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Architectural Aberration

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The Architectural Record was new kid on the block when in 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.

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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.

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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.

 

Four in Newark

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.

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The built. The unbuilt. The unbuildable.

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.

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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-century masonry masses of Louis 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 of 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. 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 help.

A residence for Philip Gillick at Newark, NJ

The most recent addition to the gazetteer of WHW projects is a modest residence for Philip Gillick of 1889. Intended for a lot near the intersection of Second and Aquaduct streets. Google.maps has no idea what I’m requesting and an email to the Newark Public Library yielded a “perfunctory” response. But more googling took me to a Rutgers site devoted to map, hundreds of map, and many of those illustrate the successive growth of the city. Aquaduct Street has been renamed “Highland” and its intersection with Second shows nothing vintage 1889, so the Gillick house is probably gone with very little trail other than deed information.

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The published notice of Gillick’s new home says only that it was two story, 20 feet by 32 feet, with a 15 by 13 service “L,” hardly the sort of high end client Wood might have served in more affluent suburbs like the Oranges.

Genealogical sources tell us a bit about the client himself: born in Ireland in 1845 and emigrated to the United States in 1870, he was married by 1900 and had two children. His occupation is listed as “clerk” (a coverall that doesn’t help much) and his son was a plumber. The identities of his neighbors provides some information on the scale and “substance” of the area; most men were in the trades as plumbers and motormen, so this was a modest working-class neighborhood with few, if any, professionals. Though the building has disappeared, it does give us a glimpse of Halsey Wood’s practice at about the time he was preparing drawings for the St John the divine competition.

PS: Sanborn fire insurance maps don’t clarify the matter either. Here is the map for 1892, by which time the house must have been built. Yet is shows very few free-standing houses on Aquaduct (shown here with its new name “Highland”). An 1893 Newark directory puts Gillick at #355, which is the center house of the three-house cluster. Perhaps the matter is closed.

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St John’s Episcopal Church, Youngstown, OH

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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.

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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.

242 South 17th Street, Philadelphia, PA

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.

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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.

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Consider and compare these details of #242’s front entry (below) with a W. W. Lewis house in Boston (above):

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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.

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Wood’s Competitors: Charles Cassell

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.

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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.

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