2.4. AMERICANS DISCOVER THE BRITISH DESIGN REFORM MOVEMENT

While Hunt was in Paris learning the French academic methodology for architectural design, there were American designers who found the ideas of the British Design Reform Movement (see Europe Blog) to be appropriate for the challenges they faced at mid-century.  The influence of Britain’s emerging reformist design theory on A. J. Downing’s practice was such that he decided to travel to Britain in 1850 in search of an architect whose design sympathies would complement his own theory of regional landscape design.  He found a kindred spirit in British architect Calvert Vaux, who had apprenticed with a Gothic Revival practitioner in London. Downing was able to induce Vaux to immigrate to the U.S. in 1852 to become his professional partner in the firm of Downing & Vaux, thus, the direct importation of British design theories into the U.S. and its immediate effect on American design had begun. In 1857, Vaux echoed Downing’s (who tragically died in a steamboat accident in 1852) theories in his Villas and Cottages, advocating for an American architecture that responded to the local conditions and climate.

Calvert Vaux, Villas and Cottages, 1857. (Online)

That same year Vaux asked twenty-five year-old journalist Frederick Law Olmsted, who had no professional background in landscape design at the time, to assist him in preparing a submission for the competition to design New York’s planned Central Park.  Vaux had sought out Olmsted because he had been introduced to Olmsted by Downing some years earlier, following Olmsted’s visit to Great Britain to do an article on its public parks, where Olmsted had greatly admired Joseph Paxton’s design of Birkenhead Park.  Their submission for the design of Central Park was chosen as the winner the following year, 1858.

While the first U. S. edition of John Ruskin’s Modern Painters was published in 1847, the later writings of Ruskin became accessible to American designers primarily through the auspices provided by The Crayon, a magazine “devoted to the graphic arts and the literature related to them,” started in January 1855 by New Yorker William J. Stillman. 

The Crayon, First Edition, Jan. 8, 1855. (Online)

Stillman was a painter who, having first read Ruskin’s Modern Painters, had then traveled to Britain in 1850 where he met Ruskin, and fell under the spell of two of the leading Pre-Raphaelite painters, Dante Rossetti and John Everett Millais, and converted to Ruskin’s theories.

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-2. (Online)

Meanwhile, the design reform ideas of Owen Jones that argued for a non-historic style of architecture had directly emigrated from Britain less than two years after the arrival of Vaux, and four years before Jones’ 1856 publication of The Grammar of Ornament, in the person of architect Jacob Wrey Mould, a British architect who had worked for Jones for a number of years, spanning the period between his assisting Jones in taking measurements of the Alhambra, to the design of exhibits in the Crystal Palace and in the initial preparation of the plates for The Grammar of Ornament

Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament, 1856. (Online)

Mould was also very familiar with the latest designs of Anglican churches in Britain advocated by the British eccleasiastical reform movement, inspired by Pugin’s writings, that had risen to prominence with the promise of restoring an appropriate spirit to the country’s church architecture.  Mould had been invited to New York by Moses Hicks Grinnell, a member of the building committee of All Souls’ Church, New York’s first Unitarian congregation, to design its new building.  Mould produced a striking Victorian Gothic building with a severe massing scheme and polychromatic exterior (employing alternating courses of red brick and a pale yellow Caen stone) at the corner of Fourth Avenue and 20th.  Consecrated on December 1855, Mould’s church would provide the inspiration for a number of the next generation of architects in New York City.

Jacob Wrey Mould, All Souls Church, (“The Church of the Holy Zebra”), New York, 1855. (Online)

2.5.  THE FORMATION OF THE AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF ARCHITECTS

It was into this maturing architectural environment in New York City that the École-trained Richard Morris Hunt had entered upon his return to the U. S. in September 1855.  On February 23, 1857, Hunt was one of thirteen New York architects, drawn from all three backgrounds of the early American architects, who met in the office of Richard Upjohn to organize the New York Society of Architects.  Upjohn, who had been born in Great Britain and had apprenticed under a builder and cabinet-maker, had immigrated at the age of 27 to Boston, and eventually found work with an architect.  He had moved to New York in 1839, where he was hired to redesign Trinity Church, at the foot of Wall Street.  Its overall design reveals the influence of Pugin’s early writings. When it was completed in 1846, its 281’ tall spire was the tallest structure in the U.S. 

Richard Upjohn, Trinity Church, New York, 1839. (Online)

The other eleven architects who met in Upjohn’s office were Horace W. S. Cleaveland, Henry C. Dudley, Leopold Eidlitz,Edward Gardiner, Jacob Mould, Frederick A. Petersen, J. M. Priest, John Welch, Joseph C. Wells, Upjohn’s son Richard M., and son-in-law, Charles Babcock.  They decided to expand the group in order to be a national organization by inviting 16 more architects, including Calvert Vaux, A. J. Davis, and Thomas U. Walter, changing its name accordingly to the American Institute of Architects, whose constitution was adopted on April 15, 1857.  The organization was apparently modeled after the Royal Institute of British Architects, as Upjohn, Mould, Vaux, and Wells, as former Royal subjects, were well acquainted with the British organization.  The group sought to create an architecture organization that would “promote the scientific and practical perfection of its members” and “elevate the standing of the profession.”

2.6.  THE ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF TRUTH IN ART

Some five months later an exhibition of British Pre-Raphaelite paintings that brought their first actual work to the U.S. was organized and ran in New York from the fall of 1857 to July 1858.  In 1860, British painter Thomas C. Farrar, who actually had been taught by Ruskin at the Working Men’s College in London, immigrated to New York in 1860 and found not only a job teaching drawing in the School of Design for Women at the new Cooper Union but also a covey of likeminded individuals:

“It was not long before he made, or rather found many strong friends.  For, to his surprise, there were a few sympathizers with the views he had imbibed in the Ruskin school, to give him a cordial welcome.  He even found a few artists who had long sought to emancipate themselves from the prevailing school of conventionality, and as many architects [my emphasis]… as these friendships ripened, it became their habit to hold informal meetings at each other’s studios… At one of these social meetings it was suggested (by Farrar) that a society be formed to advocate the reforms which, as individuals, they all were striving to effect.”

The meeting was held on January 27, 1863, at which time Farrar began to organize his compatriots along lines similar to those employed in the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in Britain, some fifteen year earlier.  Among the group’s seven founding members, were architects Peter B. Wight and Russell Sturgis.   While the group modeled itself on the PRB, it is more accurate to label this group as “the American Ruskinians,” for it was his ideas and writings, and not those of the PRB who, truthfully, shared little in terms of theory (and nothing architectural) with their own ideas, that formed the intellectual core around which these artists gathered.  At the group’s second meeting on February 18, the group approved its Articles of Organization, settling on the name, “The Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art.”  Their overall goals were to breathe a fresh truth into the arts and to educate the American public to better understand art.  Their organizing principles were:

1. Truth in art meant fidelity to nature,

2. The need for a close association among the arts, especially when combined with architecture,

3. To develop the artistic and handicraft talents of their associated craftsmen,

4. The superiority of Gothic architecture.

On March 28, the group decided to publish its own journal, The New Path (again following the lead of the PRB in its publication of its magazine, The Germ), under the editorial control of art critic Clarence Cook.  (It had a short life of July 1864-Dec. 1865.)

FURTHER READING:

Dickason, David Howard. The Daring Young Men: The Story of the American Pre-Raphaelites. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1953.

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

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