Urban – Ruskin: Week One

Ruskin’s Dissection of the Gothic:

Like many of his late-19th century contemporaries, Urban was influenced (consciously or not) by the ideas of John Ruskin (1819-1900). Ruskin was a strong proponent of the Gothic style of architecture, and his writings deeply influenced the Gothic Revival movement and Victorian-era architects on both sides of the Atlantic. Ruskin saw intellectual honesty and ideological agreement in the Gothic and identified six fundamental elements that expressed in the nature of Gothic in his book, The Stones of Venice, written in 1853. These elements are: (1) Savageness; (2) Changefulness; (3) Naturalism; (4) Grotesqueness; (5) Rigidity; and, (6) Redundance.

Ruskin identified savageness as a quality of the architecture that originated in northern Europe, as opposed to the classical architecture originating in southern and Eastern Europe. ‘Savageness’ meant a rude, wild, and rough quality that owed much to the characteristics of the people from which the Gothic sprang, as well as the climate and tribal societies in which people in the North lived. For Ruskin, savageness also implied deference to the worker (the craftsman) to which Gothic owed its element of “revolutionary ornament”; its imperfections in detail and design were preferable to Ruskin and meant that the worker was, literally, “free”. A society in which the worker was “free” was desirable to Ruskin because he believed that it allowed for the worker to have a sense of dignity and self-worth. “No architecture can be truly noble which is not imperfect,” Ruskin writes.

The second element of the Gothic, according to Ruskin, is changefulness. Ruskin believed that the Gothic best embodied this element because “great art…consists in its saying new and different things.” Ruskin identifies the pointed arch as an embodiment of this changefulness because it was not “merely a bold variation from the round, but it admitted of millions of variations of itself.” Third, Ruskin defined the naturalist quality as an element of the Gothic because it sought—in form and detail—to depict nature in its most rugged and severe state. Fourth, Ruskin identifies the grotesque element of the Gothic: fantastic and ludicrous and sublime in character. The fifth element, rigidity, refers to the structural system of the Gothic, and its activeness, depiction of tension, and expression of energy. Finally, redundance defined the Gothic as a style that essentially ‘wore its style on its sleeve’: its accumulation of ornament reflected the wealth of labor from which it was conceived.

 

Urban’s Evolution:

In the mid-1880s, C. Emlen Urban worked as a draftsman in the firm of Philadelphia architect Willis G. Hale (1848-1907), who himself worked in the firm of Samuel Sloan in the 1860s. According to

Willis G. Hale, Peter A. B. Widener Mansion, Philadelphia, PA (1887)

Michael J. Lewis, “Hale’s genius was to take … essentially identical rowhouses, with their mass-produced industrial parts and lathe-turned woodwork, and to make them distinctive.” To a great extent, Hale labored in the shadow of his contemporary, Frank Furness, but never quiet managed to achieve the originality or innovative quality of Furness’s designs. Hale was a Ruskinian architect in the fact the he strongly embraced the contemporary Victorian design language of his era. Urban, unsurprisingly, would do the same.

Urban’s Lancaster Post Office (later Municipal Building), 1891

Urban’s career, however, served as a bridge between the 19th and 20thcenturies, and his buildings reflected a broader movement away from the Ruskinian tradition and towards thethe classical Beaux Arts tradition. This transition occurred roughly between 1891 and 1898. While Charlie Wagner’s Café of 1891-1892 was pure Ruskin, Urban’s Lancaster Municipal Building of 1891 was his first Beaux Arts structure. To Build Strong and Substantial refers to it was “Venetian Renaissance”. It was hardly, however, invocative of the decaying Venetian Gothic that Ruskin so admired.

Urban would again return over the next few years to the Ruskinian tradition, designing the

Urban, “Roslyn”, 1896

Rathfon Houses in a Romanesque Revival Style (1892-1894) and Roslyn (Peter T. Watt Residence in 1896. Perhaps, however, Roslyn was Urban’s last truly Ruskinian Victorian Building.

Urban, Wharton Elementary School, 1898

In 1895 and 1898, respectively, Urban would design Jennie Potts’s Store and the Davidson Building in a style I would describe as “transitional”. However, by 1898-1899, with his designs for the Watt & Shand store and the Wharton School, Urban’s metamorphosis to the Beaux Arts was complete.

He would not return to medieval revivalism for buildings other than churches again until the eclectic revivalism (such as Tudor) of the 1920s.

Master Builders of Lancaster

Ruskin’s Dissection of the Gothic:

Like many of his late-19th century contemporaries, Urban was influenced (consciously or not) by the ideas of John Ruskin (1819-1900). Ruskin was a strong proponent of the Gothic style of architecture, and his writings deeply influenced the Gothic Revival movement and Victorian-era architects on both sides of the Atlantic. Ruskin saw intellectual honesty and ideological agreement in the Gothic and identified six fundamental elements that expressed in the nature of Gothic in his book, The Stones of Venice, written in 1853. These elements are: (1) Savageness; (2) Changefulness; (3) Naturalism; (4) Grotesqueness; (5) Rigidity; and, (6) Redundance.

Ruskin identified savageness as a quality of the architecture that originated in northern Europe, as opposed to the classical architecture originating in southern and Eastern Europe. ‘Savageness’ meant a rude, wild, and rough quality that owed much to the characteristics of the people from which the Gothic…

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Charlie Wagner’s Café (1891-1892) – 40 E Grant St., Lancaster, Pa.

Utilitas: Wagner’s Café was clearly built to house a commercial establishment. Its utilitas, for example, is mostly clearly expressed by the inset corner placement of the entrance. The purpose of this was to allow for ease of access—or at least to make the entrance to the building visible from the streets on both sides. Originally, this building housed a tavern on the first floor and rooms for rent on the upper floors. The different purposes of the stories are expressed on the façade via the large “belt” that surrounds the façade between the first and second stories. An cursory examination of the first floor reveals that this building was designed in the divisive method of ordering spaces.

Firmitas: As a late-nineteenth century Lancaster building, Wagner’s Café utilized brick because it was immediately available, commonplace, and (likely) fashionable. Brick also is the structural composition of this building.  Romanesque arches that flank the corner entrance are not just visually enticing and historicizing but also structural. Generally, though, this building follows the trabeated model of structure.  Because of the brick construction, openings for windows are relatively narrow compared to wall length and the building is limited in height (intentionally or not) to three stories. A notable exception to the brick structure is the iron post that supports the upper floors over the corner that has been cut away for the entrance.

Venustas: In many ways, Wagner’s Café is very much a historicizing building, stylistically. It borrows its arches from Rome, but its overall vibe strongly echoes medieval vernacular architecture. Definitively, Wagner’s Café combines elements of the Victorian Romanesque Revival and Queen Anne styles. In one way, the Café is predominately picturesque. The asymmetrical plan suggests a level of informality, while the severity in its proportion and verticality hint a slight air of formality—at least formality brought on only by the sublime, much like a Gothic cathedral. The feeling of the “sublime” arises particularly at the cut-away corner entrance: one feels quite disturbed—but at the same time, awed—in approaching the cutaway space that supports two stories plus a tower over it. The tower itself visually emphasizes this structural feat. There is a measure of “heaviness” to the façade of this building that is probably the result of what we know about its construction and the materials used.

Master Builders of Lancaster

Utilitas: Wagner’s Café was clearly built to house a commercial establishment. Its utilitas, for example, is mostly clearly expressed by the inset corner placement of the entrance. The purpose of this was to allow for ease of access—or at least to make the entrance to the building visible from the streets on both sides. Originally, this building housed a tavern on the first floor and rooms for rent on the upper floors. The different purposes of the stories are expressed on the façade via the large “belt” that surrounds the façade between the first and second stories. An cursory examination of the first floor reveals that this building was designed in the divisive method of ordering spaces.

Firmitas: As a late-nineteenth century Lancaster building, Wagner’s Café utilized brick because it was immediately available, commonplace, and (likely) fashionable. Brick also is the structural composition of this building.  Romanesque arches that flank the corner…

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West King Street 25-55, Lancaster, Pa.

 

25, 31 – This building is the home of the Hager Brothers Department Store and is labeled as such on the 1912 and the 1929 maps. It was constructed between 1891 and 1912. On the 1891 map, another large building with a similar—but not identical–footprint is labeled simply as a “dry goods store”. The post-1891 replacement building is labeled on the 1929 map as a “steel frame building of ordinary construction” and would date from at least 1912. This building is five stories tall and extends the depth of the block all the way to W. Grant St. This building stands today with a mostly unaltered King St. façade (one of only two buildings on the block today that stood before 1929) and houses several businesses on the lower stories, collectively named The Shops at Hager.

~ Hager Building:

This building dates from circa 1910 and demonstrates how far C. Emlen Urban had come from his earlier, late 19th century designs (for example, his circa 1895 Jennie Potts’s Building). The Hager building is a classic early 20th century commercial building designed in the Beaux Arts style. Similar to the W.W. Griest building and other urban American commercial buildings including those designed by Louis Sullivan, the Hager building articulates on its façade the various functions of its different levels. For example, the first storey is exaggerated, open (glass walls), and inviting for consumers. This is where the main, public level of a commercial enterprise would be located. The second through fourth stories are articulated as office space—the kind of places mid-level managers might toil away on a 9 to 5 shift. Finally, the “head” of the building—the fifth floor—could be the location of an auditorium, a restaurant, storage, executive offices, etc. In general, this building shares a similar composition as the human body with a foot, a torso, and a head.

The formality of the building is expressed through its symmetry, stone construction (over a steel frame), its Beaux Arts detailing (evocative of the grandest building of Europe, particularly Paris), and its overall classicism, which is suggestive of commerce, enterprise, and stability. These are essential concepts that the building communicates. Nevertheless, the Hager building is very much a “decorated shed.”

33, 35, 37 – In 1929, this building was the Hotel St. George. In 1912, it was the Hotel Realty. On the 1891 and 1886 maps, it is labeled, along with 39 West King St. as the “Cooper House”. Between 1891 and 1912, the building had an addition to its rear. It is four stories high. It no longer stands today; in its place, there is now a parking lot.

39 – In 1886 and 1891, this three-storey building appears to be an auxiliary building to the Cooper House the existed next door during this time period. It appears that a new building was constructed on this lot between 1891 and 1912. In 1912 and 1929, it does not appear to be affiliated with the subsequent hotels that occupied 33 to 37 W. King St. Between 1912 and 1929, the newer building appears to have gained a rear addition. This building no longer stands today. The lot it stood in is now used as a parking lot.

41 – The 1886 map shows a three storey building at this location. On the 1891 map, the same building is labeled as “crockery”—a place that would specialize in the sale of dishware and china. Between 1891 and 1912 the building underwent a rear addition. A larger building was built on the lot between 1912 and 1929 that was three stories high. This building is labeled as a furniture store on the 1929 map.

43, 45, 47, 49 – This building is one of two on this block that currently stands today and was built between 1891 and 1912 to replace an earlier structure.  Its first floor is currently occupied by Jason’s Clothing and Menswear. On the 1886 map, a tobacco shop and a photo studio occupied an earlier structure on the lot.

~ Jennie Potts’s Store: This c.1895 C. Emlen Urban building has an overall eclecticism that makes it, in a way, slightly less formal than a full-on Beaux Arts building but not entirely picturesque. This is probably indicative of the era in which it was designed and constructed: classical revivalism post-Columbian Exposition hadn’t entirely caught on, but the picturesque medievalism of the Victorian era was definitely waning. Notably, this building carries some Renaissance flavor, particularly in the cornice design, the window capitals, and in the small “porthole” windows. Like many buildings, it is decidedly a “decorated shed”—albeit one with detailing that is not particularly easy to define. Perhaps, this building—in a historical architectural context—could best be described as transitional.

51 – This building is the Hotel Manhattan on the 1929 map. It is three stories high and is conjoined with an “auto repairing” shop to its rear. On the 1886, 1891, and 1912 maps, this building was instead labeled the Sorrel Horse Hotel. Adjacent to the rear of the 45 and 43 W. King Street was a hitching shed. On the 1929 map, this shed has become an automobile garage.

53, 55 – These buildings on the 1929 and 1912 map were side-by-side twin buildings and each was 2 ½ stories high. On the 1886 and 1891 maps, a different building with a different footprint occupies this lot.  It was labeled as a “barber [shop]”. These buildings are no longer standing. Currently, a one storey, late-twentieth century building occupies this lot, which houses a dollar store, along with an Art Deco building that houses A&W Jewelry.

Post-1929 buildings on the west end of the block:

~ A&W Jewelry: This is a very interesting and bizarre little building. Immediately, it appears to be Art Deco. This is because of the “stepped” (3 “levels”) wall surrounding the corner entrance (if you look closely, you can see it) and its façade, which is covered in large (possibly ceramic) tiles. It is a “decorated shed”, but not a particularly decorated one at that. However, the color scheme is eye-catching but not particularly “beautiful”. If anything, this building is modern in construction and style. It was conceived as—and almost certainly always has been—a commercial building.

~ 99¢ Store: This mid-to-late 20th century building is the simplest and most generic expression of modern commercial architecture. In a way, it is a building without architecture or Venustas. It is wholly focused on its Utilitas; it is a building that houses a commercial enterprise and exists solely to further the enterprise at the lowest cost possible for the greatest net benefit to the enterprise.

Master Builders of Lancaster

25, 31 – This building is the home of the Hager Brothers Department Store and is labeled as such on the 1912 and the 1929 maps. It was constructed between 1891 and 1912. On the 1891 map, another large building with a similar—but not identical–footprint is labeled simply as a “dry goods store”. The post-1891 replacement building is labeled on the 1929 map as a “steel frame building of ordinary construction” and would date from at least 1912. This building is five stories tall and extends the depth of the block all the way to W. Grant St. This building stands today with a mostly unaltered King St. façade (one of only two buildings on the block today that stood before 1929) and houses several businesses on the lower stories, collectively named The Shops at Hager.

~ Hager Building:

This building dates from circa 1910 and demonstrates how far C…

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Urban’s Hand Project

A brief essay explaining the purpose of my drawings of several of C. Emlen Urban’s 1890s houses. This was completed for Professor Kostis Kourelis’s class at F&M, “Master Builders of Lancaster.”  More information about Urban and his legacy can be found in “To Build Strong and Substantial: The Career of Architect C. Emlen Urban,” which includes a comprehensive catalog produced by the City of Lancaster, PA of his Lancaster works. 

 

Overview

The purpose of this project was to broadly appreciate the artistry inherent in the creation of C. Emlen Urban’s designs and, in particular, the domestic buildings of his most prolific period in the 1890s.  I selected extant buildings that captured Urban’s creativity and versatility during a time when fanciful and picturesque architectural designs were at the height of fashion. Urban designed his 1890s domestic buildings in a wide variety of contemporaneously popular architectural styles, from Free Classic Queen Anne and Richardson Romanesque to Châteauesque. “Visually attractive, a well-designed house could also suggest the ways in which its owners wished to be understood by the public. For example, a passerby could imagine a family behind a Queen Anne front as being spirited and open-minded, one behind a Richardson Romanesque façade as being socially reserved but strong willed,” writes Arnold Lewis in American Country House of the Gilded Age.[1] The architectural design of a house can be used to communicate important social and political messages of which Urban, partly out of necessity, was keenly aware.

Urban’s designs reflected the prosperity of his clients and the booming economy of the city of Lancaster in the two decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century. As a result, there is a measure of monumentality to his designs.  In his influential book The Shingle Style, Vincent Scully attributes a general preoccupation in the 1890s with “public monumentality and great size” to “class-conscious pretensions.”[2]  Urban certainly was aware of the sensitivities of his clients, a group that ranged widely in socio-economic status. For example, among Urban’s clients was the fabulously well-off co-founder of the Watt & Shand department store, for whom Urban designed a palatial suburban Châteauesque manse, and real estate developers who sought to build modest row-houses for middle-class families that worked in Lancaster’s textile and tobacco factories. The aforementioned P.T. Watt house is, for example, markedly different in composition, size, ornament, and amenities than the Urban-designed row houses on College Avenue.  Nevertheless, C. Emlen Urban’s extant designs impress with their sophistication, balance, and artistic nature. I titled this collection of drawings “Urban’s Hand” because this was ultimately an exercise of sight and hand. The physical act of drawing forced me to experience to a degree what Urban would have experienced in his studio in the 1890s.  His preliminary sketches, not doubt, would have been quick orthographic elevations or perspectives, likely unmeasured, to give clients an idea of a design style before a significant investment in the creation of a buildable architectural plan was made.

Approach

After taking detailed photographs of the facades of each of the buildings, I made paper copies of the most relevant images. From these selections, I drafted the drawings. The medium that I used was a 0.7 mm drafting pencil on standard printing paper, and I used a ruler for some of the lines. However, I did not use a scaled ruler. Instead, I ‘sighted’ the images. This forced me to pay special attention to the proportions between the different exterior elements of the buildings, such as the spaces between windows and the masses of the tower or dormers relative to the mass of the building. All of my drawings are orthographic projections—a perspective that captures exact in anatomical proportions.  Ironically, it is a perspective that is also unobservable in the physical world. Ultimately, I did not produce a measured elevation suitable for a contractor or engineer. I instead produced a drawing that gives an observer a sense of the design for a particular building by capturing the massing, details, and overall composition. The orthographic perspective does this in an honest way because it respects the real proportions between elements, un-obscured by the location of an observer. For some of the buildings, I produced an “analytique”—a pictorial collage of the elevation and details contained within.  These details are then enlarged in scale for more precise depiction and then arranged in a manner that combines all the elements in a single architectural plate.

Challenges

While I at first planned to draw ten of Urban’s 1890s houses, I was only able to complete drawings of these six properties:

  • David Rose Mansion, 535 West Chestnut (1891)
  • The Rathfon Houses, 238 and 240 North Duke (1892-1894)
  • Rowhouses at 122-144 College Ave (1892-1893)
  • William Wohlsen Mansion, 537 W. Chestnut (1893-1894)
  • Elmer Stiegerwalt House, 632 W. Chestnut (1894-1896)
  • “Roslyn” (P.T. Watt Mansion), 1035 Marietta (1896)

Two properties of interest that were not completed were the Menno M. Fry House at 624 West Chestnut (next door to the Stiegerwalt House and also built from 1894 to 1896) and the “Paired Mansions” at 623 and 625 West Chestnut, which were built in 1898. Time was a limiting factor; it took me at least six hours alone to complete my drawing of Roslyn, over a period of several days. This gave me an appreciation, however, for the work of 19th century architect, unaided by modern computing tools.

Another challenge concerned the vast alterations that some of the properties have undergone since they were originally erected. The rowhouses on College Avenue are heavily modified: in most instances they have lost original porches, windows, and detailing. The Wohlsen Mansion also lost original porch columns and detailing, and the Stiegerwalt house is missing a second story balustrade over its front porch. While these modifications have eliminated some aspects of Urban’s original design, the extant buildings that I drew retain the most important features central to the original design. As an exception, Roslyn (the P.T. Watt Mansion), is extremely well preserved, and its interior and exterior are remarkably intact. Nevertheless, the modifications to the other buildings are a testament to history and bear witness both to the changing fortunes of subsequent owners and to the city of Lancaster at large. As John Ruskin asserted, “…the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, or in its gold. Its glory in its Age.”[3]

Lessons

It was an exercise in preciseness to complete these drawings; I was forced to confront the composition of a building through sight and steadiness of hand. This project gave me an appreciation for the artistic skills necessary to manually draft an architectural design, for the method in which details are proportioned and combined into a harmonious whole, and the satisfaction that comes with a finished product.

[1] Lewis, Arnold, American Country Houses of the Gilded Age: Sheldon’s “Artistic Country Seats” (New York: Dover, 1982), plate 79.  

[2] Scully, Vincent, The Shingle Style (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), 156.

[3] Tyler, Norman, Historic Preservation (New York: Norton & Co., 2009), 7.


 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Dutch Colonial Bungalow and a Queen Anne

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Two more

The one on the right is based on a house I drove by once in Bryn Mawr, PA. The one of the left could be any one of thousands of simple houses in the small towns of north central PA (coal country).

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Another original

 

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