This observation has no statistical basis but, from my experience skimming American architectural journals coincident with Halsey Wood’s career, his works were published far less often than, say, Rotch & Tilden or Potter & Robertson, contemporary firms who were among his competitors. Wood’s design for a Queene Anne cottage for Orange, New Jersey (appearing in The Architect, Builder & Woodworker for January 1880) must have been among his earliest commissions. Wood was just twenty-five years old at that point and working under his own name for at most a year. So an analysis could reveal the nascent design tendencies and defaults of a young architect.
Queene Anne style houses, especially larger ones, tend to be rambling affairs. Since the client is unidentified and the dimensions of the site unspecified, we have to assume a narrow suburban lot. Yet despite its essentially parallel side elevations, this house has more bumps and grinds per square foot than many in my experience. I’m working on the design for an addition to my own house and can tell you that every corner, every offset, each oriel and bay adds to both the complexity and cost of the house. This would not have been an economical design — though there is no implication that thrift was a high priority for the unnamed client.
The “innies” and “outies” on the ground floor bear little connection with the rooms adjacent to them. The one major articulation that seems justified is the kitchen — the most likely place for fire to break out — which has only a tenuous hold on the dining room by means of a “hyphenating” butler’s pantry. Meanwhile, the projecting balcony and master bedroom bay on the front façade show no direct support from the porch below. In fact, I have a tough time imagining the second floor overlaying the first. Stairs and fireplaces help establish their alignment, but only barely.
Regarding style, his enthusiastic embrace of the Queene Anne implies a certain disinterest in the work of H. H. Richardson a couple hundred miles away in Boston but widely published in major professional journals. Or was style choice imposed by the client? Consider that the C. S. French house (also in the Oranges) dates form just six years later. Can you imagine a greater contrast?
Halsey Wood’s residential clients have been among the more elusive. Journals like the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide are a record of architectural and building activities in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area. But while exhaustive, it is not necessarily comprehensive: not every community required a building permit; the client may already have settled on a contractor, so public notice was unnecessary; the client may have wished to remain discretely anonymous; or it was simply a typographic error or omission. Yet it is the best source available, for houses in particular.
Like the substantial house for James Tolman Pyle, the Record & Guide for 18 September 1886 also noted another large single-family project connected with Wood:
Nutley, Franklin Township, N.J. — Wm. Halsey Wood has the plans for a three-story dwelling, 66×37, for Rev. Wm. R. Nairn, to cost $6,500. The house will stand among trees at a distance of 125 feet from the road. The tendency on the part of artistic designers to adapt buildings both in form and in color to their surroundings, is illustrated in the plans, which show pointed curves in the roof lines and colors that might be described as forest reds and browns.
Like the Pyle commission, no image of Rev Nairn’s house has yet been located. But here, too, we might not something from the notice: the footprint of Nairn’s house was about three-quarters of Pyle’s but the cost was less than half. Perhaps the lack of mention about stone accounts for some of those savings.
It is the last second half that stands out from the majority of building notices, which are normally a matter of public record and rarely drift into the poetic. For here Wood is identified as an “artistic designer” who has adapted his work to its surroundings. Clearly the editors of the R&G saw the actual drawings, commenting on shapes, profiles, and colors well beyond the interest of the casual reader of legal notices.
I regret having to report that Rev Nairn [1845-1889] enjoyed his new home for just three years, dying 19 October 1889, at the age of forty-four.
The entry for “Glen Alpin” at Morristown, New Jersey is still unresolved — in the sense that its appearance is still a mystery. I can report a few statistics, however, that should help put it in the context of Wood’s other houses of the 1880s.
In the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide for 18 September 1886 there is the following announcement:
Morristown, N.J. — Wm. Halsey Wood is the architect for a three-story stone and frame dwelling, 80.6×33, with extension 21×22, on the White estate, on the Basking Ridge road, for James Tolman Pyle, which will cost about $15,000.
Other than the building’s footprint, which is well over twice the size of Wood’s other published houses in the Oranges, the projected cost is telling. Of the several currency conversion websites (that enable you to know the comparative value of dollars in the past), only one was calibrated for the 1880s. So, plugging $15K into its memory banks produced the remarkable value of more than $37 million! If accurate, Halsey Wood’s architectural fee would have been substantial.
Both Bertram Goodhue [1869-1924] and his one-time partner Ralph Adams Cram [1863-1942] were pillars of the Second Gothic Revival. Both held Halsey Wood in high regard.
Twice in his career Cram wrote glowingly of Wood, once in 1907, when Wood had been deceased for ten years, and again in 1936, toward his own end. Both were brief but laudatory. InThe Gothic Quest [1907; New York, The Baker and ‘Taylor Company] Cram observed “…he thought Gothic as instinctively as the best thirteenth-century master-mason of them all,” and the “religious architecture staggered under the blow” when Wood died at the age of forty-one. High praise from someone who was himself a master of the mason’s art.
Writing again in his early 70s after a long and productive practice [Mt Life in Architecture (1936; Boston, Little Brown & Co.)] Cram’s enthusiasm remained unabated, claiming “For my own part I think Halsey Wood was potentially one of the greatest architects of modern times.” Here he echoed Lewis Mumford’s assessment just the year before (1936, in his regular column in The New Yorker) that Wood belonged among the founders of the Modern movement such as Sullivan and Wright.
“Wood, the Mason” ought to be a chapter in our projected monograph on Halsey Wood. Visiting his works of large or even moderate size, I found myself brushing against the stonework with my fingertips, hoping I suppose for some vibratory communication from him; it didn’t come. But I came to a far better appreciation for the mason’s craft, especially the voussoirs at St John’s, Youngstown.
Lacking any but the most meager surviving working drawings for any of his projects, it is difficult to imagine other than the most general indications of form and measurement, leaving much of the execution to the intuitive talents of the stone masons.¹ Would it not be fascinating to look over his shoulder during a site inspection, listen to his interactions with the masons, and then linger a moment to hear their own candid opinions of Wood. The only similar tale I can recall is Frank Lloyd Wright writing about the stone masons who worked on the first Taliesin in 1911: Wright claimed to read the patters in the stone like fingerprints, characteristic treatment of the material that he could identify with specific masons, long after the work was done.
¹ In 2001 I attended a conference in Toronto celebrating the tercentenary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) at the Wycliffe-Trinity Library of the University of Toronto. Many conference attendants like myself stayed in dormitories at the college where, during a break in sessions I wandered into the quadrangle and enjoyed a half-hour conversation with a Scottish stonemason who was edging a planting bed with limestone curbing. I mentioned my research on Episcopal (i.e., Anglican) church buildings from Dakota Territory and the construction of several by an emigrant Scottish stonemason named Maconochie. Both men, it turned out, were from Aberdeen and I received an unexpected lesson in the nature of granite, the principal stone in the vicinity of Aberdeen.
Arguably, two of the finest Gothic Revivalists of the early 20th century were Ralph Adams Cram and Bertrand Grosvenor Goodhue [1869–1924]. Those of us in the Midwest will know Goodhue as architect of Nebraska’s Capitol at Lincoln, one of three “skyscraper” capitol buildings [Lincoln, Bismarck, and Baton Rouge]. It is telling that both Cram and Goodhue had good things to say about Halsey Wood as they reminisced in mid- and later life on their careers.
Writing in November 1917, Goodhue reflected on the state of religious architecture in an article titled “Church Architecture in the United States: Thirty Years Ago and To-Day.” Goodhue was forty-eight and presumably at mid-career, but he lived just seven years more and may have sensed that he had something to say and had better get about saying it: his text began with the Latin phrase “Tempora Mutantur” (times are changing).
Speaking of church architecture in the 1880s while he apprenticed in the New York City office of James Renwick (Renwick, Aspinwall & Russell), Goodhue wrote:
In those days — rather over than under thirty years ago, alas! — the great names with which we were wont to conjure were Upjohn, Congdon, Halsey Wood, and my own ‘chief,’ James Renwick; and even though things move rapidly here in the United States, there are thoroughly excellent buildings still standing by each and all of these men.
In their wake, he also invoked Potter [E. T. or W. A.?], [Charles C.] Haight, and English transplant Henry Vaughan, “in Gothic, at any rate, a very much greater man than any of those I have named.” These were the “oaks” of architecture, while his own generation were merely “birches.”
Though Halsey Wood is mentioned in just the second paragraph, the two-page article presents his view on the changing architectural scene to which Wood had belonged. Their “gospels,” for example, were the writings of Pugin and the works of Viollet-le-Duc, “all we had in the way of authorities.”
Goodhue lauds the new materials of the 20th century which had been seized avidly by his generation, then goes on for two long paragraphs on the deteriorating standard of craftsmanship and the integrity lacking in material usage:
…[T]he underpinning of every New England barn was, as it still remains, exactly right; the stones, no matter how ‘random’ the masonry may have been, selected and placed with proper care. To-day all ‘random’ masonry is a sham, in that with infinite pains the draughtsman supplies the ‘randomness,’ whereupon each stone in his drawing is diagonalled and cut to size by the masons.
This focus on masonry as a predominant material of both the Gothic and Romanesque revivals echoes the observation by his one-time partner Ralph Adams Cram, who wrote specifically about Halsey Wood’s skill in understanding medieval masonry. I mention Goodhue’s comments here for two reasons: 1) his inclusion of Halsey Wood in these remarks is no small praise from one of the greats of the early 20th century, and 2) it encourages me to understand as well as I can, forensically, the accuracy of these observations. Close inspection of Wood’s church at Youngstown and photographic evidence of his Presbyterian church at Newark raises more questions than they answer.
Thought their “market areas” overlapped only slightly, Halsey Wood may have known the work of Philadelphia architect William Lightfoot Price [1861–1916]—Will Price to his friends. Price is better known for his late work in experimental concrete construction under the firm of Price & McLanahan, founded in 1903.; he remained a partner until his death in 1916.
Price and Wood probably never crossed professional paths. He was, for example, a Quaker and obviously represented a different theological point of view. Price began his career as draughtsman in the office of Quaker architect Addison Hutton, but subsequent experience in the office of Frank Furness must have opened his eyes to the possibilities of architectural eccentricity. Furness was among the most aggressive of 19th century Victorian Gothicists.
The Price building that caught my eye and suggested comparison with Wood is an 1896 design for the Presbyterian church in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.
Price may have received the commission through his wife Emma Webb Price, an 1883 Swarthmore graduate. Enlarged twice by different architects, the church retains all of its Shingle-Style Art-&-Crafts charm, especially the marvelously picturesque bell tower, which surely owes more to Furness than it does to Hutton. Its disproportionate relationship with the body of the church is reminiscent of Wood’s Church of the Good Shepherd at Hazelwood (1891).
Neither architect needed to have seen the work of the other; each of them is independent evidence of the picturesque tendencies prevalent in the early years of their practice. I pair them here to make that simple point.
PS (2016.12.25): Even better with ivy!
For those of us in architecture school in the 1960s, context was a significant design parameter, as important as contours, codes and climate. Sorry for the alliteration.
Design cues might come from a predominant material palette; from the proportion of adjacent buildings or of their door and window openings; from setbacks or the rhythms of buildings and the spaces between them. It was often a combination of them that enabled new construction to “blend” with its context. Is there a possibility that WHW was a contextualist? Let’s consider the case of Chattanooga.
St Paul’s church at Chattanooga is a clear outlier among Wood’s mid-size projects: Its Georgian tower belies and busy Victorian Gothic interior and the angled placement seems to have nothing to do with the city’s grid, with the cardinal points of the compass, nor with a High Church inclination toward proper liturgical orientation. The question naturally arises: What did Wood know about the context early in the design process? And would he have considered the context an influence.
St Paul’s was built in 1886, four years before its neighbor Second Presbyterian Church. Built diagonally across the intersection of Seventh and Pine during 1890-1891 from plans by R. H. Hunt, one wonders what Hunt thought of St Paul’s. Hunt’s scheme is its antithesis: aligned with the city grid, it presents a picturesque massing of highly articulated elements, varying masonry textures, a rich rhythmic pattern of openings, and a tower with its own attached turret.