When its church burned in 1895, St John’s parish in Youngstown, Ohio used the opportunity to relocate to a more prestigious site on Wick Avenue. The selection of an architect probably followed one of two possible paths: The vestry or building committee formed quickly and invited architects to appear for interviews — which was apparently the situation in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania. Interested architects presented their work (especially projects approximating the size of the proposed project) to the committee and provided a list of satisfied clients. In such a process, Wood’s Anglo-Catholicism could have worked for or against him, based on the congregation’s general churchmanship.
Another more likely scenario could have grown from Halsey Wood’s notoriety, even his fame, as a finalist in the competition for St John the Divine in New York City. Merely “placing” in such a prestigious commission had carried his reputation much farther than eastern Ohio. In addition, his design for Ascension in Pittsburgh was nearing completion. I’m inclined toward the second possibility.
A few years ago I presented a paper at a conference in Pittsburgh, but only so that I could see five of Wood’s buildings in a few days: Good Shepherd and the public library in Bradford, PA; Ascension in Pittsburgh (which I’d seen before, but only from the outside); St Peter’s in Butler (which had left the Episcopal fold for a high-church haven in ACNA); and, of course, St John’s, Youngstown. I wrote St John’s about their willingness to let me present my research on Wood to as many of the congregation as might be interested. One of the parishioners very kindly offered her guest room.
It was a wonderful visit: unfettered access to the church itself (and a bonus Parish House by Ralph Adams Cram, who wrote very favorably of WHW, by the way); several conversations with Fr Bradley Pace, the rector; and then a Thursday-night spaghetti feed with more church members than I’d hoped. The seed was planted during this trip that Wood’s buildings, particularly his churches, are exercises in acoustic design as much as they are aesthetic experiences. [Fr Pace mentioned the column of sound that rises into the crossing tower and whooshes down upon him at the altar.] And that perspective — new to me and not suggested by others writing on his work — was confirmed beautifully by a visit to St Paul’s, Chattanooga and couple years later.
St John’s is assuredly an aesthetic accomplishment; indeed, as his “last work” it occupies a special place in his oeuvre and will inevitably be interpreted as a summary statement and the fulcrum to what might have been. The subtle syncopation of column placement, for example, or the unconventional rustication of interior stonework were worthwhile observations. I wonder now if my recollection of the trip has become too hazy and needs another visit.
The residence at #242 South 17th Street in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood of Philadelphia is fashionably expensive: a two-bedroom apartment of modest appointments is currently on the market for more than $350,000. The architectural history of that building is probably of far less significance to its market value than is the Rittenhouse location. So there is probably little interest in naming its designer: Halsey Wood isn’t Frank Lloyd Wright, much as I might prefer him to be.
At the corner of Seventeenth and Latimer (a one-block long narrow lane typical of early Philadelphia) since about 1885, I was pleased to find that it is listed, though not pictured, in the recent Buildings of the United States volume for Philly and the eastern part of Pennsylvania. The authors attribute it to William Halsey Wood, though without footnotes or other sources to back that up. So I looked at ancestry.com and found H. M. Middleton, an industrialist, living at that address in the 1900 census. [There is no 1890 census, in case you didn’t know; it was destroyed by fire.] The house was already fifteen years old at that point, but Philadelphia city directories put Middleton there at least a few years earlier. Halsey Wood’s wife Florence was a Philly native and his father was a photographic enthusiast there. On that basis, I was content to add it to the gazetteer, if not as an actual blog entry.
A frequent visitor to this site was kind enough to bring other information to light, however, which calls Wood’s authorship into question. A 1974 history of Architecture in Philadelphia by Longstreth and Tietelman — which I should have checked, since I actually own a copy — gives Harry Lewis as the owner and credits Boston architect William Whitney Lewis as the architect. Wood had done so few townhouses and Lewis’s in Boston are so different in style that I was at a loss. The only work that has any stylistic resemblance in a trio of Back Bay houses at the corner of Marlborough and Exeter Streets. Those three are more typically Richardsonian, however, though the material palette is similar.
Consider and compare these details of #242’s front entry:
I had thought to revisit ancestry this afternoon but their site doesn’t seem to be functioning on the computer here, so other resources have had to fill in. Harry Ashmead Lewis, the purported original client, it turns out was the younger brother of architect Lewis; they were born in 1854 and 1850 respectively, sons of William Stump Lewis and Frances Ellen Lewis (née Whitney) of Manchester in the U.K. Details of their emigration probably aren’t that significant.
What we have is a contest of dueling authors. The earlier provide information that is inconvenient but credible; the later, information that gives us another entry in the database but is unsubstantiated.
More as the story develops.
The list of an architect’s work tells just a very small part of the story of his or her career.
The building itself is an object. It has a structural and mechanical system. It has a pattern of interior spaces that serve some real human function. It has materiality and aesthetic qualities. And all of these considerations taken together can be analyzed and assessed. But there is the actual getting of the job: the process of interviews or of a juried competition, one anonymous, the other not. In the case of Halsey Wood, the standout example is the very high profile competition for the Cathedral of St John-the-Divine. But many (probably most) of his other ecclesiastical projects involved meeting with church building committees to show and discuss your work and how it might address that client’s needs. This is the part of architectural history that gets little attention becasue documentation has rarely survived. Perhaps that’s why I’m fascinated by it.
In William Halsey Wood’s “market area” consisting of metropolitan New York City and most of the state of New Jersey plus Philadelphia where his wife’s family were known, there were a large number of architects, many of whom also specialized in buildings for religious use. So in the case of Charles E. Cassell, I’m going farther afield, since Cassell was situated in Baltimore. There is one Cassell Project that I believe compares very favorably with some of Wood’s work and which, through publication, Wood would have been aware: Associated Congregational Church of 1889.
It’s the sanctuary as a pattern of circular forms, in volume and plan, that interest me. Consider the implied cylinders “captured” at the corners of Wood’s Braddock library. They also have a strong connection with Wood’s Peddie Memorial church in Newark as well as with his scheme for the Carnegie Library in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania (an unbuilt competitive design). Round forms have their charms, but acoustic performance is not among them. For the time being I’m filing Cassell and his Baltimore church away for future analysis.
The Episcopal Church of All Angels stood at the corner of West End Avenue and 81st Street from its dedication in 1890 until it was razed for an apartment building in 1979. The architect was Samuel Snook of the firm of J. B. Snook & Sons. Snook’s innovative design made the most of a small corner site by turning the nave at a forty-five degree angle. From that point on, its history is a little muddled, especially where Halsey Wood is concerned.
Within six years the choir was either modified or expanded, though two names are connected with this project: The Karl Bitter Studio (an artist and frequent ecclesiological consultant) and our hero William Halsey Wood. Wikipedia makes no mention of Wood, though newspaper coverage links Wood directly with the “Angel Choir.” The American Guild of Organists describes the renovated interior:
By all accounts, its interior was spectacular. Among its treasures were a two-and-a-half-story Tiffany window and pulpit ringed with limestone angels that wrapped around the banister and paraded toward the top. There, a carved wooden angel leaned out and blew his trumpet into the center of the sanctuary. The mosaic altar was surmounted by a gilded baldachin and beautifully illuminated, and the sanctuary lamp was a celtic four-armed cross of brass that was brought from Venice by the rector. The stalls for the clergy and choir were arranged on each side of the chancel, and in a recess above on the gospel side was the organ presented by five gentlemen of the parish.
Why was Wood involved? The building was only six years old and the original architects were nearby.
The choir and clergy stalls were clearly a part of the 1896 renovation. But their delicacy is of a sort uncharacteristic of Wood’s work. Ecclesiologically, however, it would have bee natural for him to associate with an experienced artist like Bitter. Though the building itself was demolished, the parish continues in the former rectory, so it may be that surviving correspondence will resolve the Wood-Bitter conflict.
Of Wood’s known residential designs—nearly thirty of them identified to date—just twenty percent survive. About one in five. Those in the vicinity of his practice — Newark, New Jersey and surrounding communities, where he probably knew many of his clients — have suffered most from the pressure on what had been leafy up-scale enclaves, bedroom communities for New York City. Of the several in East Orange, the C. S. French house is the most exuberant and my personal favorite. An analysis of its proportioning will tell us much about Wood’s general approach to architectural design.
Built at the corner of Arlington and Park avenues at a cost of $5640, the French house was probably gone by the 1930s; a dowdy Colonial Revival apartment complex now occupies the site.
Western bishops faced issues their eastern brethren could only imagine. The Episcopal church was a late arrival, for example, in Dakota Territory and for many years was administered by the Bishop of Nebraska located in Omaha. Having an absentee CEO put more responsibility on local clergy who understood local conditions and could respond to them more quickly.
Bishops in the Mountain West — Montana, Wyoming and Idaho — were physically present but, like Nebraska, had enormous territory to cover. They also faced the Mormon monolith and all its adjunct institutions; their response was often to create institutions of their own, like boarding schools for girls and young women. At Boise, Wood provided the design for St Margaret’s School. But the necessary sophistication required for all these projects could not always be met by local architectural talent. And lackluster “frontier” design ran the risk of not attracting Eastern money.
Several East Coast architects saw a ready market for their services and high profile projects that could only enhance their careers. Richard Upjohn provided the design for Salt Lake City; Henry M. Congdon designed an unbuilt cathedral for Topeka and another for Boise; and Philadelphia’s Charles M. Burns did the cathedral in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which was also underwritten with money from John Jacob Astor. Given his increasing reputation as a High Churchman, it isn’t surprising that Halsey Wood appeared on the scene for St Matthew’s in Laramie, commissioned in 1892 and dedicated (sans tower) four years later.
From 1882 into the late 1890s, the Episcopal church in Dakota Territory — statehood come about in November 1889 — was given a corporate make-over through the efforts of three people: High Church clergyman Rev B. F. Cooley, emigrant English architect George Hancock, and another emigrant, Scottish stonemason Nathaniel Maconachie. What resulted, even before the arrival of the first resident bishop in the winter of 1883-1884, was a remarkable series of split fieldstone Gothic Revival designs in the eastern third of the territory. Lisbon, Casselton, Mayville, New Buffalo, Pembina, Jamestown, Lakota, Devils Lake and other hamlets boasted sophisticated picturesque churches that the new Bishop William David Walker called “a prairie devotion” and a practical solution to the danger of range fires.
I post this example from Lisbon, about fifty miles southwest of Fargo, as the crow flies. Deconsecrated and missing its tower but still standing at Sixth Avenue and Elm Street, the church is now an adjunct to the nearby public school.
How does this relate to William Halsey Wood? High Churchmanship takes many forms, evidenced by architects like Hancock and Halsey Wood. Coincidentally, they were just six years apart in age.