Born in New York City in 1838, twelve-year old Peter B. Wight was enrolled in 1850 in the standard Bachelor of Arts curriculum at the city’s Free Academy (that would become the City College of New York) during the period of construction of Carstenstein & Gildemeister’s Crystal Palace for the 1853 World’s Exhibition, a process that the young student studied and later credited as having influenced his interest in iron construction.
It was at the Free Academy that Wight had befriended the older Russell Sturgis, who would later be his first professional partner from 1863-1868, and who had also introduced him to the writings of Ruskin. While the two friends were still attending classes, they had often walked the three blocks from the school to visit the construction site of Mould’s All Soul’s Unitarian Church. They studied the drawings intensely, Wight later crediting this experience for igniting his passion for architecture. It was Wight’s first introduction to the “structural polychromy” of High Victorian Gothic (to use only actual constructional materials to achieve color as opposed to “applied polychromy,” applying color to a surface via paint or mosaics, encouraged by Ruskin’s passion for color and the architecture of Venice and Northern Italy. (Wight graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1855, the same year that Hunt had returned to New York having completed his education in Paris.) Wight apprenticed in the office of Thomas R. Jackson, another English immigrant architect who had first worked in Richard Upjohn’s office where Jackson had learned Upjohn’s Gothic Revival details before starting out on his own. Sturgis on the other hand, had chosen to work in the office of Prague-born and German-trained Leopold Eidlitz where he was exposed to the structural rationalism of German architecture.
In 1858, Wight was offered a design commission in Chicago from Josiah L. James, a real estate agent who was a friend of Wight’s father. He spent a year in Chicago, 1858-9, designing a small office building for the southwest corner of State and Randolph. Asher Carter (who had been James Renwick’s supervisor for the Second Presbyterian Church before he decided to stay in Chicago) and Augustus Bauer (who had worked for Carstenstein & Gildemeister on the Crystal Palace before moving to Chicago), who were the architects originally promised the commission, graciously offered the young designer a space in their office from which to work on the project. Due to the recession at this time, Wight was unable to procure any other work and had been forced to return to New York. Meanwhile, Sturgis had traveled to Munich when he studied at the Akademie for a year before he returned to New York and joined Wight in practice (that lasted until 1868).
In 1861 at the age of twenty-three Wight had burst into New York’s top tier of architects when he won the competition to design a new building for New York’s National Academy of Art, the nation’s arbeiter of taste in painting, having bested the designs of Hunt, Eidlitz, Mould, and Henry Van Brunt. The structural polychrome of Wight’s design had pleased its building committee who were devotees of Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites. It took the Academy’s board over two years to finalize the project asking Wight to economize wherever he could, but eventually a contract was signed on April 29, 1863, and construction commenced at the corner of Fourth Avenue and 23rd Street, the building being dedicated two years later on April 27, 1865. Wight had based his polychromed design on Ruskin’s theories, but critics said that he had merely copied the worse aspects of the Doge’s Palace in Venice.
In Wight’s defense, Sturgis, his partner by this time, wrote a reply in the June 1864 New Path, strongly denying any such influence on his friend, stating that Wight’s submission had been designed following the design tenants that the magazine had been championing for the past year:
“First, that all buildings should be designed in the medieval spirit, in other words should be ‘Gothic’ and not revived classic of any school…[as the modern use of these is] pompous and luxurious trifling with unbelieved mythology and unfelt allegory…; second, that all carved ornament should be designed by the workmen who cut it… The building is so planned as to perfectly answer its purposes… it is possible, as this building shows, to deny nothing, to add nothing for composition’s sake which the occupants do not need. [The building had been designed] as a Gothic artist of the thirteenth century might build, should he live now in New York, study our customs and needs, and become familiar with our materials and workmen and their ways.”
Following his paean to Ruskin in the National Academy of Design, Wight had continued to develop contemporary British design idioms in his following projects. He continued to follow Ruskin’s ideas in the exteriors of his next two buildings, the Yale School of Fine Arts (1864) and Brooklyn’s Mercantile Library (1865).
In the interiors of these two buildings he veered from the truthful representation of nature championed by Ruskin and the PreRaphaelites to a more stylized abstraction of nature in his interior decoration and furniture, seemingly following the examples set by Pugin, Jones, and Jones’ colleague at the South Kensington School of Art, Christopher Dresser.
In 1862, Dresser had published his views on ornament: “If mere imitation is ornament, the ornamentist must at once give place to the photographer… Natural adaptations, we have seen, are the lowest form of ornament, but the next step, which is more exalted, consists in the ‘conventional’ treatment of natural forms…” While on the surface this sentiment seems to contradict a “truthful” approach to art, it was, indeed, an “honest” approach to the problem for two-dimensional surfaces such as wallpapers and floor surfaces as they were flat planes and not three-dimensional objects.
2.8. VIOLLET-LE-DUC’S IDEAS CROSS THE ATLANTIC
By this time Wight had also become familiar with the recently published structural rationalist theories of French architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who in 1863 had just published his first volume of his Entretiens sur l’architecture (Discourses on Architecture). He would have known about Viollet-le-Duc’s ideas as his work was often mentioned in The New Path prior to its demise in December 1865. Then in 1866, American critic Henry Van Brunt wrote an article in The Nation in which he introduced Americans to Viollet-le-Duc by stating the he was “the leading reformer of France” and also took the opportunity to self-promote the fact that an American (himself although it wouldn’t be published until 1875) was translating the Entretiens into English. Wight had chosen to also translate Viollet-le-Duc’s work, finishing the first Discourse in 1868 which he read to the New York chapter of the A.I.A. and later published it in the new trade magazine, Manufacturer and Builder (as far as I can determine, Wight’s was one of the earlier, if not the first published English translation of Viollet-le-Duc’s ideas).
Landau, Sarah Bradford. P.B.Wight: Architect, Contractor, and Critic: 1835-1925. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1981.
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