Patterns emerge in any number of different contexts, architecturally. A region, for example, such as Dakota Territory during the decade before statehood produced a remarkable series of Episcopal churches scattered over the eastern third of the state. Split fieldstone, Gothic Revival, picturesque, they established a veritable corporate identity for a denomination that was a latecomer among Protestants. Even longer than this Halsey Wood project, I’ve investigated northern Dakota’s stone churches for more than thirty years. [Let it not be said that I have a limited attention span.]
More obvious examples exist in the bodies of work by specific architects: the small banks of Louis Sullivan (eight of them in twelve years); the modest train depots for the Boston & Albany produced by H.H. Richardson and the successor firm of Shepley Rutan & Coolidge (in suburban Boston and beyond, primarily during the 1880s); Christian Science churches by S.S. Beman (who was based in Chicago but dispersed his designs throughout the Midwest; we even have one here in Fargo). Each of these clusters invites comparison and contrast in the quest for evolutionary thinking.
Often the patterns are more serendipitous. This week’s post on a petite Methodist Episcopal church in South Dakota brought to mind two other churches—both of them Protestant Episcopal—with similar characteristics: one in Harlan, Iowa, and another in Aberdeen, South Dakota (comparatively speaking, “just down the block”). What they share are unusual entries extended (stretched?) left and right like the eye sockets of a hammerhead shark. Precedent? Kinda.
Just outside the Ring in Vienna stands the 1737 Church of St Charles Borromeo (a.k.a., Karlskirche) by Austrian architect J. B. Fischer von Ehrlach. To garner control of its vast site at the city’s edge and command a larger presence, Fischer von Ehrlach widened the normally narrow longitudinal plan by an extension of entries to the left and right—like those accordion panels on your window air conditioner.
At least 150 years separate Karlskirche from Harlan and Aberdeen. But the motivation behind the is remarkably similar.
There are certainly differences between an Episcopal church by Halsey Wood and another by one of his contemporaries, say, Rotch & Tilden. Some differences can be accounted as programmatic, some may be a response to site conditions or even budget. But the lion’s share of those differences come from the design defaults, preferences, and predilections of the architect him (or her) self. Now and then I’ve been inclined here to post examples of Episcopal church designs by Wood’s contemporaries, a few of whom may even have been competitors in the NY-NJ market area he served.
And then there are other buildings that catch my eye—church designs for other denominations trying to reinforce their own “corporate” identities, whether consciously or otherwise. This modest church in the hamlet of Howard, South Dakota probably dates from the territorial period; Dakota Territory was not divided and admitted as two states until November 1889. This church is identified with Congregationalists (now UCC). The “apse end” of the building certainly exhibits a high degree of New England thriftiness and economy of means. But the front or entry elevation is stylish and perhaps, from a Congregationalist perspective, stylish to a fault. Cotton Mather would hardly have approved but times change.
The variations in siding (strata of narrow clapboard and clipped shingles) separated by sizable drip moldings; the hooded windows on both front and side elevations; a steeply pitched roof. All of these features could have been applied to an Episcopal church, but here they ornament a Place for Pilgrims. Go figure.
The Passaic Club incorporated in 1887 and probably began construction soon after. Their site was at the corner of Prospect Street and Erie, which took its name from the Erie Lackawanna railroad whose tracks wound through the city’s center. Erie Street became Main Avenue when the tracks were removed. In this view, it’s difficult to believe the photographer was probably standing in the railroad right-of-way.
Sanborn Fire Insurance maps show a building shaped very much like this postcard view, to the point of representing the corner turret facing the street intersection; Sanborn maps are often this literal as a record of building configuration. The Real Estate Record & Builder’s Guide for August 27th, 1904 mentions a substantial addition to the building [no architect is named, though Halsey Wood had died seven years earlier] and the Sanborn map for that year dutifully shows this new wing.
Postcard and other photographic views coördinated with maps (Sanborns especially) are useful tools for locating buildings and documenting their evolution—an ultimate disappearance. They have little historical information, however, since their primary audience consisted of insurance underwriters trying to assess risk. I’m hopeful that the first phase of construction for the club will be mentioned in either the Real Estate Guide or local newspapers.
The usual way of identifying a building as a particular architect’s work is through printed sources (community and institutional histories; construction and real estate journals; newspapers). But it sometimes works in reverse: the image of a building has certain characteristics that seem to be like those of an architect’s known works. Such cases are less frequent but far more intriguing.
Someone wrote to suggest an image appended to their message seemed to them to have similarities with Halsey Wood’s known designs. I heartily agree and wonder how we might confirm that or, at the very least, determine whether it is the work of another designer.
For your viewing pleasure and intellectual stimulation, here is the postcard view of a building known as the Passaic Club or the Town Club, located in Passaic, New Jersey:
It’s almost aggresively ungainly enough to be one of his.
The Architectural Record was new kid on the block when it began publication in 1891. Writing in the Record‘s 125th anniversary issue, Suzanne Stephens lays out the magazine’s origins; identifies its founder Clinton Sweet [remembered today for the Sweet’s Catalogue] and its first editor Harry Desmond, an Irish writer with literary aspirations; and outlines the editorial point of view that would distinguish the Record from its competition:
RECORD’s growing renown as a magazine of important criticism was consolidated by the contributions of [Russell] Sturgis and of Montgomery Schuyler, who had already established their reputations in newspapers and other magazines. While Schuyler’s proto-modernist stance and his excoriation of thoughtless eclecticism would later earn him the respect of Lewis Mumford, his spiciest takedowns appeared anonymously under the rubric of “Architectural Aberrations.” Here he attacked buildings going up everywhere that “collared the eye.” The mélange of historical elements in the Philadelphia Record Building (designed in 1886 by Willis G. Hale) he deemed “restless,” “monstrous,” and “wild.” While Schuyler, more than Sturgis, encouraged economy of expression, both battled against architecture that was eclectic and lacked proportion or unity.
Number Four in the “Aberration” series was what may have been Halsey Wood’s largest executed works: First Baptist Peddie Memorial Church in Newark, New Jersey.
Writing anonymously, Montgomery Schuyler was cautious about his use of aberrant: noting that the dictionary links the term with “mental weakness” and “moral perversity,” he finds a softer, gentler interpretation as “that which differs from the customary structure or type,” by which “no man can deny that Peddie Memorial Church is an aberration.”¹ One wonders what the thirty-seven-year-old Halsey Wood made of Schuyler’s observation and analysis. Would he have thought, like actors, that any press is good press, so long as they spell the name correctly.
As the Vicomte de Valmont parrots “It’s beyond my control” to the Marquise de Merteuil in the film “Dangerous Liaisons,” so Montgomery Schuyler returns again and again to “…the customery structure or type” in his discussion of Peddie Memorial:
- He compares Wood’s choice of a circular form for the modern auditorium church with an unnamed church on Madison Avenue, “a ghastly performance in corrugated iron with no more ecclesiastical or other desirable character than a gas tank.” Wood’s cylindrical form with its domical roof was objectionable “because having no angles and no features, it offers no points for architectural emphasis.
- As a round peg in the square hole of its rectangular urban site, Schuyler also criticizes the anchoring elements at the corners. But rather than “assuring the eye of the stability of the mass,” it “confuses the motive for the whole structure” and at the same time denies the dome its unity as the buildings crowning feature. Wood ought to have consulted the composition of mosques and their minarets.
- The front elevation on Broad Street found the author’s favor, finding the general treatment “very happy.” Its division into three levels or layers—the classic “base, shaft, and cap” of ancient classicism—their proportions and puncturing with entries and windows, and the bull’s-eyes of the attic story found special favor.
- Not so the treatment of the masonry itself, whose “rudeness” was wholly unjustified by the physical properties of the granite. Despite that, however, Wood received Schuyler’s high praise for having designed a building in masonry, rather than merely drawing an elevation to be rendered in stone by the masons. Here he anticipates Ralph Adams Cram’s observation that Wood “though…instinctively as the best thirteenth-century master-mason of them all.”²
- The interior was, if anything, even less successful, that it was “full, almost too full of cleverness, for the architect did not realize in designing it that an architect’s smartness is given to him to be trained and brought into subjection.” Could Montgomery Schuyler have been the author of the anonymous obituary from the American Architect and Building News that Wood had been “an architect of so much force and individuality that, had his early training been secured under conditions that would have had a chastening effect on his ambition, he might have attained a high place in the ranks of the profession.”³
Peddie’s Byzanto-Romanesque bulk still occupies a prominent corner site on Broad Street at the foot of Central where I, for one, prefer to see evidence of Schuyler’s more positive observations: a work exhibiting vigor and enthusiasm.
¹ Architectural Record (July-September 1892) pp89-92.
² Cram, My Life in Architecture (1936), pp.
³ American Architect & Building News, 20 March 1897, p90.
As a long-term resident of Newark (his home and office were both located there), we shouldn’t be surprised that the city had more of Wood’s designs than another community. Among his fifty-plus church projects, Newark contains all for non-Episcopalian clients. While his own spiritual inclination Anglo-Catholicism — and his designs appropriately Ecclesiological — this group of five Protestant churches are also works worthy of inclusion.
This short list includes three denominations: there are two Baptist churches (Peddie Memorial and Mt Pleasant), two Presbyterian (Sixth and Wycliffe), and one Congregational (First / Jube Memorial). [His work on a Newark synagogue is unconfirmed.] I’ve seen the interiors of Peddie Memorial First Baptist; Mt Pleasant and Wycliffe are gone, so my conclusions are limited and tentative. Happily, four have appeared on postcards, which I append here for your enjoyment and edification.
Often an architect’s unexecuted work can be as important as what got built. The Fargo-Moorhead Cultural Bridge, for example — a 1976 project by the late Michael Graves — achieved so much notoriety that people outside the area believed it had been constructed. Through wide publication and a 1979 PA Design Award, the “bridge” had become real and an influential example of Post-Modernism.
Halsey Wood’s project list includes a broad range of designs that were built, unbuilt, and even unbuildable. St Agnes’ Chapel of 1889 is an important example of the unbuilt.
Seven architects competed for St Agnes, an Upper West Side outpost of Trinity parish. Potter & Robertson’s winning design stood for just forty-nine years, but Wood’s proposal lives on in the pages of the American Architect & Building News. I sought it out and reproduced its plan here; what isn’t here yet is my graphic analysis of its underlying proportions; the abstractions that reveal Wood’s aesthetic, as well as the substantial masonry piers that would have supported its massive central lantern.
Drawings like this are a revelation because they show Wood’s reliance on modularity and syncopated, sometimes spastic rhythms. In this case, it’s the bay spacing from right to left: A-A-B-C-D-C-B-A-A and an errant “C” that is only apparent from the plan (or God’s eye) view. The central C-D-C corresponds to the lantern that covers about half the nave seating. The “B”s are bays outside the lantern’s square shape but which buttress it on the diagonal; that is, the C-D-C along the north and south edges of the lantern are the cumulative dimension of the width of the nave itself. Anyone brought up in the tenets of architectural Modernism will recognize the underlying rationality of these varying bay sizes. A graphic interpretation (as yet incomplete) will serve better than my word salad description here. Suffice (for the moment) to say that this scheme appeals very strongly to me and harkens to the mid-20th century masonry masses of Louis I. Kahn.
A section drawing would go a long way toward explaining Wood’s vaulting system, which may have been either masonry or wood trussed. But those kinds of drawings are far less interesting to lay people and are not often published — except in this case to give us a sense of his scale: Just how intimidating would the interior have been? The section would also reveal Wood’s buttressing system, which would probably have been internal and of a very different sort than the usual French Gothic stuff (a la Notre Dame in Paris). Here (and in a few other churches that were constructed) he seems to have preferred the relatively uncommon internal buttress of lesser-known cathedrals like Albi.
Any discussions by the building committee — their back and forth about the relative merits of each competitor — are unlikely to have survived in manuscript. The Potter & Robertson solution was undoubtedly cheaper; indeed Wood’s seating is so compact that his design may not have met the competition guidelines. I’ve done a rough calculation of the two rectangles that represent the pews and they are clearly under-sized for the program’s requirements. Also there is no indication of balconies above the side aisles, which themselves would have required more circulation than seating and have been of little benefit.