CHAPTER 2. JENNEY AND WIGHT BRING EUROPEAN MODERN THEORY TO CHICAGO

As I have already published my history of Chicago architecture up to the second fire of July 14, 1874, on my Instagram site (click logo at right), I would like to begin immediately with the events that followed that disaster, however, I also think it is central to understanding what came after the fire to review a few issues from my first volume.  Central to what happened in Chicago after the 1874 fire were two personalities: William Le Baron Jenney and Peter Bonnett Wight.  For all practical purposes, they can be considered to be the “Founding Fathers” of the Chicago School.  Fortunately for the city’s architectural future, Jenney came with a firsthand knowledge of the latest French ideas pertaining to a modern architecture, while Wight brought with him the latest British ideas.  In many ways, the Chicago School will represent the synthesis of the best of both of these modern traditions.

Prior to the Civil War, Chicago’s first generation of architects were, for the most part, a group of provincial Americans, who had little, if any, firsthand knowledge of European architecture, but had learned how to design a building by apprenticing with an architect who had learned in a similar manner.  While there were a few architects in Chicago who had trained in Europe (German immigrants August Bauer, Otto Matz, and Frederick Baumann were the best examples) who had some firsthand knowledge of the rising tide in Europe of architectural theory searching for a modern architecture, Chicago’s architects prior to 1867 designed by copying, many times indiscriminately, buildings and their details from other cultures and locations.  They were no different, however, from the architects in any other city in the U.S. during the first century of American independence.

2.1.  THE SEARCH FOR AN “AMERICAN ART”

Paralleling the theory of evolution, American architects did not just wake up one morning and decide to make a clean break with European tradition, but rather, the idea would have to take time to gain adherents and momentum; that is, to “evolve.”  Many mid-nineteenth century American artists who had this ambition found their inspiration in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, that have been characterized by historians as the first attempts by an American to escape from the influence of European history and culture.  In 1836 (just a few months after Owen Jones (see Europe) delivered his lecture at the Architectural Association), Emerson had published an essay, Nature, in which he laid out his view that Americans were free of the Old World’s cultural heritage.  Where every aspect of the European landscape had been connected in one way or another over time to man through Europe’s history, America’s nature was free of all human (European) meaning, that had left Americans the ability to interpret nature free from human history or intervention.  In August 1837, Emerson had delivered an oration that he renamed when it was published as The American Scholar, that Oliver Wendell Holmes later referred to as “our intellectual Declaration of Independence:”

“Perhaps the time is already come…when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids, and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill.  Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close.  The millions, that around us are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests…     …instead of the sublime and beautiful; [a direct reference to Englishman Edmund Burke’s 1757 Philosophic Enquiry] the near, the low, the common, was explored and poetized.  That, which had been negligently trodden under foot by those who were harnessing and provisioning themselves for long journeys into far countries, is suddenly found to be richer than all foreign ports… I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provençal minstrelsy;  I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low.  Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds…   We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.  The spirit of the American freeman is already suspected to be timid, imitative, tame…We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own mind.”

American authors who had preceded Emerson in writing about American subjects using the American vernacular had included Benjamin Franklin, Susannah Rowson, Washington Irving, Herman Melville, and James Fenimore Cooper.  There had also been American composers who had been writing uniquely American music, at least as far back as 1847 when Stephen Foster had penned “Oh Suzanna.”  The Hudson River School of Painting, starting around 1820, had marked the first foray into an American school of painting.  Winslow Homer (born and centered in Boston) and Thomas Eakins (born and centered in Philadelphia), who had both studied painting in Paris once the Civil War had ended, had begun their artistic careers as painters of everyday American life at the turn of the decade around 1870.  

(Left) Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic, 1875; (right) Winslow Homer, Breezing Up, 1876. (online)

Meanwhile, was there an equivalent “American architecture” being designed during this period?  As opposed to painting and music, buildings were a necessity for survival in the new world.  As such, architecture seemingly should have enjoyed a headstart among the arts in the new republic, until, that is, when one realizes the exponential cost differential between what it costs to erect a building versus that of penning a song or painting a picture.  The cost of a piece of architecture would naturally tend to force a client into a conservative frame of mind and make it difficult for an architect to actually erect an “artistic” design, unless the client had similar values and sufficient funds.

2.2.  ANDREW JACKSON DOWNING AND HORATIO GREENOUGH

Nonetheless, following the successful divorce from the mother country, once political independence had been gained, Americans began to ponder the issue of cultural independence. As had been the case with British landscape architect John Claudius Loudon’s recognition in 1817 of the potential for a new style of architecture, it appears that the profession of landscape architecture with its requirement to be sensitive of the local environs, was also the point of origin in the U.S. for the search for a modern style of design.  Self-taught, American landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing, regarded by many as “The Father of American Landscape Architecture,” had introduced the logic for a national style of design with the 1841 publication of his pioneering book, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America.  

Andrew Jackson Downing, Cottage Residences: Or, A Series of Designs for Rural Cottages and Cottage Villas, and Their Gardens and Grounds, Adapted to North America, 1842. (Online)

The influence of Loudon’s ideas, as well as those of Augustus Welby Pugin’s writings, are evident in a pair of very influential architectural pattern books Downing published in 1842 and 1850, in which he showcased “Carpenter Gothic” houses and stated that Greek images should be supplanted with those of the picturesque (Gothic) because “the expression of great wealth was contrary to the spirit of republican institutions.”  Downing, however, was merely echoing Pugin in advocating for the substitution of the Greek Revival with the Gothic Revival, using Pugin’s rationale that the good design of a building could improve the morals of those who came into contact with it.  He also stressed Pugin’s emphasis on the primary importance of function in any design: “[in] perfect architecture no principle of utility will be sacrificed to beauty, only elevated and ennobled by it.”

The first American to write about the possibilities of a truly American architecture, apparently was sculptor Horatio Greenough, (whose career had roughly paralleled that of Downing) in his essay, “American Architecture,” published in the August 1843 issue of United States Magazine and Democratic Review:

“(The United States was) destined to form a new style of architecture… Let us consult nature, and in the assurance that she will disclose a mine, richer than was ever dreamed of by the Greeks, in art as well as philosophy… (another source could be) the Greek masters… the true apostles of correct taste in building… (but) let us learn principles, not copy shapes; let us imitate them like men, and not ape them like monkeys… the American builder, by a truly philosophic investigation of ancient art, will learn of the Greeks to be American.”

Echoing Emerson’s ideas, Greenough recommended that American architects adapt their forms to the climate and to evolve ornamentation in harmony with American Institutions.  “In our political institutions we have dared to be new.  Can we not shew that art too has a reason as well as government?”  He reiterated these sentiments in an essay he published in 1851, “Aesthetics at Washington:”

“The men who have reduced locomotion to its simplest elements, in the trotting wagon and the yacht America, are nearer to Athens at this moment than they who would bend the Greek Temple to every use.  I contend for Greek principles, not Greek things.”

George Steers, The America, 1851. (Online)

As an example, Greenough cited Yankee “simplicity” in the design of the schooner America that had just defeated fifteen of England’s best sailing ships in the annual regatta around the Isle of Wight, held that year in conjunction with the 1851 World’s Fair. 

“I call therefore upon science in all its branches to arrest the tide of sensuousness and arbitrary embellishment… not negatively by criticism thereof alone, but positively by making the instrument a many-sided response to the multiform demands of life.  The craving for completeness will then obtain its normal food in results, not the opiate and deadening stimulus of decoration.  Then will structure and its dependent sister arts emerge from the standstill of ipse dixit [he said] and, Llke the ship, the team, the steam engine, proceed through phases of development toward a response to need.”

A few weeks later, he had expounded on his theory of architecture in a letter to Emerson himself, that appears to have been taken directly from Pugin:

“A scientific arrangement of spaces and forms to functions and to site.  An emphasis of features proportioned to their gradated importance in function.  Colour and ornament to be decided and arranged and varied by strictly organic laws – having a distinct reason for each decision.  The entire and immediate banishment of all make-shift and make believe.”

But Greenough’s call for an American architecture in 1851 (some five years before Owen Jones published a similar philosophy in The Grammar of Ornament) was beyond the comprehension of American architects of his generation, if for no other reason than their view of architecture was dialectically opposed to what he was proposing.

2.3.  RICHARD MORRIS HUNT RETURNS FROM THE ÉCOLE DES BEAUX-ARTS

So an American architect in the post-war 1860s would have either of these European poles, tradition or innovation, to turn to in his search for inspiration.  But in order to understand their individual efforts, we also need a better understanding of just who was the American architect during the 1860s?  There were three categories of architects in the U.S. at this time:

1. Immigrants who had been born and trained in Europe, many having attended actual classes in a university, whose work represented a continuum of European practice.  This category of architect came from principally three countries, Great Britain, France, and Germany, who brought with them the theory in which they were trained.  Chicago architect Frederick Baumann, born in Prussia and schooled in Berlin before he emigrated in 1850, is an example.

2. Native-born Americans who had no personal exposure/experience with European traditions.  At the other end of the cultural spectrum, these architects had not been educated in an architecture school, for there were no such institutions in the U.S. prior to 1868, when William R. Ware initiated the first such program at MIT, but learned the profession along the traditional artisanal lines of apprenticing for an architect in his office. Chicago’s two leading architects in this era, John Van Osdel and W.W. Boyington are prime examples.

3. Native born Americans who had been educated/employed in Europe.  Richard Morris Hunt was the first, and best example.  Hunt was not the first native-born American to study design in Europe, that honor apparently belongs to Charles Ellet Jr., the great civil engineer who had studied at Paris’ École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in 1830-1.   Hunt, however, who had been the first American to have graduated from the École des Beaux-arts was the leading American architectural figure in the immediate post-Civil War period.  He had been born in Vermont in 1827, but following the premature death of his father, his mother had taken the family to Europe in 1843 in the hope that the health of his older brother, future painter William Morris Hunt, might be restored.  At the age of nineteen (1846), Richard had passed the entrance examinations for the École where he entered the atelier of Hector Martin Lefuel.  Hunt’s timing could not have been more fortuitous for he had hitched his wagon to who would become one of the stars of the Second Empire.  

The completed Grand Louvre/Tuileries, Paris, 1856. The arrow is pointing to the north gallery, and the Pavillon de la Bibliothèque. (Online)

In the year between Louis-Napoléon’s coup in 1851 and his ascendency to the throne, he had appointed architect Louis-Tullius-Joachim Visconti (who had designed and was supervising the construction of the tomb of the President’s uncle in Les Invalides) on July 7, 1852, to be the architect in charge of completing the Louvre’s North Gallery along the south side of the rue de Rivoli, a project initiated by his uncle that was planned to connect the Louvre with the Tuileries Palace, his uncle’s former chief residence.  Fortunately for Lefuel, and his twenty-six year-old assistant Hunt, Visconti died from a stroke in December 1853, and the Emperor assigned Lefuel to complete the Grand Louvre complex.  In April 1854, Lefuel invited Hunt to join the Imperial Staff as Inspector des Travaux (Building Code Inspector) on the Louvre project, in which Hunt was involved not only with supervising the construction of the gallery along the rue de Rivoli, but was given the responsibility to design and draw many of the details for the façade of the Pavillon de la Bibliothèque, that actually made the physical connection of the new gallery with the older Louvre.  Hunt formally graduated later that year and upon his return to the U.S. in September 1855, quickly established his practice in New York.  Inspired by his education in Paris, Hunt also began to teach architecture in his 10th Street studio, utilizing the French atelier system, where he chose a few students each year to work and learn alongside the Master.  Among his first two classes would be found some of the country’s early leading practitioners (Charles Gambrill, George Post, and Frank Furness), critics, (Henry Van Brunt), and educators (William Ware).

Hector Lefuel (with Richard Morris Hunt), Pavillon de la Bibliothèque, Palais du Louvre, Paris, 1854. (Author’s collection)

FURTHER READING:

Baker, Paul R. Richard Morris Hunt. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1980.

Stein, Susan R. The Architecture of Richard Morris Hunt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Wright, Nathalia. Horatio Greenough: The First American Sculptor. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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