Starting at the time of the fall of France’s Second Empire, American architects began exploring alternatives for the Second Empire stylings of Paris. In addition to the contemporary British alternatives of the Queen Anne and the Gothic Revival, they had also experimented with the Romanesque Revival, employing the round arches of ancient Roman buildings but not their classical detailing.
Instead, architects employed the medieval details of the Byzantine (that was the continuation of the Roman Empire but also with Greek roots and language) and Romanesque, paralleling some contemporary French architects who had been doing so in an effort to rediscover the “honest” construction of the ancient Greeks (hence, they were known as Néo-Grecs) as opposed to the Roman tradition of using “false” marble veneers applied to their concrete constructions. This style was popularized, but by no means initiated by Richardson, as was exemplified in the first A.I.A. list of “Top Ten Buildings” of which Richardson had designed five (v. 3 sec 4.2) and best represented in his Allegheny County Courthouse.
I did not award his Field Wholesale Store this honor as it had a flat cornice, the first time he had designed one, and thus, represented a midlife transition in his oeuvre. Romanesque Revival buildings were geographically present in all parts of the country during the 1880s, therefore, it is inaccurate to refer to Chicago’s building so styled, like the Rookery and the Studebaker building as “Chicago School” simply because this style neither originated nor was localized in only Chicago.
The Romanesque had originally evolved in the first two centuries of the millennium from masonry bearing wall construction, employing the conventional Roman semicircular arch (the structure developed to span an opening employing a material weak in tension). The round arch, combined with the non-Classical ornamental details of Byzantine and Romanesque buildings had marked these American contemporary efforts to employ and evolve this style.
One European building that exerted a great influence on Americans was Henri Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (Néo-Grec) in which he had completely avoided the use of any columns (which also freed him from the “rules” of Classical architecture) by employing an arcade that ran across the face of the building to provide window openings for daylight (v.2 sec. 1.7). This style was easily applied to mid-nineteenth century ‘non-elevatored” buildings under six stories in height.
However, the design of the elevations for a skyscraper with ten floors proved to be a “horse of a different color.” We saw the favorite solution for an elevation of such a building was to stack or layer multistory arcades one on top of another, typically experimenting with a variety of numeric progressions in the windows of each new building.
Yet architects, confronted by the unprecedently problem of the design of a 10-story office building began to place arcades in the strangest locations, experimenting to find an appropriate solution. The worst offender being Root in the meaningless location of the arcade at the sixth floor of the ten-storied Phoenix Building.
Slowly, but eventually architects arrived at a solution that used arches only in the uppermost floor just below the cornice, simulating a multistoried arcade that supported the building’s cornice (that usually comprised of a story or two for scale). This permitted the windows below to be repetitive (cost efficient) but still stamped the imprimatur of “Romanesque” on the building.
The one use for an arch that was retained for symbolic reasons was to mark a building’s entrance.
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