When Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s, the great dam was known for its engineering superlatives. It was the highest dam ever built, the costliest water project, home of the largest power plant of its time.
Today, as Hoover celebrates its 60th anniversary, we can see that the dam is not only an engineering wonder. It also is a work of art.
Few structures in America display the diversity of design and craftsmanship that you see at Hoover Dam. It is a showcase of seldom-seen skills of artists and artisans–beautifully presented terrazzo tiles, sculpture, metalwork, and even military emplacements.
The dam’s architectural design varies a great deal from its initial plans. Bureau of Reclamation engineers, more concerned with flood control than appearance, simply wanted to embellish the dam with eagles, cornices, and other ornamentation.
The more streamlined look of the completed project was influenced by two men who were not engineers: architect Gordon B. Kaufmann, known for his design of the Los Angeles Times Building, and artist Allen True, whose murals are prominent in the Colorado State Capitol in Denver.
Kaufmann was a native of London, England, who lived in Southern California. He had been enlisted to help design the Administration Building in Boulder City, the federal town being built to house dam workers. After he was asked to comment on the aesthetics of the dam’s proposed design, Kaufmann became totally involved in the project. Richard Guy Wilson, architecture professor at the University of Virginia and a student of the dam, notes that the architect apparently was retained to counterbalance the engineers’ focus on “functionality rather than aesthetics.”
Kaufmann simplified the dam’s design and replaced ornamentation with the flowing lines of Modernism and Art Deco. The four areas where his influence is most visible are the power plant, dam crest, intake towers, and spillways. He transformed the power plant with color and facades. He blended four protruding towers on the crest into the face of the structure. He smoothed the upper portions of the four intake towers and reworked the two spillways to accent Art Deco elements.
“There was never any desire or attempt to create an architectural effect or style,” he later explained, “but rather to take each problem and integrate it to the whole in order to secure a system of plain surfaces relieved by shadows here and there.” The architect later produced progressively simplified designs for downstream Parker Dam and for Shasta Dam in Northern California.
Allen True, the Denver artist, assisted Kaufmann with interior designs and color. True was responsible for one of the dam’s most distinctive motifs–the Southwestern Indian designs in the terrazzo floors. Using such sources as an Acoma bowl and Pima basket, True linked Native American geometric concepts with Art Deco design. Many of the Indian designs were based on centrifugal themes, which related to the turbines in the power plant.
True’s colors were truly striking. He used black, white, green and dull-red ochre chips in the terrazzo floors to contrast with the black-marble walls. True also specified the red color for the generator shells in the power plant, a sight that still commands visitors’ attention.
You can see the power plant and terrazzo work during a tour of the dam. Following an elevator descent of 530 feet, you emerge into seemingly endless galleries. There you find gleaming terrazzo floors imbedded with the Southwestern Indian patterns adapted by True from baskets, pottery, and sand paintings.
Two Italian immigrant brothers, Joseph and John Martina, installed the terrazzo floors in 1936-37 with the help of 30 countrymen. John served as contractor for the job and worked with Reclamation officials. Joe, barely able to speak English when they bid on the job, was in charge of laying the floors. The Martina brothers contracted to install the terrazzo for 48 cents per square foot, for a total of only $51,718. Costs today would exceed $20 per square foot.
To create the terrazzo, the workers imbedded marble chips in cement, separating them with brass or aluminum divider strips to make a tiled pattern. After the mosaic hardened, they used large finishing machines to polish the surfaces. The result was a lustrous terrazzo.
On top of the dam, two “Winged Figures of the Republic” dominate the Nevada approach, They are the work of sculptor Oskar J.W. Hansen, a Norwegian immigrant who was appointed a consulting sculptor by Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes following a national competition.
Hansen said the 30-foot bronzed statues represented “that eternal vigilance which is the price of liberty.” Perched on six-foot-tall cues of gleaming black diorite, Hansen’s figures flank a 142-foot flagpole. In front of this array he placed a terrazzo star map depicting the celestial alignment from that site on the evening of September 30, 1935, the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated what was then called Boulder Dam.
Hansen also created the nearby bronze plaque memorializing the 96 workers who died during construction of the dam. An inscription proclaims, “They died to make the desert bloom.”
You can see more of Hansen’s work on the two elevator towers. Each displays five bas-reliefs that tell a story. The Arizona tower has a tribute to Native American tribes and their Great Spirit of the ranges and the plains. The five Nevada panels portray the dam’s main purposes — flood control, navigation, irrigation, water storage, and power.
Away from the tour route, and off-limits to the public, are two unique forms of craftsmanship that appeared after the dam’s completion in 1935. The first is found in the power plant’s “gold room,” where solid-copper cabinetry surrounds heavy copper bars carrying electricity from generators to transformers. Fred Johnson, electrical engineer at Hoover Dam, says the name “gold room” probably derived from the bright finishes of the copper cabinets, but rumors persist that the metal has a high gold content.
The other curiosity stands above the dam. If you look on the Arizona (eastern) side of Lake Mead, you will see a cubical silhouette. This is a gun emplacement built during World War II. As a major source of electrical power for the defense industry, Hoover Dam was considered a primary military target. Of several bunkers that guarded the dam in wartime, this one is the last survivor.
The pillbox, constructed of steel and concrete and veneered with local rock, is 24 feet long and has six gun ports. It was built by a military police battalion soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, according to Lincoln Clark of Las Vegas. A retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, Clark was a first lieutenant when stationed at the dam in 1942. He and his fellow soldiers guarded the dam and escorted civilian vehicles across it. One soldier was always inside in the bunker, Clark recalls, and a squad of riflemen was scattered in the rocks 24 hours a day.
Thus the soldiers demonstrated the “eternal vigilance” that Oskar Hansen sought to portray in his handsome winged figures, seen by all who cross the dam.
Hansen, an intensely creative sculptor, showed his sense of humor one day at the dam. While he was working on the sculptures, a woman asked him how he began such an endeavor. “Madam,” Hansen replied, “when you peel an orange, do you begin by sticking your thumb into its center?” He meant that a sculptor must take all parts of a work into consideration before “peeling” away the unused material.
Today we can admire the way Hansen and other artists and craftsmen peeled away Hoover Dam to create a structure of beauty as well as utility.