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Architecture In America

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



REGARDLESS of their interest to the ethnologist and the archaeologist, the wigwams and pueblos of the North American Indians were not of a nature permanently to influence the architecture of the United States. The strong races-English, Spanish, French, and Dutch—that poured into the colonies like the Romans into Gaul and the Normans into England, brought with them the manners, customs, and traditions of their native countries, and built their new homes according to the fashions prevailing in seventeenth and eighteenth century England, Holland, France, or. Spain. At first many of their building materials were imported from the old countries; but, while unhampered by aboriginal tradition, partly through the character imposed upon them by the social and economical conditions of the colonies, but chiefly through their adaptation to the climate and the gradual introduction of native materials, the new structures almost at once began to differ from their European models. Thus arose what modern architects are pleased to call " colonial architecture "—a designation equally applicable to all the colonial styles, but by usage now con-fined to the old English forms; for the tastes and prejudices of the English followed their political successes throughout the Eastern colonies.

At the time of the settlement of the American colonies, the immediate successors of Wren—Hawksmoor, Vanbrugh, Gibbs, Sir William Chambers, and the brothers Adam—were building Blenheim, Castle Howard, and Somerset House; and the designs for some of the earliest work in New England, particularly the churches, are said to have been by these masters. The style was the Italian Renaissance, as it was then understood and interpreted in England and adapted to English use. The Roman orders, rigidly and pedantically adhered to, were the basis of all architectural design. But where in England the building was in stone or in brick with stone details, in America it was ordinarily in wood or in brick with wooden details. The proportions of the stone building were too massive to be carried out in the lighter material, but the facile nature of the wood gave to the details a greater delicacy than could be attained in stone. Thus gradually it became common in the provincial work to attenuate the orders. Columns and pilasters became higher in proportion to their diameters, entablatures lower in proportion to the height of the columns or pilasters supporting them.

The interiors of the churches followed. the traditions established in S. Stephen's, Walbrook; in S. Mary-le-Bow; in S. James, Piccadilly; and in other contemporary English churches; and their exteriors, depending almost entirely on their towers for architectural character, were in imitation of the steeples and lanterns of Wren.

The formal and stately beauty of the great mansions, some of which are fortunately preserved to us, was carried out with as studied symmetry and as fastidious precision of detail in the domestic work of the humbler sort. This state of affairs existed up to the beginning of the nineteenth century, and what was accomplished is perhaps beet illustrated by the following extract: "In respect to decoration, they used the Roman formulas of columns, pilasters, and entablatures, together with the architraves, window-caps, and balustrades of the Italian Renaissance, all as they were understood in England in the eighteenth century. These formulas, however, were not developed from the structure, but applied to it. Thus the characteristic mansion of colonial times was usually a construction of square plan in brick or wood, with a wide hall or passage-way dividing it into equal halves. As a structure it was complete in all its essential parts before it had begun to assume architectural character. For this it depended upon a pompous portico at the main entrance; upon a great cornice, constructed in the form of a full entablature, some-times supported at the angles by pilasters; its windows were framed by molded architraves, surmounted by carved or molded pediments or frontispieces, and the roof was crowned with a belvedere or with a balustrade decorated with vases. All these details were apt to be of wood, but they were correct according to the established dogmas of the orders adopted, No builder had imagination enough or audacity enough to at-tempt to improve them. If there was a necessity for attached outbuildings, these were equally arranged on each side of the main structure so as to form a symmetrical composition. The necessity of securing such a composition was paramount to any considerations of practical convenience or necessity. The test of ingenuity in the builder was to obtain this result with the least sacrifice of personal comfort. They obtained in their interiors bountiful spaces, grand staircases with easy ascents and wide landings; carved and twisted balustrades; apartments of state whose walls were panelled in wood from floor to ceiling chimney-pieces delicately molded and carved with prim festoons, garlands, and swags of buds; ceilings crossed by finely molded beams and decorated with the sort of stucco-work made fashionable in the old country by the brothers Adam; panelled wainscots crowned with molded caps, which were embellished with dentils, rosettes, or triglyphs."

In recent years the English colonial has been revived with good effect; but the interest in it is rather a patriotic than an artistic or archaeological one, and promises to be only transitional. The style in its simplicity and daintiness offers a pleasing relief from the highly wrought creations of former years, especially in the Western cities; and if it is teaching nothing else it is showing the immense advantage, artistical and practical, of honest building over the striving after outlandish and surprising effects carried out in wood, stamped iron, and plaster.

A century before the settlement of New England Spanish missionaries were preaching their way into California and the Southwest, and building¬ there mission-houses and churches wit the arcades and belfries of rural Spain. In Mexico this type, adjusted to local conditions of climate and use, has developed itself into a style that we recognize as peculiar to the country, and as distinctly different from contemporaneous architecture in the mother-country, whose tradition it so faithfully preserves. No systematic attempt ever has been made to revive this style in the United States, or eyen in those States where it is most nearly indigenous, although the adoption of it for the extensive buildings of the Leland Stan-ford Junior University, for the California Building at the World's Fair in Chicago, in 1893, and for the buildings of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, in 1901, betokens a serious interest in the many possibilities that it offers. In Florida, the centre of the Spanish colonies on the Atlantic coast, the design has been carried into effect in several of the great modern hotels with signal success.

The old-fashioned provincial French buildings in New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana, and the stepped gables, the fantastic finials, and weather-cocks of New Amsterdam are architecturally chiefly memories, and while now and then used with effect in decoration, no serious attempt ever has been made to revive them.

Until recent years the architectural history of the United States is largely a reflection of that of Paris and London. All the great English revivals, classic, mediaeval, and Renaissance, tempered, it is true, by many American characteristics, were closely followed on this side of the water until perhaps within a-quarter of a century. The craze for Greek architecture and ornament that followed upon the publication of the great work of Stuart and Revett, "The Antiquities of Athens," and which supplanted the Roman forms of Wren and his followers, early made its way into America. The columns of the Parthenon were imitated in wood and set up in front of public buildings and the more pretentious residences; belvederes and cupolas were painted parodies of the Temple of the Winds and the Choragic Monument of Lysic rates; and carpenters applied the new formulas to mantel-pieces, doorways, and window-frames.

The most distinguished disciple of this Greek revival in the United States was Thomas Jefferson, who made interesting applications of this style at his seat at Monticello and in the old buildings of the University of Virginia, of which institution he was the founder. While he was in the Cabinets of Washington and Adams, and while himself President, the plans for the national Capitol and presidential residence took definite shape, and he lent all his interest and effort towards having them built according to the best architectural tradition of the time.

The first designs for the Capitol, or, more correctly, for what is now but the small central part of it, were submitted in a public competition by Dr. William Thornton (died in 1827, an English amateur residing in America, and were afterwards developed and practically redrawn and the building built by the gifted architect and engineer Benjamin H. Latrobe (1764—1820). After the burning of the Capitol by the British, Latrobe was given charge of the reconstruction, but he was succeeded in 1817 by Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844). Bulfinch was one of the strongest factors in shaping the architectural tastes of the country. He was a graduate of Harvard, and his state-houses in Boston and in Augusta, Maine, and his churches and monuments in Boston strongly influenced the public and domestic architecture of New England for many years. His work is characterized by its seriousness and its absolute correctness of style. Thomas U. Walter (1804-1887), the second president of the Institute of Architects, added the great wings and built the great dome of the Capitol as we know it today, completing the work in 1865.

The overworked supervising architect of the Treasury Department has more or less faithfully followed the style of this first great building in the greater part of the public buildings of the United States. With rarely less than fifty such buildings under construction at the same time, these national monuments have become mechanical and monotonous, and, unlike other civilized nations, it is impossible to point to the later national architecture as representative of the best skill of the republic. It is only recently, through legislation prompted by the American Institute of Architects, that this important public service has been thrown open to the best talent of the country.

The English Gothic revival was followed through all its phases in the United States, and the "battle of the styles" was waged as fiercely on the western shores of the Atlantic as on the eastern. As was natural, by reason of the characteristic want of respect for historic precedents, the style in America was far less correct and lent itself to many conceits and inventions ; but for many years it dominated the field, drawing its inspiration from Pugin, Ruskin, and the other writers, moral and artistic, that gave the revival its remarkable strength in England.

The Gothic revival was followed by the movement begun in England by Mr. Norman Shaw, and known there as "the Queen Anne revival," which strove to revive the form of the Renaissance in vogue in the early part of the eighteenth century. Its effect in America was chiefly upon wooden domestic architecture, and, affected and capricious, was justly ephemeral. Its characteristics were a common purpose to use small panes of glass, to caricature the sunflower, and systematically to degrade certain classic types.

In 1857 a few architects of New York city united to form the first architectural society. In 1866 this society was reorganized as the American Institute of Architects. It established chapters in all the principal cities of the East, and has been one of the greatest influences for good, both in the practice and appreciation of architecture. The Western Association of Architects, with its chapters in the Western cities, united with the Institute in 1890. Each of these chapters has a stated monthly meeting, and there is an annual convention of the national body.

Its first president, Richard Upjohn (1802-1878), of New York, has been called the father -of American architecture; and certainly no single man of the second and third quarters of the century exerted so lasting an influence, either from the standpoint of his art or his personality. His great works, Trinity and S. Thomas in New York, Grace Church and Christ Church in Brooklyn, Grace Church in Proyidence, S. Paul's in Buffalo, S. Peter's in Albany, the Cathedral in Bangor, S. Paul's in Baltimore, and numerous other churches and many secular buildings, are mainly in pure archaeological Gothic; and they were the first monuments of pure romantic style in America, and built at a time when America, breaking away from colonial and classical traditions, was most in need of just such examples. Speaking of his influence in the Institute of Architects, a fellow-member says: " He did more in his day than any other one man to awaken a fraternal feeling in the profession, and to break through the isolation created by that mutual jealousy and unreasoning distrust which unhappily. divided the architects of that time and prevented them from enjoying the fruits of united and harmonious action.

An eyen more potent influence for the betterment of architectural ideals has been the establishment of the American architectural schools. The first was founded through the generosity and public spirit of Richard M. Hunt (1828-1895), the third president of the Institute. He assented to become the teacher of several young men who desired better and more liberal instruction than could be obtained by the usual office apprenticeship or by infrequent and expensive study abroad. In his methods of instruction he followed the plan of the French School of Fine Arts, of which he was one of the earliest American graduates.

His work has been followed up by the successful establishment of schools of high standard at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, now under Prof. Francis Ward Chandler (1844--) ; Columbia University, under Prof. William Robert Ware (1832— ); Cornell University, under Prof. Charles Babcock; and many others. These schools, with their curricula modeled on he broad lines of American educational methods, have taken the instruction out of the hands of "half-instructed practitioners " and are raising it to a high plane.

American architectural periodicals have largely supplanted those of foreign publication; and the reproduction of the best current work, built for and adapted to American uses, together with the ease of intercommunication, are tending to create a unity of architecture over the entire country.

The construction of the American "skyscraper " has been referred to in a previous chapter. The vast number built and building, not only in New York and the larger cities of the country, but in many of the smaller cities as well, attests to their practicability and their permanency as a feature of American architecture. While straining far the traditions of the schools, many of these structures are not unbeautiful, and the skill and courage with which American architects meet these harsh though practical requirements argues well for what may perhaps in the future produce a national architecture growing out of the spirit of the people.

The World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago, and the others that have followed it in various parts of the country, culminating in the Pan American at Buffalo in 1901, in addition to proving "that the art in this country has passed the time of its pupilage, and that it is capable of meeting the largest demands ever made upon architecture as a purely decorative art in a sympathetic and adequate manner not only with pure classic but with romantic and picturesque forms, so treated as to reflect at the same time our respect for the past, our confidence in the future, and the innate independence of the national character," they have been great and useful object-lessons to the country at large.

In a smaller but a similar way the building of great country-houses, which is in a way the most recent addition to American domestic life, the replacing of the older churches crowded out by the advancing business of the great cities, and the building of handsomely endowed library buildings in almost every city of consequence in the land, give to the American architect an opportunity to teach his great lesson to the people unrivalled in any country in the world.

But one revival remains to be considered, and one so broad and honest in its principles, and so worthy and capable of development, that it bids fair to give a lasting mark of distinction to American building. This was the introduction more than a quarter of a century ago of heavy Romanesque forms from the south of France, "lowbrowed round arches, stone mullions and transoms, wide-spreading gables, severe sky-lines, apsidal projections, rounded angles, and towers with low, pointed, domical roofs ; great wealth of carrying where the work is rich; a general aspect of heaviness and strength, frequently degenerating into an affectation of rudeness; columns are short and stumpy, and capitals show Byzantine influence; colonnades and arcades of windows are frequent, and all are free from the trammels of classicism." This revival is distinctly American, and its influence has been as strongly marked upon the older as upon the younger members of the profession.

The man who stood at the head of this great movement was Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886), whose career was one of the most interesting and perhaps one of the most distinguished in the history of modern architecture. He was graduated at Harvard College in 1859, and at the School of Fine Arts in Paris. He returned to America in 1865, but the first of his great work was the building of Brattle Street and Trinity Churches in Boston in 1871-1875. His influence began to be felt very soon and very widely, and, without any effort or desire to found a school, he drew about him a large number of young men, on whom the impress that he left was very strong. His work was characterized by breadth and simplicity, and the disposition to produce effect rather by the power of great mass and form than by elaboration of detail. He drew chiefly on the Romanesque of Auvergne, but was largely indebted for detail to Anjou, Aquitaine, Provence, and Normandy. He collected all the books, prints, and photographs that bore upon the subject, and made thorough and conscientious personal studies in the byways of southern France for examples and details. The result of it has been a strengthening of the architecture of the country, which must always mark an epoch in its history.

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