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The American Decadence

( Originally Published 1910 )



FOLLOWING the fruitage of the Colonial period came much immigration, political disturbance, and a relaxing of old standards.

The revival of Greek ideas which came from England in the beginning of the nineteenth century and lasted a few years gave us a number of beautiful examples, but what began by being Greek came in time, especially in the churches built under the new influence, to resemble a child's nest of boxes superimposed in the order of their size and supported by ponderous Doric columns entirely of wood painted to imitate granite. This style appears occasionally in court-houses and the mansions of the squires throughout the northern half of the Atlantic seaboard.

An interesting type was developed about the middle of the century by Godey's Ladies' Magazine, published in Philadelphia in the early sixties. This arbiter of taste and fashion "featured" a series of architectural designs which it called "Italian villas." These were actually reproduced in many parts of the country, because, unhappily, no one seemed to know better. This was the black-walnut-and-haircloth period abroad, and America responded with a lack of taste that has already become appalling, and that it will take two or three generations more to live down.

The question of State sovereignty coming to a head in the Civil War stopped all building and paved the way for a new era, which, however, was slow in coming. Just after the war the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was founded. This was the first school of architecture in the United States, and it played an important part in advancing the cause of sound architecture. The first head of the institute was a practising architect with a genuine respect for Old World traditions, Prof. William Robert Ware, now retired, and the professor emeritus of the profession. Through the elder men of the profession—whom Professor Ware still calls his "boys"—he had a profound influence on American architecture. The elder "Tech" men are now scattered throughout the Union, and are everywhere demonstrating the value of sound training.

In 1876 came the Philadelphia Exposition, which stimulated interest in this science, and was also of value in starting an interest in study abroad. American students began to attend the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris, a strenuously French and academic institution of the first rank. The influence of its teaching on the strong men is marvellous, and many of America's best architects have a Beaux Arts training. The cities are full of weak men, however, students of this school, who have misunderstood the basic training on law and theory, and who return with centre lines and red spots, mingled with the slang of the Quartier Latin, and little real appreciation of the value of subjecting theory to practice. While the Beaux Arts is responsible for many of the best men in the profession it must also accept the responsibility of producing a large number of half-trained, half-finished practitioners. It is noteworthy that few men, either at the time we have been speaking of or since, went to Germany for study, although England continued to receive a considerable share of the students. At this time in England there was a revival of the Queen Anne style and also of the Flemish; the latter seems to have a peculiar fascination for the English. Students and travelling draftsmen brought home to America sketches of these buildings, and they were weakly reproduced on this side, descending finally into the hands of the carpenters in the production of cheap speculative houses, and sometimes used by men who should have known better. The resultant type has been derisively called the "carpenter style," and its most kindly cognomen is the "American domestic," generally a thing for strong men to shudder at, but which has slowly disappeared before the steady improvement in public discrimination and the wide-spread demand for greater beauty in the domestic and civic environment.

In opposition to this decadence of style under the great commercial growth of the country is the influence of a few individual architects of power and strong purpose. One of these was the late Richard M. Hunt, the best all-around man that the country has produced, a purist in style, devoted to tradition, but with broad sympathies and no architectural hobbies. Mr. Hunt brought back from the "Ecole" of France the Neo-Grec or the New Greek style, in which he built the Lenox Library and the Tribune Building in New York; but he worked with equal facility and success in a dozen other styles. He also created an epoch in palace-building for the wealthy man of discrimination of the last generation.

The late H. H. Richardson, architect of Trinity Church in Boston, especially devoted himself to the interpretation of the Romanesque architecture, and did it brilliantly, though he paid the penalty as a specialist in having a horde of incompetent imitators who did no honor to the ancient style. With them anything and everything be-came Romanesque, provided it was clumsy, brutal, and built of brownstone.

Other contributors to the progressive movement were McKim, Mead & White, who devoted themselves to Italian Renaissance. They are also responsible for the finishing and polishing of more of the best practitioners than is any other firm, establishing as they have an academy of architecture for a post-graduate course. Mr. McKim is responsible for the new Academy at Rome, where the students are going for a new book—the epistle of the French not having held its old influence in recent years.

This leaven of sound and needed scholasticism has gradually dominated the faddish individualization of the past generation, so that today we see one of those periods of study and analysis which pave the way for creative work. This does not come, as we have seen, without powerful stimulus from outside architecture itself, but, on the other hand, the impetus may prove abortive if there are no standards for foundation.

The dominating element in American architectural progress to-day is the use of new materials. The old styles grew logically out of the use of wood, stone, and brick. To-day we use steel beams, and the architectural problem is therefore reversed. You remember that all the strange and unprecedented beauties of the Gothic style grew out of the need to support a very high and heavy roof. The classic also grew through the use of stone for perpendicular support.

With steel construction it is no longer necessary to use walls for supporting the structure. They may, in fact, be built from the top story down, and their sole purpose is protection from the weather. Are we, then, to treat this great self-supporting steel framework as if it needed additional support, and pretend to carry it with walls made in imitation of the supporting walls of former styles, or are we to look at it with a fresh eye, recognize its real structure as inherent and self-sufficient, and, meeting the issue honestly, enclose the building logically and at the same time beautifully ?

The first sky-scrapers were designed in the classic style because that was the style of convention. So we had the astonishing incongruity of a Greek temple, with all its niceties of detail elongated to an extraordinary height and much of its fine detail wholly lost to the naked eye. Our tall buildings are still usually surmounted by a heavy and elaborate classic cornice at a height of two or three hundred feet—a thing incongruous, useless, and unfit.

We have been experimenting since then, and have learned many things about the treatment of tall buildings, but we still use the horizontal lines of the classic and divide the wall surface into base, shaft, and capital, with the attendant entablature somewhat after the division of the classic column.

It is astonishing that no one for so long thought of building many-storied office structures in pure Gothic, for here surely is the logical treatment of the problem, at least within existing traditions. The so-called sky-scraper is as essentially expressive of height as the Gothic churches were. The long vertical lines are its dominant lines, yet in almost all existing types these are broken as far as possible by heavy horizontal lines, as if the intent were to make it a superimposition of disconnected stories and group of stories. If pure Gothic forms were used the horizontal lines would retire, and the vertical lines be accented to the fullest, carrying up from story to story in a way that would immensely increase the impression of height. The plain surface between the lines of support would be treated probably in terra-cotta slabs, or some plastic form that would honestly express the mere intention of enclosing the building. This would, in the Gothic style, be much more feasible than in a classic form; and it would be more economical because of the simplification and repetition of manufactured decorative details.

In civic or governmental buildings the United States shows genuine and most gratifying progress. During the black-walnut-and-haircloth period, and later during the carpenter period, many unkind things architectural were done in the name and out of the pocket of the Federal government. Even the fine examples of the Capitol and the Treasury Building did not suffice to save the nation from the Washington and New York post-offices, the building of the War, Navy, and State departments, or that supreme achievement of engineering architecture, the Pension Office. We were not even saved from the overornate gilt dome and the hopeless tangle of detail of the Congressional Library, which brazenly flaunts itself in competition with the majestic and dignified Capitol dome, though this production is of our own day.

On the whole, however, progress is genuine and wide-spread, thanks, very largely, to the excellent work of the present supervising architect of the United States Treasury, James Knox Taylor, and his predecessor, William Martin Aiken, both graduates of the Massachusetts "Tech." Mr. Aiken's regime was a clearing away of old departmental traditions, red tape, and dead-wood, in preparation for the adoption of new methods. Mr. Taylor's thirteen years of office have been actively and solidly constructive.

All the important Federal buildings of the Colonial period were, perhaps, inevitably in some form of classic which has ever seemed best to express the ideals of civic or national dignity and power. These early buildings are the best we have, and they express not only their special purpose, but our national spirit as nearly as we have been able to express it. Building on this foundation, Mr. Taylor had developed a distinctly classic form for all those governmental buildings within his jurisdiction—postoffices, customs-houses, and Federal courts. So there are coming into being, or recently completed, in many parts of this country classic buildings which are serving as inspiration and models for other public and semi-public buildings. It is largely as a result of this Federal initiative that evidence of a sound and wholesome classic revival is so apparent throughout the United States.

While the big cities with their great sky-scrapers are working out their peculiar and special problems, and may find the solution in Gothic lines, the line of growth in all other kinds of buildings is thus distinctly toward the classic--one might almost say the more classic. These seem the dominant tendencies, but almost equally significant is the frequent and sound use of almost every style we have named. It is, as has been said, a period of analysis and experiment. Young America is trying to express herself, and because she is a conglomerate of many elements, the expression is still various and uncertain, but with fixed tendencies growing more and more apparent.

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