I (January March, 1892), 261-264 Architectural Aberrations

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Architectural Record, I (January – March, 1892), 261-264

Architectural Aberrations

No. 2, The Record Building, Philadelphia

Philadelphia, in respect of its commercial architecture, is undoubtedly the most backward and provincial of American cities. Of course, in so great a square mileage of brick and mortar, there must be here and there an embodiment of an architectural idea, which may be studied with interest, if not always with pleasure, and in a town of a million people there must be some educated architects among the mass of “architects,” and some evidence of their education and of their knowledge of and conformity to the standards that are acknowledged by educated architects elsewhere. “Evidences of design” in the building of Philadelphia may be collected by a hard-working teleologist. It remains true one of the oldest and richest and most American of American towns, is, in its commercial building at least, the crudest and most violent, that Philadelphia is architecturally far more Western than the West, and that Chestnut street has pretentious edifices that would be revolting to the inhabitants of Omaha, and that their authors would be ashamed or afraid to erect in Kansas City.

We are not speaking, it is to be noted, of the work of the speculative builder. That is about as bad in own town as in another. Philadelphia possesses, and which are the more admirable because their authors have taken intelligent pains with them without any encouragement from public appreciation. In truth it is evident from the look of Philadelphia that there is no constraint upon the architects either from the professional opinion, which elsewhere keeps designers out of the maddest excesses, or from a lay opinion that betokens an interest in the subject that, through ignorant, is willing to be enlightened. What the aspect of commercial Philadelphia does indicate is a complete architectural apathy on the part of the public and a settled determination on the part of the architects to break in upon that apathy at any cost. One derives from the title of “The Quaker City” a sense of demureness and sedateness and dull propriety, which is exactly antithetical to the rampant loudness that does in fact characterize its conspicuous building. What one would expect to the tamest of American towns is by far the wildest. The one object that the designers of its commercial palaces evidently have in view is to make sure that their respective buildings shall be notices, and Chestnut street accordingly recalls that comparison of Carlyle’s of a villabe society to “an Egyptian pitcher of tamed vipers, each struggling to get his head above the others.

To select any particular viper as the ugliest and most offensive, and therefore the most typical of this tendency, is to intimate that it has succeeded in attaining a preeminent conspicuousness. That would be invidious if not unjust as to the other activity. It might even be taken as a compliment by the selected serpent. We hasten to say, therefore, that it is impossible to particularize any single structure as supremely characteristic of the imbroglio of Chestnut street, as impossible as it would be to represent the Laocoon or a scrimmage at football by picking out one contorted leg.

The Record Building, herewith illustrated, is not exactly a specimen of the commercial architecture of Philadelphia, for a peculiarity of that architecture is that as it is not a species, it has no specimens. What the architects of the commercial buildings try for being conspicuousness, they try for it by being carious, and their success is in proportion to the degree of difference that they attain, not only from themselves and each other, but incidentally from the principles of the art of architecture. It is a pathological collection, an assortment of anomalies, that the business quarter presents. It will be argued, however, that the Record Building is of a weird and wondrous ugliness, and also that from the Philadelphia point of view it is a highly successful since it is absolutely certain of being noticed. It is also commercial – there is no doubt about that. The piers are thinned down to the lowest requirements of stability, and the bands between the stories apparently to the actual depth of the floors, so that the building does not give the impression of a building, but of a sash frame in masonry. This is a common disposition. It is not favorable to architecture, but if the designer skillfully makes the most of such masses as are left him, and attains an effective proportioning of his stories, the result may be at least an inoffensive building, and may possess the repose that is the first essential of any work of art. In fact the danger of the arrangement lies rather in the direction of weakness than of restlessness. Yet the designer of this edifice has continued to make his building as uneasy and restless, with the repetition of a single rectangular opening, as if he had changed the motive at every story. It is necessary to an architectural composition that either the vertical or the horizontal lines should predominate. In the present sash-frame neither predominate, for neither are at all developed. The on projecting member that is repeated throughout the front is the moulded block that seems to have been suggested by the offset of a Gothic buttress. It has no meaning here, because the plane of the pier to which it is applied is the same from bottom to top, and the projection has the effect not of a modeling of the pier, but of a piece of foreign material glued on to its face. It is glued on at the intersection of the pier with the band that forms that floor-line, and it this interrupts the pier at every story and the band at every bay, so as to leave no continuous line, vertical or horizontal. The device would be ingenious if it were a means to an architectural end. The end it attains is to cut up the building at the corners of every window, or pair of windows, and to render what night be a respectable and unpretentious sash-frame, an uneasy front that nobody can respect. How great an improvement it would be in the look of the building if all these absurd projections could be chipped down to the face of the wall! It is true this excision would remove all the architecture from the fronts, between the basement and the upper story, which are equally ridiculous and unmeaning, though less offensive; and excepting also the treatment of the lintels, which by some inadvertence has a meaning, and is rather good, though it becomes tiresome by repetition.

The basement has some architecture in the application against the piers of little pilasters, which might be supposed to strengthen the piers, if they were not stopped on corbels at the bottom, so as to show that they are quite useless. The banded columns at the entrance constitute a highly Philadelphian feature, and are as bad as bas can be. Comparatively delicate shafts are imposed on ugly and stilted bases and rudely interrupted by shapeless masses of stone projected from the walls and carry other shapeless masses, which carry conical masses retreating against the pier to assure us that the whole feature has no meaning at all but is pure architecture.

The top is the most grievous of all. Nothing could be more wild and Western that the cornice and its cresting, with the gross lumpy pinnacles into which the piers are produced, unless it be the treatment of the tower. To put a very solid and massive tower upon a very thing and weak sash-frame, and then to whittle down its angle piers at the bottom, so as to support them upon slender shafts, banded into lumpy projections, is a nightmare that might cross the imagination of an erratic architect anywhere, but it only in Philadelphia that he would attempt to body it forth in actual stone.

This edifice is even more revolting by comparison with its neighbors, which appear in the illustration, that if it were isolated. The old front at the left is a relic of a time when Philadelphia was properly called the Quaker City. It is thin and weak and dull, but it is decorous, and it rises into distinction alongside of its bustling and noisy neighbor. The Renaissance warehouse on the right would not be very noticeable elsewhere but on Chestnut street it seems, by contrast, not merely a gentlemanlike, but an artistic performance, breathing the spirit of grace and repose. It is not this respectable edifice, however, but the awful Record Building that is typical of the contemporaneous commercial building of Philadelphia.

Architectural Record, III (October – December, 1893), 207-210

Architectural Aberrations

No. 9, The Hale Building [The Keystone Bank], Philadelphia

One is driven back upon Philadelphia when one is in quest of architectural aberrations that are bad enough to be good enough. The commercial architecture of the town is, in the mass, abnormal because the authors of it do not perceive, or willfully disregard the fact that there is an architectural norma. We are speaking of the designers who have given Chestnut street its distinctive character, and not of the minority of trained architects who are pursuing he thankless task of educating Philadelphia to an appreciation of architecure; and, speaking of this majority, it is fair to say that historical architecture is to them a field not for study, but for pillage, as it was to the barbarians who incorporated in their own rude buildings such columns and capitals and other fragments of classic architecture as they found. Not otherwise can one see with is mind’s eye the architect of a Philadelphian commercial palace pulling over a pile of unassorted photographs, and tossing one after the other to his draughtsman with instructions to “work that in.” Evidently the draughtsmen have worked in nearly everything that caught the eyes of their principals. They have not worked them in in the sense of incorporating them with a design. They have worked them in the sense of adjoining them, without relevancy or congruity, to structures distinguished for the absence of design. A typical commercial building of Philadelphia is an example of eclecticism working in vacuo, or, according to the old Latin doggerel, of a chimera bombinating in a vacuum.

Consider the Hale building, how it grows. The problem was to erect a seven-story office building with a narrow front on the principal street, and with rooms devoted to similar purposes and of similar dimensions throughout. The danger was that this uniformity would produce monotony. There is nothing of which your Philadelphia architect is so much afraid as monotony. In fact it is the only architectural defect if which he seems to go in fear. Variety he must have at all cost, and by securing variety he makes sure that he has avoided monotony, whereas in truth his heterogeneousness is more tiresome than any repetition could be. In the present instance the only variation demanded by the practical requirements seems to have been that the ground story should be taller and more important than any of the rest. That is a requirement favorable to architecture. A tall basement, designed with simplicity and as much massiveness as might be, would have furnished an adequate base for the building, and if the upper two stories had been distinguished, so as to make a crown for the edifice, the intermediate piers might have been grouped in a uniform treatment, so as to produce a result inoffensive in the hands of a man of moderate ability, while it might have been made delightful by a master. Here, in the first place, the base is heightened by the inclusion of an entresol, so that it is almost equal in importance to the next division of three stories. This would not be so bad, however, if this next division were not itself subdivided by a bracketed shelf above the second of its three stories, which occurs across the front and at each end of the side, but ceases in the middle, where apparently, the humbler tenants are not deemed to be entitle to balconies. By this subdivision the chance of a harmonious relation of the principal parts of the building is destroyed at once, while the meaningless interruption of the subdividing line is fatal to repose. The only characteristic they seem to aim at, we repeat, is variety, and they aim at this by collecting in their fronts the largest possible number of things. Whether the things have any relation to each other does not concern them. The two lower of the three stories that are at once grouped and separated are furnished, it will be remarked, with rudimentary pilasters. A row of plain and uniform pilasters along the flank of the building would have been an effective feature, and the wall is long enough to make the series impressive. But his would not have suited the architect. The question that Lord Melbourne used to ask in political crises is one which the Philadelphian architect would do well to ask himself at critical point of his design; but he never does: “Can’t you let it alone?” Alas, he cannot. Above the bases of his pilasters he has projected an absolutely meaningless interruption in the form of a moulding, and so gone far to nullify the impressiveness of the pilasters themselves. As if this were not enough, he has variegated them by projecting the sill course of the upper range of windows across the pilasters at the ends, but not across the intermediate pilasters. By these devices he has managed to destroy the effect the series of pilasters would have had if he had been inspired to let them alone, and he has substituted for an effect more sought after and oftener obtained in Philadelphian architecture, the effect of variety through higgledy-piggledy.

The cornice and the story over it, or rather between the two cornices, are entirely commonplace, and the best things in the building. The architect almost forgot to put in something original and diversified, and same near doing what he had to do. Almost, but not quite, for upon the flank it will be remarked that his mullions are corbels in brickwork, while upon the front they are columns, ill-modeled and with bases absurdly stilted so as to be well seen, too well seen, from below. The commonplace cornice of the side, too, is replace in the front by a very ugly and uneasy row of projections over the columns. The pains that have been taken to diversify the treatment of the two walls have availed to prevent even this story from being a point on which the wearied eye might repose in gazing on the great chance-medley, and to deprive it of the grateful sense of humdrum and quiet that a row of commonplace openings between two commonplace cornices would have had if it had been left to itself. The roof reeks with architecture, and the row of chimneys or ventilators, or whatever they are that are protruded to animate the skyline, and the design of the dormers; -- these things may be left to go without the comment which a humane critic has not the heart to give.

One of the chief reasons for the confusion and restlessness of the building is the absence of continuous lines. In the flank there are the two cornices, which the designer forgot to interrupt, and of which the effect is so far satisfactory, for the thin shelf above the basement is interrupted by a withdrawal at the center. Continuous vertical lines there are none. Even the angle-pier is interrupted at every story, and its rigidity, as well as its massiveness, is impaired to the eye by the interrupting mouldings at the level of the fourth story and at the middle of the third, and absurd round corbels above the basement and the fourth story, the absurdity of which is mitigated in the latter case by the fact that it has a balcony to carry, but in the former is not mitigated at all.

In fact every precaution has been taken, and with success, to insure that the building shall lack unity, shall lack harmony, shall lack repose and shall be a restless jumble. This effect is greatly enhanced by the treatment of the front and especially of the tower. The sallyport at the bottom is very absurd as the entrance of a commercial building. Even if the tower had been a good tower, and had explained itself, it would have been objectionable as still further narrowing a front already too narrow. It is in fact, “in this connection,” a preposterous structure. In the first place the staircase of a modern office building is of very little account, and it is highly unreasonable to make it the chief architectural feature of the building. In the second place a corner of the front is the most inconvenient place in which to establish the staircase. Moreover, the tower, as a tower of a commercial building is as inappropriate in itself as it is irrelevant to everything else in the building. As a watch tower it might have its uses, though even a watch tower should not be solid at the top. But the notion of building a circular staircase at the corner of an office building and providing balconies at the several stages upon which busy Philadelphians ascending spirally about their occasions can step out and enjoy the view; all this is irrational, incongruous and ridiculous, and it is a comfort that it should be ill-done. It is not all ill-done. The roofing would be commendable in the tower of a country house, and one can imagine situations in which the whole tower, in spite of its freaks, would have a spirited and commanding aspect. The design of it, indeed, is good enough to indicate that the designer knew better than he builded in the rest of the building, know what nonsense it was, and saved himself trouble by indicating his contempt for the judgment of his fellow-citizens and for the art of architecture, solacing himself with a little irrelevant form on his own account in the tower. At any rate the tower is as violently incongruous with the building to which it is adjoined as it is with any purpose it may be supposed to answer. It is a sheer case of “making architecture” and it adds the last touch to the general impression of confusion which is the only general impression that can be derived from the building.

The worst thing about these dreadful buildings, for there are other nearly or quite as bad as the Hale building, is that so far from being venerated by the community they satirize they are regarded in Philadelphia with a fatuous complacency. About the time that the Record building was considered in these pages, an illustrated newspaper actually contained, with views of the several office-buildings of Philadelphia, an article in which a patriotic Philadelphian pointed with pride to the monstrosities of Chestnut street and advised architects of other cities to go to Philadelphia and see how picturesque a commercial building might become in the hands of a man of genius! The Hale building is probably more esteemed by Philadelphians that such a real example of architectural design as the Art Club. It is very sad. So long as there is no public opinion in Philadelphia on these subjects so long with such things as the Hale building be done, alike by the incompetent and the cynical.

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