to their roots. William Wiener and his brother, Samuel Wiener, were the sons of a grocer. They grew up on Austen Street near downtown Shreveport – and just down the street from the Art Deco-styled Municipal Auditorium, which Samuel Wiener helped design.
Trips to Europe opened their eyes to modernist architecture. They returned determined to introduce that style to north Louisiana, with a few innovations to accommodate the region’s climate. They designed public and private buildings in Shreveport and the region for nearly three decades, starting in the early 1930s.
They made their name with William Wiener’s weekend home on Cross Lake, which was featured in Architectural Forum in 1934. That house was the first example of the style they brought home from trips to Europe. Their buildings represented one of the largest groups of International-style structures designed by American architects.
Three of the Wieners’ buildings remain in the South Highlands neighborhood: Samuel Wiener’s own home, the Wiles House and the Flesh House.
The Wile House, built in 1934, is the oldest existing International-style home in Louisiana. Shreveport historian Eric Brock noted that the owner, I. Ed Wile, had to hire security guards at one point to keep people from wandering into take a look around the unusual home.
Some buildings, like the Municipal Incinerator they designed for Shreveport, have been torn down. Fire destroyed the eye-catching Big Chain Grocery on Youree Drive. However, the Wieners’ legacy remains in several other public buildings, including Broadmoor and Linwood middle schools.
Coe wants to share the Wieners’ vision and legacy with the world. He’s helping the Louisiana Architecture Foundation make a film about the brothers’ impact on design. Unexpected Modernism: The Wiener Brothers’ Story aims to trace the development of their style and rekindle an appreciation of modernist architecture. He’s also helping put together an exhibit about the Wiener brothers’ work that will open at Centenary College in the fall of 2020.
Carwile believes these fresh looks at the Wieners’ work will propel them from a footnote to a touchstone of International style development. Carwile co-authored a book about the Wieners’ collection of buildings and their historical importance after starting to study their buildings in 2002. “Chris Coe, he’s very much into banging the drum, getting people aware of and interested in this heritage,” Carwile said.
Coe drove around Shreveport looking for Wiener homes that were still standing. He wanted to buy the Wieners’ former weekend home on Cross Lake but the owner turned him down. He was familiar with the Preston House from photos, and when he spotted it, he stopped, Carwile says.
“He sees the Preston House and goes up and knocks on the door…,” Carwile recalled. “It was in really bad shape. It was going to succumb to benign neglect. No question, Chris Coe saved that house.”
The International style infuses many of Coe’s designs, including the restoration of the iconic Hollywood Palladium nightclub on Sunset Boulevard and renovation of a warehouse at Hanna Barbera Cartoons into an artist studio. The styling at Hanna Barbera echoes the style seen in “The Jetsons”.
Coe’s firm has won numerous awards, and he notes that his design for the Preston House has won a couple of awards in a category that lets architects enter their designs instead of the finished building. Coe has his share of other awards, including the 2016 Louisiana Tech Alumnus of the Year.
He’s been a teacher, mentor and critic at schools around the United States and has served as a design instructor in the School of Architecture at the University of Southern California. Locally, he’s shared information about the Wiener brothers with several community groups, including the Highland Restoration Association and the Shreveport chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
Coe says he’s not retiring completely, but his days of designing large commercial projects are winding down. He wants to concentrate on guarding Shreveport’s history. As chairman of the Shreveport Architectural and Engineering Selection Committee, he’s weighing in on renovation issues, including a SporTran plan to turn the former Sun Furniture building on Texas Avenue into a food court.
“I am super-focused on historic preservation issues in Shreveport,” Coe said. “I’m interested in designing community-related projects.”