CHAPTER 5. PHILADELPHIA: RED BRICK, THE 1876 WORLD’S FAIR AND FRANK FURNESS

In the latter half of 1873, as the U.S. economy was slowly being sucked down the black hole of Jay Cooke’s bankruptcy, all roads, including that of the nascent Chicago School, seemingly led to Philadelphia (with the exception of the young Louis Sullivan’s that ran the other way…).   At that moment Philadelphia was deeply immersed in preparations for the upcoming 1876 Centennial World’s Fair that would bring architects from across the country, including 26-year old John Root and his younger brother Walter, where they could see firsthand not only the “honest” Quaker red brick arcaded buildings of the 1850s that we studied in Volume One, but also the most recent designs by the country’s most inventive architect, Frank Furness.

5.1. A REVIEW OF PHILADELPHIA’S ANTEBELLUM BRICK BOXES

In Volume One we had reviewed Philadelphia’s Quaker roots and the impact that their values stressing plain speech, plain dress, and plain building had had on its antebellum architecture.  The result was an indigenous tradition of erecting relatively unornamented stone or red brick boxes that employed multi-storied arcades along the streetfronts within which the windows were located.  I had posited the question about how, if at all, Henri Labrouste’s 1838 design of the Bibliothéque Sainte-Geneviève had served as the precedent for these buildings as it seems to have been the earliest use of a multi-bayed arcade in a building’s façade since the Renaissance. (See Sec. 1.7). 

Henri Labrouste, Bibliothéque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris, 1838-51. (Author’s collection)

The eight-storied Jayne Building, designed by William L. Johnston and Thomas U. Walter in 1849 with its 130’ tall tower, was the most expensive of these. This image of the Jayne Building best exhibits the language of continuous vertical piers and recessed horizontal spandrels of these structures, as well as the contrast between how this building’s façade is read with its slender verticality versus the layered horizontality of the walls with window punctures to either side of it.

William L. Johnston and Thomas U. Walter, Jayne Building, Philadelphia, 1849. (Korom, American Skyscraper)

However, a more representative building might be 241 Chestnut Street by Stephen D. Button in 1852.    The city’s builders had also employed a similar language, albeit with less expensive brick for industrial purposes such as warehouses, an excellent example was the Megargee Warehouse of 1855.   

Stephen D. Button, 241 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, 1852. (Online)

We saw that antebellum Philadelphia’s architects had evolved a rational and an aesthetically sympathetic vertical solution to the multistory building that offered American architects a stylistic alternative to the formally-styled, horizontal Italian palazzo, then gaining favor, in New York, constructed either in brownstone or in the contemporary style with a cast iron front.

Megaree Warehouse, Philadelphia, 1855. (JSAH, March 1961)

Philadelphia’s pressed brick was nationally acclaimed and preferred not only for its quality and strength, but also for its rich red color.  This was the result of the mixture of the local clay and loam from which it was made.  With the incorporation of steam power into the manufacturing process during the 1870s, the availability of pressed brick had increased substantially, with a corresponding reduction in price.  Both factors naturally had added to the growing appeal of brick exteriors, especially in Philadelphia:

“Strangers visiting Philadelphia for the first time see much in the appearance of the better order of residential streets to commend the city to their favorable regard.  There is an absence of that vulgar splash into mere costliness, an omission of stucco, a lack of brown-stone fronts; there is a steady and persistent resort to the red brick for building, and a uniform employment of white marble for relief to the eye, that speaks at once of the solidity of character and of works which in England and elsewhere are the admiration of the civilized world.” 

1700 Block of Delancey Street, Philadelphia, c.1868. (Thomas, Furness)

The opportunity afforded by the Fair to make a comparison between not only New York and Philadelphia, but also, and more importantly, the architectural merits of the cities’ traditional building materials, was not lost on the Philadelphia correspondent for American Architect, a new magazine that began publication at the start of 1876 in Boston:  

The American Architect and Building News, First Cover Page, January 1, 1876. (Online)

“Philadelphia dwellings are not so “architecturesque” as the corresponding quarters of New York.  The carefully wrought Doric order enclosing the front door, and the bits of moulding and carving over the windows, are absent.  The lintels are plain slabs of white marble flush with the wall.  The old-fashioned elegance is abolished, probably by Quaker feeling, into a simplicity which is only bareness, and becomes very tiresome.  The one element of exterior effect which is striven for in the typical Philadelphia dwelling is cleanliness.”

“The typical New York house is the brown-stone front.  The typical Philadelphia house has the red brick and white marble front just described.  The brown-stone front is “treated” by an ignorant man with pretentious and ugly ornament, and no apparent intention except to make a show of expensiveness at the least expense.  The brick-and-marble front is not treated at all; and the only intention of the builder and occupant seems to be to make a show of cleanliness.  Neither purpose is artistic, but the Philadelphia purpose is at least not vulgar; and though it may be hard to tell whether a brown-stone square in New York, or a brick-and-marble square in Philadelphia are drearier to look at, the Philadelphia specimen is certainly the less offensive. . .The Philadelphia house of today is not an architectural object; but it affords a basis for architecture much more promising than the corresponding house in New York, from which a mass of extrinsic rubbish must be stripped away to get even a basis in the straightforward fulfilment of real requirements.”

5.2. POST-WAR PHILADELPHIA

When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, Philadelphia was the largest city in the U.S. and only second to London in the U.K.  Nonetheless, in April 1789 New York City was named the first capital of the new country and by 1790 had surpassed Philadelphia in size, only to have Philadelphia become the compromise choice to be the temporary capital in July 1790 until 1800 while Washington, DC was being constructed.  Thus, Philadelphia had lost both its titles of “largest city” as well as the “financial capital” to New York, and in 1800 its role as the nation’s capital city to Washington, DC.  While it still had played a major role in Civil War production, quite frankly, the Quaker City had developed an inferiority complex vis-à-vis New York.

5.3. PHILADELPHIA BEGINS PREPARATIONS FOR THE FAIR

Following the end of the Civil War, as the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence was on the horizon, John L. Campbell, a professor at Wabash College in Indiana had suggested in December 1866 to Philadelphia’s mayor that the Centennial should be celebrated in 1876 with a World’s Fair in Philadelphia.  The city’s Franklin Institute wholeheartedly threw its solid reputation behind the proposal to hold the fair, which encouraged the city council in January 1870 to approve the fair and its location in Fairmont Park.  It was the city’s golden opportunity to regain some of its former glory after all these years of playing “second fiddle.”  On March 3, 1871, Congress (without the support of much of the South) approved the formation of a Fair Commission to oversee the organization and construction of the fair. and the following year formed the Centennial Board of Finance to raise the necessary funds. This was to be led by its President, John Welsh, the brother of William Welsh, the philanthropist who had been the Patrician leader of the city’s 1864 U.S. Sanitary Fair, that was used as the model for organizing the proposed World’s Fair.  These initial steps came on the heels of Cincinnati’s reinstitution of its annual Industrial Expositions, so the Commission naturally sought the assistance of Alfred T. Goshorn, the director of the Cincinnati fair.  Goshorn was named the Director-General of the Centennial Exposition in late 1873, in overall charge of the Fair’s construction and operations.  One of his first moves was, following the success of the first Cincinnati May Festival earlier that year, (see Volume One) to name its musical director, Theodore Thomas as the Music Director for the World’s Fair.  Thomas then proposed that Richard Wagner be commissioned to compose a piece in honor of the Fair’s opening, which he begrudgingly did, naming it the “Centennial Grand March.”

1867 Exposition Universelle, Paris. (Online)

Overall planning for the Fair’s site was entrusted the Herman J. Schwartzmann, the chief designer/engineer of Fairmont Park, while the two largest building commissions were awarded to architect Henry Pettit and engineer Joseph Wilson.  In contrast to the recent 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris, where the French had opted to erect one mammoth structure (1608’ x 1247’), the Americans decided to house the major exhibits in separate buildings, The Main Exhibition Building was planned to be the longest building ever erected.  At 1880’ long by 464’ wide, it’s 21.5 enclosed acres would surpass Britain’s Crystal Palace of 1851. 

Henry Pettit and Joseph Wilson, Main Exhibition Building, 1876 Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia. (Online)

The Fair’s second largest building, the Machinery Hall, housed the largest steam engine at that time, constructed by George H. Corliss.  The 40’ high dual engine provided power for the entire complex through a series of 75 miles of belts that drove shafts whose length exceeded one mile.  The Corliss engine was started by Brazil’s Emperor Dom Pedro II, with Pres. Grant at his side, as the final event of the opening day ceremonies on May 10.  While the design of the Fair’s grounds and its buildings have little interest for our study, some of the proposed exhibits as well as some of the buildings erected in advance of the Fair do have importance for us to study and appreciate.  

George H. Corliss, The gigantic Corliss steam engines, 1876 Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia. Chicago industrialist George Pullman will buy this engine and reinstall it in his Pullman Palace Car Works factory in his new town of Pullman, IL. (Online)

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

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