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J. Andre Smith

by Peter A. Banca

 

 

            J. Andre Smith, an architect and artist of world renown, chose to live in Stony Creek in a Spanish style, rambling, one-level stucco building of his own design, overlooking the waters and marshes of Stony Creek.

            Born in Hong Kong in 1880, Smith’s father died when he was young. His mother moved the family to Germany and ultimately to the United States. His mother lived in Boston and New York prior to settling with her three young children in Pine Orchard.

            Smith yielded to family persuasion to study architecture instead of art in college and he earned his Master’s degree in architecture at Cornell in 1901. He practiced architecture in New York and designed many homes including his own on Crescent Bluff Avenue and two others on Yowago Avenue. But preference for pure art influenced him toward a career in which he would be known primarily for his etchings.

            Smith accepted a commission in the U.S. Army in World War I. There he commanded a group of artists that went to the front lines and recorded the activities of the American Expeditionary Forces for the archives. The works of the group can be viewed at the Smithsonian Institute. Another collection of Smith’s war drawings are studied today by cadets at West Point. Sometime after the war Smith authored In France, With the American Expeditionary Forces, the first of three books he was to write.

            While serving his commission, Smith designed the Distinguished Service Cross, which is still used today by the military.

            While in training at Camp Plattsburgh, New York, the young officer suffered an injury which led to a post war amputation of the right leg. Smith was to suffer all his life from a phantom pain which was to restrict his physical activity. He traveled several times to Europe after the war, often with his friend, Attilio Banca of Stony Creek, and continued to actively sketch. This was a period of great productivity for the artist as an etcher who was often compared to his close friend and contemporary, Ernest Roth. His etchings won him a gold medal at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915.

            Smith returned each year to Pine Orchard and then to Stony Creek after he and Banca built a new home on West Point Road. From his home Smith and banca ran art classes and established the Marsh House gallery to display his own and other works. He was active in the community in spite of traveling to Europe and wintering in Florida. Clarence Bradley and Smith established the American Legion Post in Branford. He also designed Branford’s cenotaph, the World War I Memorial located to the rear of town hall where Veterans Day exercises are held annually. Other activities included designing stage sets for the Parish players, a summer theater in what is now the Stony Creek Puppett House. It was during this time he authored his second book, The Scenewright.

            Winter trips to Florida brought Smith and Banca to Maitland, then a small community, just north of Orlando. He met Mary Curtis Bok, who later became Mrs. Efrem Zimbalist. She assisted Smith in establishing the Research Studio, Inc., which opened in 1937. A cement carving over the fireplace in the Center Gallery summarized the purpose and intent of the center: “The artist’s job is to explore, to announce new visions, and open new doors.”

            The Studio was unique architecturally with many cement carvings and facades done by Andre and Ralph Ponder, a family friend. This same style of architecture can be seen at Stony Creek home.

            Smith wrote a third book, Art and the Subconscious. A deeply religious man, Smith built an outdoor garden chapel in memory of his mother opposite the Research Studio. The garden chapel and studio are still open to the public today. Andre Smith, who died in 1959 and is buried in Branford Center Cemetery in his family plot, leaves behind his architecture and art for future generations.

 

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