A Century Ago: Travel to France with Messrs. Booth and Swanson

May 30, 2023, marks one hundred years since Henry S. Booth and J. Robert F. Swanson returned home from ten months of travel in Europe. Midway through their architecture studies at the University of Michigan, the friends and classmates set off on August 1, 1922 for a “Grand Tour” through Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Tunisia, Italy, France, and England to study and sketch European architecture.

In today’s post, I want to share moments from their journey through France, which is so beautifully documented by Henry’s letters and photographs, and by both of their sketches.

Eglise St. Pierre de Coutances, April 29, 1923, J. Robert F. Swanson. Courtesy of Cranbrook Art Museum.

Arriving in France in March 1923, Harry and Bob journeyed through Nice to Cannes, then through Lyon to the city of Bourges. Henry describes the scenery en route:

…mountains on the right and the “Cote d’Azure” on the other, flowers overhanging balustraded walls, old olives and tall but easily climbed palms, rocks and breaking waves, and then always the bluest of skies and sea to match, and dazzling sunlight–quite warm and ‘drowsy’.

At Bourges, they headed for the Cathedral, which they visited several times: at night by the light of gas lamps; in the afternoon sunlight; at dusk with a handful of worshippers on their knees; and then later that evening filled with the faithful.

Cathédrale St. Etiénne de Bourges, March 1923. Henry Scripps Booth, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

It was an inspiring sight—the nave packed, and both the inner and outer aisles (for there are two) on the north side filled also, and not a few on the other side of the church. The light was dim all during the sermon, and when that was over, a quantity of candles were lighted almost instantaneously about the “Host,” and all the electric candles down the nave came on, so that suddenly this great cathedral was changed from a imaginative forrest in the night, to a great cathedral church ablaze with the lights associated with a feast.

But I thought more of other things than of the architecture that night. The preacher talked too fast for me to understand his French, but I knew what he should have been saying even if he wasn’t…, I looked at the great number of long black vails [sic] everywhere, noticed the lack of men of middle age, and saw many young fellows who are now “heads” of their father’s family standing by their veiled mother’s side.”

They stopped in Tours before taking in the Chateaux of the Loire: from Loche to Langais, Ussé, Villandry and Azey.

Then a while in Paris, where they visited the Louvre, the Opera, and the Sorbonne.

“We managed to leave Paris with part of the General Confession in our minds—“we have left undone those things which we ought to have done.” As to the things we ought not to have done, they were very few, and were not serious except in that they used up valuable time.”

With only thirty-eight days left before they set sail to return home, Henry begins to wonder if he’ll need a rest when he gets there. Their next stop was at Reims:

“We really were much surprised to find the cathedral in such good condition, after all we have heard about it. Of course the glass was one of the chief treasures and that being all removed, we do not know how much is left. There is one big hole in the vaulting of the crossing still to repair… The rest of the city was almost completely wrecked, and the cathedral was left standing. With modern guns and knowledge, the cathedral could easily been [sic] laid level with the ground.

They started for Amiens the following morning, expecting to have a few hours in Laon on the way. But after traveling 60 miles on the wrong train, they stopped in a town called Rethel. This town was badly damaged by war, and was as dusty as Reims with its reconstruction and ruins. Harry writes evocatively of the scene:

You no doubt get tired of hearing of Cathedrals. Amiens has always been pointed out as the best cathedral of them all (except the façade) and we were not disappointed in it, except it lacks stained glass. All the glass was removed during the war, and the windows boarded up or filled with plain glass. The holes are plentiful, so a number of birds fly around inside all the time. They are replacing the windows now.

In Beauvais there are other things beside the unfinished cathedral to see—not so in so many places. Quaint old houses are quite plentiful, but not so abundtantly [sic] so as here in Rouen. The cathedral is the chief attraction, and deserves all the notoriety it possesses—the highest church in the world. Inside the height is one hundred and fifty eight feet—a vault supported on stone columns which might almost be cast iron, they are so small the virtical [sic] effect is overpowering, and you absolutely cannot keep your eyes near the ground—they go up, and up, and up, until your neck says, “Stop!” The vaults of the small part of the nave built, fell in, so you cannot get far enough back to see the full height at one time. It certainly is a thriller, to say the least. The transcepts [sic] externally are just as fine, and must have furnished Cram or Goodhue (especially the latter) with many of their “modern” ideas.”

“We climbed up on the aisle roof and got up just below the clerestory windows of the choir, and managed to take pictures thru [sic] holes in the glass and between roaring buttresses. Then we got upon the main parapet. From there we went up little narrow steps next to the gable end to the ridge of the roof—only 223 feet high!

“If it’s warm and doesn’t rain tomorrow, we sketch. So say we every day.”

There was sunshine enough for one sketch, then they were on their way to Mont St. Michel.

On the way the driver stopped and said we would have to wait a minute, and several minutes later we found him in a café having café while we were sitting out in the cold. … But the drive was much more romantic than arriving at that wonderful place by train.

A grey, misty pyramid looms up far away down the road, and after you go several kilos, with the pyramid becoming more distinct in outline and form, you appreciate that it is a pyramid built up of rocks, clustered about the base, and covered partly, by quaint towers and houses, and topped off with a pile of Gothic buildings growing into a church, from a church into a tower, and at last into a spindly fleche. The sky was dark and still darker this mountain on the sands stood out against it.

In the morning sunlight the mount is not quite so forboding in appearance—chiefly because you are within the defensive walls, and looking out over the broad expanse of rainbow sands, to the mainland with its feathery trees. I use the word “rainbow” advisedly, for the sands are as varying in color as the waters of the Lake of Tunis. They are amber, they are blue and lavender and rose—all so pale in tone, but yet so easily distinguished. Especially was it so in the evening when the tide was rushing in so fast. I cannot tell you of it—you must go to the mount as the pilgrims of old, and see the Glory of the Lord.

The Archives hold the memories of Harry and Bob’s journey through Europe, recorded in manuscript, photographic, and graphic materials. They tell us a story of both the mundane and the poignant, the worldly and the sacred. It is a story of heavy bags, missed trains, hunger, tiredness, blisters from walking, noisy hotel neighbors. And it is a story of flowers, olives, the bluest of skies and dazzling sunlight, enchanting cathedrals, magnificent chateaux, the sacred grove, relics, beautiful choirs, breakfasts, feathery topped trees and quantities of yellow flowers, rainbow sands of amber, blue, lavender, and rose. It is a moving story that, through two young American observers, traces the polarity of human experience from the aftermath of World War I to the beauty of nature and splendor of the Divine.

Sketch by Henry Scripps Booth, April 1923. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Harry and Bob arrived home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, one hundred years ago. They would soon return to Ann Arbor to study under visiting professor Eliel Saarinen, and then, back to Bloomfield Hills, where they started their own families and launched their careers together in the architectural firm, Swanson and Booth.

Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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