Howard Hughes and My Architect Grandfather

At a recent art exhibition opening, I learned that one of the legends of 20th Century America visited my grandfather sometime in 1936 or ’37. The occasion was the negotiation of land rights for the proposed building of Nazareth Hospital in Northeast Philadelphia.

Because my grandfather was hired by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to design Nazareth, he was asked to try to get an agreement of sale from the owner of the land. Without land rights, the hospital could not be built.

The owner of the land was the 6’4” tall Hollywood playboy and movie producer, Howard Hughes, who had made a name for himself in 1928 when his comedy, “Two Arabian Knights,” won an Oscar. Hughes had also co-directed the 1930 film, “Hell’s Angels,” a film about WWI combat pilots starring Jean Harlow. Hughes’ inherited family wealth enabled him to buy all the combat planes used in the film. A natural daredevil and pilot himself, Hughes took part in the filmed combat dog fights in which 3 pilots died.

As Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor, the handsome Hughes had had affairs with Katherine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth and many others. In later years he had the habit of collecting beautiful women with movie star aspirations. It was his habit to put them up in apartments or small houses while paying their rent and daily expenses. Initially Hughes may have shown a romantic interest in these women but over time this interest would wane. Hughes was content to call them once a month as he continued to send them checks, sometimes for years. He was also attracted to male stars like Cary Grant and Randolph Scott but this part of his life was kept secret, given the tenor of the times. In 1939, two years after his meeting with my grandfather, he flew around the world and was honored with a ticker tape parade in New York City.

Let’s go back to 1937 when Hughes piloted his own plane to New York and then to Philadelphia’s Northeast Airport where my grandparents stood waiting for him on the tarmac. My grandmother, Pauline Clavey Nickels, a former opera singer from Wilmington, was probably wearing one of her big hats, and no doubt Frank was dressed in his herringbone best.

When Hughes arrived, pleasantries were probably exchanged, and then the group went off to a meeting near the grounds of the proposed hospital. What was said then can only be imagined. No doubt Frank and Pauline were a little star struck, especially when Hughes accepted Frank’s offer to go back to 40 West so that he could have a look at his proposed hospital design.

I wonder if the group had lunch on the way to the mansion. Did Pauline ask about Rita Hayworth, or did Hughes inquire about the stern bust of Dante on Frank’s mantelpiece? Did Hughes let it slip that in two years he planned an around the world solo flight? What I do know is that both Howard Hughes and Frank Nickels were eccentrics (although grandfather was not mad), so I’m sure there was an instant bond.

Frank, one of four brothers and a sister, was born in 1891 to William Bartholomew and Dorothy G. Nickels of Roxborough. As a young man he was already setting his own style: he had a penchant for getting his shirts dry cleaned and then carrying them on hangers on various local trolleys. In 1914, he graduated from Drexel with a diploma in architecture and after that he established architectural offices in Center City at 15 S. 21st Street, 225 S. Sydenham Street and later in the Land Title Building. His concentration was industrial and commercial projects, as well as schools and churches for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and in the Reading area.

Several years ago I had an opportunity to tour two of his buildings, 1521 Spruce Street and the Frances Plaza Apartments at 19th and Lombard Streets. For many years Frank partnered with architect C.J. Mitchell, whose papers are also archived at the Athenaeum. Frank split with Mitchell when the latter challenged him in a bid to design a school for Saint Philomena School in Lansdowne. Somebody who knew grandfather told me that he never spoke to CJ again.

Frank and Pauline Nickels raised three children, Frank, Thomas C (my father), and Joan in the Albemarle mansion. Frank’s bonsai garden behind the mansion was so famous that local Cub Scout Packs would organize tours of the space.

Both Hughes and Nickels were basically shy men with loner tendencies. My grandfather was not a joiner. As far as I know he never was a member of the Philadelphia AIA or the “must do” T Square Club, unlike CJ Mitchell who was a member of both.

When grandfather and Hughes met at 40 West, it’s possible that they reviewed the Nazareth plans in the dining room at the long table for 16 situated under a chandelier. Grandfather’s drafting room was on the second floor overlooking the bonsai garden and carriage house, so perhaps he and Hughes retired there as Pauline played a few bars of Chopin on the Steinway downstairs.

“Frank, I like your plans for Nazareth, I really do,” I can imagine Hughes saying. “The design is modern with a touch of art deco and I like the way the building meets the sky. There’s something about your design that reminds me of aviation. I’ll tell you what, Frank. I’m going to give the Archdiocese of Philadelphia this land for free. You can tell them that down at the Chancery…Now I’m going to fly off to one of my kept women on the west coast.”

The truth is, Hughes admired the hospital plans so much he gifted the land to the Archdiocese at zero cost. Perhaps they sealed the deal with a drink, a toast of port or a round of straight up Manhattans whipped up by Pauline at the cocktail bar.

Grandfather must have told this story at Sunday dinner parties or at Thanksgiving and Christmas years after Hughes had become a recluse, living as a hermit on top of the Desert Inn Hotel Casino in Las Vegas or jetting around the world to hole up in other darkened hotel rooms with his ten inch long fingernails, and long gray hair and beard resembling the monks on Mt. Athos.

What is amazing to me, however, is that not long after Hughes’ visit to 40 West he opened the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. But before that, in 1935, he designed the H1 Silver Bullet, the world’s fastest racing airplane noted for its sleek modern look. As I checked out images of the H1, I couldn’t help but think how the plane eerily reminded me of Nazareth Hospital. How can a plane remind anyone of a hospital? Well, I can only conclude by saying that the plane had a sleek modern look that conjured up the “feeling” of art deco.

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