Column: Who killed the American Renaissance?7:22 AM Thu, Oct 29, 2009 | Permalink
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Illustrations: Above, Chicago's "White City," at the World's Columbian Exposition, in 1893; below top left, Dr. H.H. Holmes; middle left, Stanford White; next middle left, Evelyn Nesbitt; final middle left, Harry Thaw; bottom left, Walter Gropius
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What ever happened to the American Renaissance? Between 1870 and 1930 many U.S. cities improved their appearance with grand classical architecture in civic spaces. At the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, in Chicago, some of the greatest architects in America planned and built a collection of 200 or so classical buildings arrayed around a set of lagoons festooned with ornate statuary. Unfortunately, the buildings were made of plaster.
Some 27 million visited the fair. That number was equivalent to half the nation's population at the time, or about 150 million today. A riveting history, "The Devil and the White City" (2004), by Erik Larson, describes how the fair turned Chicago into such a seething cauldron of newcomers that it provided the perfect cover for Herman W. Mudgett (alias Dr. Henry Howard Holmes) to build a labyrinthine hotel with hidden, soundproof chambers in which to torture and murder at least 27 girls. He was America's first serial killer.
Prominent among the White City's architects was the famous Gilded Age firm of McKim, Mead & White. In 1906, its partner Stanford White was murdered by Harry K. Thaw, a millionaire jealous of an affair White had had with actress Evelyn Nesbit, age 16, before she married Thaw. The murder occurred during a song, "I Could Love a Million Girls," at the premier of a revue staged at the rooftop café of Madison Square Garden (the old one), which White had designed in 1891. It is unclear whether the apartment with the famous "red velvet swing," a feature of White's erotic frolics, was in a tower of the Garden itself or at a nearby building. Stanford White's murder by Harry Thaw led to America's first "trial of the century."
None of this may be said to support the proposition that classical architecture soothes the savage breast. In fact, that was exactly the case made for classical architecture, not just in late 19th Century America but throughout its history of two and a half millennia. Nevertheless, the two sets of murders described above seem to have bookended the City Beautiful Movement -- the American Renaissance in overdrive -- that arose after millions of visitors to the White City returned home with new ideas about how their cities and towns could look.
Last Friday and Saturday, a symposium sponsored by the Providence Preservation Society, the Providence Athenaeum and the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design examined the American Renaissance. I attended two fascinating lectures delivered by a pair of celebrated architectural historians, Richard Guy Wilson, of the University of Virginia, and Ronald Onorato, of the University of Rhode Island.
Both historians had a lot to say about the American Renaissance nationally and in Providence. Wilson noted its roots in feelings of cultural inferiority to Europe, and the desire among artists and thinkers to craft a genuinely American style. Onorato described how two leading Providence architects -- George Champlin Mason Jr. and Alfred Stone -- boosted the influence of their city on the American Renaissance through their writing and organizing as design professionals.
Onorato guided his listeners on an imaginative tour of Providence and Newport with architects attending the 1883 annual meeting of the American Institute of Architects. They stayed at the Narragansett Hotel on Dorrance Street, in Providence, and I wonder whether they rubbed shoulders with members of the Providence Grays baseball team, who billeted at the same hotel. The very next year the Grays won the first World Series, defeating the New York Metropolitans.
All of this was interesting, but neither historian had much to say about the demise of the American Renaissance, except that 1) the movement bit off more than it could chew, and 2) tastes changed.
It would supercharge this column even more to declare that I think the American Renaissance was murdered -- either shot in the face like Stanford White by a jealous rival, or simply smothered in a soundproof room in Dr. Holmes's "World's Fair Hotel" for the crime of being beautiful.
In spite of the plausibility of both possibilities, I make no such charge. The American Renaissance was suffocated and shot in the face, but no single assassin is guilty. The Depression and World War II suffocated construction and left cities a mess after 20 years of neglect. Founding modernist Walter Gropius and his Bauhaus mates fled Nazi Germany and were handed architecture-school deanships on a silver platter. They killed U.S. architectural education, first at Harvard and then throughout the nation, where most schools were fashioned after L'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.
[I would have added here, if I had thought of it, that the graduates of the revolutionized architectural curricula brought their revolt to the firms, the professional organizations, the journals, melding seemlessly with the nation's postwar Zeitgeist of "progress" through science, technology and organization. In the arrogance of their idealism (soon to fade), they were not above brutality in their politics of professional advancement. In this last stage the murder metaphor may reach considerable validity. ... Of course, what parts would I have had cut out in order to fit this in?]
The death of beauty in America over a couple of decades was in historical terms almost instantaneous. A revival could be just as swift if architects would re-examine outmoded and wrongheaded thinking that puts innovation ahead of beauty as the primary aesthetic purpose of architecture.
David Brussat is a member of The Journal's editorial board (firstname.lastname@example.org). His projo.com blog is called Architecture Here and There.