Speaking of holes in the ground, let’s return to the gaping pit at the southwest corner of La Salle and Monroe, waiting for construction to begin on Field’s 13-story skyscraper designed by S.S. Beman. In Section 8.19 we saw how Field’s former partner, Levi Leiter had outfoxed Field’s plan for the skyscraper by not allowing Field’s crew to excavate under Leiter’s existing building at the western edge of Field’s lot during the fall of 1884. In March 1885, a frustrated Field ordered Beman to complete the details of the building and construction on the site was renewed. Field approved breaking into Leiter’s basement in order to shore up the existing wall and to place the new foundation. Leiter countered by obtaining a permanent injunction in May 1885 against Field from doing any more construction on Leiter’s side of the wall.
Field would eventually be vindicated by the Illinois Supreme Court but this wouldn’t occur until May 1886. Therefore, Field had a major public relations nightmare on his hands as well as the money he would have otherwise spent on the tower. Even though the lease on his existing wholesale store was not scheduled to expire until 1889, he decided to move up the date of construction for its replacement. In search of positive headlines to offset his defeat by Leiter, he initiated talks in April 1885 with America’s recognized leading architect, Henry Hobson Richardson, to design the new building. As soon as the papers got hold of the story, the ill-fated skyscraper was all but forgotten, except of course, for that huge hole at the corner of La Salle and Monroe… Field left the hole at La Salle and Monroe remain dormant for 1885, 1886, 1887, and 1888…
The last Richardson building that we reviewed was, coincidently, a wholesale store in Boston that he had designed for F. L. Ames in 1882. It was the last major commission on which he did any design work prior to his trip to Europe in the summer of 1882. The facade was typical of his earlier work with one notable difference: he had abandoned the “structural” polychromy he had achieved in his prior work with the use of two stones of different colors – a light body with a darker accent stone – in favor of a more unified, monochromatic stone surface. As construction did not start until after his return, this change from his past projects may have been inspired during his European travels. Whether it was or not, there can be no mistaking the fact that Richardson’s designs executed after the summer of 1882 can be viewed as an attempt on his part to bring a more unified image to his work. It might be said that he was attempting to impart a sense of chaste discipline to his beloved picturesque Romanesque, or as Owen Jones had recommended, “repose,” not unlike that which he saw in Renaissance buildings while visiting Italy, particularly Florence.
11.3. THE ALLEGHENY COUNTY COURTHOUSE
In late 1883, Richardson produced a design for the competition for the new Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail in Pittsburgh that had been chosen as the winner on January 31, 1884. I consider this to be his magnum opus. All of his ideas have been combined into a highly articulated mass that resulted from a synthesis of his Beaux-Arts neoclassical training with his search for an American architectural vocabulary. The axial plan and pyramidal massing are pure Beaux-arts, while his time spent with the Labrouste brothers was revealed with his use of architecture parlanté, that is, the building’s massing expressed the building’s function and interior organization.
The motifs of his style are all here: the highly-picturesque roofline of a steeply-pitched hip roof punctuated with gabled dormers that extended the wall surface beyond the cornice, giving his roofline the spikey-ness that I refer to as his “crown,” the horizontal layering of the elevation achieved with continuous sill courses into the conventional Beaux-Arts tripartite elevation composition of base-shaft-capital; and the all-stone exterior with its corresponding arched openings, including his trademark cyclopean “Syrian” arched entrance. He repeated the monochromatic color scheme of the Ames Store, showing that he had indeed abandoned Victorian “structural” polychrome.
One can argue that he was inspired by Philadelphia, Pittsburgh’s cross-state rival’s City Hall in both the building’s hollow courtyard plan (although because of different-sized functions, office space vs. courtroom, the Philadelphia plan is double-loaded while Pittsburgh’s is single-loaded) and incorporation of an urban landmark tower (however, at 250’ tall it was less than half the height of the Philadelphia tower). Richardson used the tower to impart a vertical counterpoint to the otherwise completely horizontal composition (this would be the tallest structure he designed).
As I noted earlier in Sec. 8.4 Richardson’s design of the tower held many lessons for architects faced with the design of a skyscraper. Foremost among these was his unapologetic vertical thrust into the sky, like a Gothic steeple, that was not interrupted by any of the horizontal banding he used in the building below. He carried this vertical thrust from the ground up for all 250’; no horizontal line of the building’s body was allowed to interrupt it. Second, he imparted a sense of false perspective by using the, by now well-known device of layered arcades in a sequential progression of increasing arches in a decreasing height. In the tower he began with one arch, the huge entry arch at grade. At the cornice he then split this into two blind arches, that gave way to an intermediate range of three arches that culminated with an arcade of four arches. He also designed the height of each arcaded layer in a geometric progression of 8-4-1 that increased the sense of false perspective. The last motif he employed that would be picked up by architects (I have already showed Root to have been influenced in Sec. 8.4) is the attachment of a cylindrical turret at each corner, I noted earlier that his precedent for this detail is thought by Richardson scholars to have been the Spanish Romanesque Old Cathedral in Salamanca, Spain.
This detail accomplished two design ideas. First, by rounding the corner, it emphasized the building’s three-dimensional mass, rather than how a sharp corner would have accentuated the surface plane of the wall, that would have imparted a two-dimensional planar quality to the tower. Second, this detail allowed the surface material to completely envelope the interior volume and be read as such: a concept that could easily be transferred to a non-loadbearing “curtain wall” of brick that enveloped an iron skeleton frame.
Richardson carried this verticality into the two shorter, subordinate mechanical towers at the rear of the courtyard that once more were given dominance over the horizontal layering of the remaining elevation. (Their sheer verticality immediately reminds me of the twin towers in the Norman church of Saint-Étienne in Caen.) Here we once again have a compositional counterpoint not only between the horizontal and vertical, but also between the central tower at the front offset by the pair of shorter towers at the rear, whose void is the exact width of the main tower!! Subtle, and pure genius… While the central tower was extended as high as possible in hopes of supplying less polluted, i.e., “fresh” Pittsburgh air, the building’s mechanical system would then expel the exhaust air through the shorter towers.
It is the courtyard’s design where I find Richardson experimenting, indicating a continuation of the evolution in his aesthetic thinking, that began with his monochromatic exteriors. While one can easily argue that his inspiration for the elevation of the lower four floors was Pont du Gard, I am drawn to the simplicity of the uppermost two stories, whose elevation is an unarticulated surface of stone within which are carved the windows, be they arched or flatheaded. Because there are no “piers” in this range as there are in the lower elevation, this surface has a different visual scale than either that below or on the exterior. It does not consist of layers but is just a surface.
Hitchcock, Henry-Russell. The Architecture of H.H. Richardson and His Times. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1961.
Ochsner, Jeffrey Karl. H.H. Richardson: Complete Architectural Works. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982.
O’Gorman, James F. H. H. Richardson – Architectural Forms for an American Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Van Rensselaer, Mariana Griswold. Henry Hobson Richardson and His Works. Toronto: Dover, 1969.
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