Monday, August 24, 2009

Medieval Fonts: Middletown High School

Only a year after the Romanesque Revival fraternity house (earlier), we find a similar medievalizing font on Middletown's High School. The building is full of historical quotations and font styles.

Arabic numeral are an interesting class of characters because they lack direct medieval precedent. The numbers here are ornately curvy. The building's eclecticism can be seen in the inconsistent use of fonts, such as the two "HIGH SCHOOL" inscriptions both from the north facade.

Location: Pearl and Court Sts., Middletown, CT 06457

Medieval Fonts: Psi Ypsilon Fraternity

The Richardsonian Romanesque revival is evident on Wesleyan's campus through the Psi Ypsilon fraternity house. The main gate includes an 1893 datestone and Greek letters.

More Greek letters mark the north facade below the dramatic chimney
Location: 41°33'23.55"N, 72°39'16.46"W
242 High St., Middletown, CT 06457

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Medieval Fonts: Russell Library

The Henry Russell Library at Middletown was established in 1874 by taking over a pre-existing church building. Its datestone, a wooden crest attached to the two main entrance porches, has a slender, elongated and Romantic medieval font. The numbers thin out in the middle, enlarge a the ends and curve dramatically.

Location: 41°33'34.90" N, 72°39'08.48" W
123 Broad St., Middletown, CT 06457

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Medieval Fonts: First Congregational Church

The next medieval font of Middletown comes from the 1871 First Congregational Church. An inscription on the cornice over the main portal announces the parish's 17th-century heritage and its 19th-century building foundation, "1652 First Congregational Church 1871." I sketched a detail of "Church" above.
The script is Gothic blackletter and appropriate to the ecclesiastical subject.

Location: 41°33'36.24"N, 72°39'3.54"W
190 Court St., Middletown, CT 06457

Medieval Fonts: Blackletter and Uncial Scripts

Blackletter is the technical name of the first fonts used in book printing. Early printers like Gutenberg naturally replicated the latest available fonts, which in the 15th century were late medieval forms. See, for example, the Gutenberg Bible at the Library of Congress. Blackletters are the typographic equivalent of Gothic architecture and they correspond to the style's international spread. They were used longer in Germany and are hence associated with German books. Blackletters vary greatly but are divided into four basic categories, textura, fraktur, bastarda and rotunda. They are commonly distinguished by the forms of the lower case "o." Robert Bringhurst describes their differences as follows (and illustrated above):

"Though written with only two penstrokes, the o in textura looks essentiall hexagonal. In a fraktur, it is normally flat on the left side, curved on the right. In a bastarda, it is normally pointed at top and bottom and belled on both sides. In a rotunda, it is essentially oval or round." The Elements of Typographic Style, version 3.1 (2005) p. 266.

Bringhurst gives a few examples of modern blackletter typefaces. Chairvaux was designed by Herbert Maring in 1990, based on the Cistercian abbey of Clairvaux, founded by St. Bernard in 1115. Fette Fraktur is a heavy, Romantic font designed in Frankfurt about 1850. Goody Text was designed by Frederic Goudy and issued by Monotype in 1928.

Uncial is the other prominent type of medieval script. Uncial is a lower case used by scribes from the 4th to the 9th centuries. The script was abandoned during the late medieval period and rediscovered in the 19th century by antiquarians. Due to their pre-Gothic origin, they came to represent a Romantic, early Middle Ages and captured the imagination of the early 20th century.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Stone Monuments in Bronze

The late-19th century is wonderful in two tendencies that seem contradictory from our modernist perspective. With the advent of the industrial revolution, new materials emerged in every aspect of life. Molding bronze into traditional stone forms was one such innovation applied in sculpture and sculptural relief. Dyeing the bronze gray completed the illusion. The advantage of new technologies was their ability to out-due traditional materials in decorative detail. If new technologies allowed you to fill even more surfaces with decoration, so much the better for industrialization. The Victorian sensibility also had no scruples in shifting across material without any concern for honesty. Whereas each piece of stone had to be uniquely carved, the molded pseudo-stone could be mass produced.

During a morning walk through Farm Hill Cemetery in Middletown, I discovered something I had never noticed before. What I always thought was a particularly hard form of granite turns out to be cast bronze. Consider the Crook/Grosley family monument (above) , erected in 1884. It looks like a spectacular stone monument. Looking more carefully at its rusticated base, we read the maker's mark MONUMENTAL BRONZE CO. BRIDGEPORT, CT.
Bronze funerary monuments present an interesting problem. Family tombs served for multiple burials. Space was provisioned on the stone surfaces and the carver inscribed the names and circumstances of each new burial sequentially. But this is not possible when your monument is made by an industrial mold. These bronze monuments came up with a good solution. The inscribed panels within the ornate architectural frame are actually bolted onto the monument with screws. If you look closely at the panel of Oscar Crook, Ellen Crook and infant (below), you'll see three bolts disguised in floral design.
The Crook/Grosley monument has two sides naming deceased family members, but the remaining two panels contain visual images, a cross draped with garlands (visible in the first image above) and a classicizing maiden holding an anchor (below).
Although beautifully designed and contributing to the overall narrative of the monument, the visual panels must have also served as place holders. In a wonderful way, they are simply waiting to be replaced by a future family member. The visual message awaits for the text.

Location: 41°32'08.1" N, 72°38'26.1" W
New Farm Hill Cemetery, Middletown, CT 06457

Medieval Fonts: Prior Tomb

In an earlier posting on Wesleyan University's 1868 Memorial Chapel, I mentioned that the font used in the datestone is typical of brownstone funerary monuments of the period. This morning, Popi and I went for a walk at Farm Hill Cemetery, and I got a chance to photograph some of these examples. The tomb of Josiah Prior (1808-1886) and his wife Sally (1897-1856) is of the draped obelisk type. The names of the deceased are carved directly on the obelisk, but the family name at the base of the monument protrudes from a recessed frame. Like the Memorial Chapel font, the carver removed the stone around the letters rather than the letters themselves.
Location: 41°32'07.0" N, 72°38'26.4" W
New Farm Hill Cemetery, Middletown, CT 06457

Monday, August 10, 2009

Medieval Fonts: Judd Hall

Just a few feet south of Memorial Chapel, another building dominates Wesleyan University's campus. The Orange Judd Hal of Natural Science was built in 1870. The font used in its cornerstone shows slight variations from the font used in Memorial Chapel only a year or two earlier. Although Judd Hall's architectural language is completely Renaissance, its datestone carries a different sensibility. The simple bulky Civil War letters of 1868 have become more Victorian with redundant turns and wiggles at the corners. Note the extra concave curves pinching the numbers "8" and "0."
Judd Hall was one of the earliest buildings in the U.S. dedicated to science education. Undergraduate education through the early 19th century centered on Greek and Latin. Scientific education was considered to be a specialization and left for post-graduate studies. Wesleyan took the lead in 1843 by establishing a Bachelor's of Science. The New York Times reported on the buillding's dedication and quoted from the speeches (July 20, 1871). Judd Hall signaled a revolution in higher educaiton "to displace from their leading position in a course of instruction the ancient languages, especially the Greek." I found that highly amusing considering that my wife teaches Greek at Wesleyan's Classics Department.

: 41°33'18.08" N, 72°39'20.80" W
207 High St., Middletown, CT 06457

Medieval Fonts: Memorial Chapel

Memorial Chapel at Wesleyan University's campus was built in 1868 to commemorate Wesleyan students who died in the Civil War. It is an intricate Gothic Revival building with a date stone carved on the northeast corner, reading "MEMORIAL CHAPEL" on the east face and "1868" on the north face. Despite the building's architectural style, the font is not particularly medievalizing. The letters are protruding, round, blocky forms without serifs or ornament.

The stone mason has carved the negative space around each letter, producing a sharp image with deep shadows. Many mid-19th century tombstones and public monuments use this font, which is noticeably different from the recessed Roman fonts in more Classical buildings. Roman fonts would be sharply inscribed, typically on harder stone like marble or white limestone. The blocky letters we find at Memorial Chapel were commonly carved on the soft brown limestone, a prevalent material. The stone was quarried just a mile away at Portland Brownstone Quarries that, during this period, were deeded to the University. These famous quarries on the Connecticut River provided the raw material for the "brownstone" houses in New York City.
Location: 41°33'20.62" N, 72°39'21.43" W
221 High Street, Middletown, CT 06457

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Medieval Fonts: Public Housing

Middletown, Connecticut is full of medieval fonts (see Lettering project). One late specimen (ca. 1969) comes from an apartment block. The sign is about 12 ft. long and 6 ft. tall (6-in grid above). The letters are white and protrude from a brown brick wall to which they are fastened by metal clamps.

Formally, the sign is a brilliant graphic composition with three different fonts. The T of Towers crosses the Stonycrest and roots the design vertically and frames the upper horizontal edge. An ornate S frames the left edge and two floating tildes balance the second line. The medievalizing font of Stonycrest is of a distinct 1960s vintage. It evokes the spirit of a romantic Middle Ages. We find this very font used in the 1960 Broadway production of Camelot starring Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet.

The LP (above) was the top-selling record for 5 months and, moreover, a personal favorite of President John F. Kennedy (who was college friends with the Broadway's author). "Camelot," in fact, came to designate the Kennedy Administration. A 1967 film version of the play with Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave popularized the Broadway play even more widely. In some general sense, America's medieval revival of the 1920s (Tudor houses, academic Gothic, etc.) continued into the 1960s adjacent to the anti-historicist vocabulary of Mid-Modern design.

Now we must turn to Stonycrest Towers, the building itself. Things become even more interesting once we realize that it was no medieval castle but a public housing project, an eight-story concrete derived from the urban visions of Le Corbusier and CIAM.

In the 1960s, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) created programs of subsidized housing. HUD provided financial subsidies for private contractors to build public housing. One such company was Carabetta Builders, now the Carabetta Organization. The Carabetta brothers started their career by remodeling kitchens and installing porches in Meriden, Conn. In the late 1960s, they had established a company large enough to receive federal funds for large urban development. By the 1980s, Carabetta Organization was the largest owner of federally subsidized housing in Connecticut managing 1,284 housing units in Middletown alone. Stonycrest Towers was built under Section 221 and 223. Basically, the private developers built affordable housing for lower income residents. After 20 years of subsidized rent, the developer had the option of placing the units into the open market.

Although springing from the Housing Act of 1937, public housing boomed in the 1970s thanks to Section 8 programs. Public housing was invented through a collaboration of local government (impoverished cities), the federal government (HUD), and the private sector (developers). The Carabetta Builders had to create an aesthetic fantasy, a motivation for moving into such radically new domestic forms. The period's idealistic prism sought to create a brave new Camelot, a paternalistic social block evocative of the Middle Ages. Associations with both the Broadway show and the Kennedy Administration were hence deployed. While nothing in the building (except its verticality) relates to Arthurian legend, the text's medieval font creates a quick Pop association.

Below the fantastical name Stonycrest, we also find the name of the contractor prominently displayed on the facade. Inserting "Carabetta Builders, Meriden, Conn." right under the name ensures that both residents and local authorities will remember the building's actual patron--not the federal government in Washington but the local Italian American developer. Given the complex status of the building (half-private/half-public), the sign assures that nobody will forget the structure's rightful ownership. This is especially important given the 20-year clause of the subsidies. The sign guarantee that after 20 years of public connotations, the building would not be forgotten as a Carabetta product. Note, the word "Builder" rather than "Company" or "Developer." If we read the T of Stonycrest as an architect's T-square, we have a graphic representation of building. Like imperial dedications in ancient public works, or founder inscriptions in medieval churches, the inscription takes a proprietary almost legalistic role. It literally underscores the authority responsible for the bricks and mortar in perpetuity.

I don't know enough about Connecticut politics in the 1960s and 1970s to interpret the relationship between the Carabetta company and Middletown's administration. Knowing a little bit about the story of Italian immigration in the area (not typical for New England), I presume that the Carabetta Builders were self-made enterpreneus, products of the American dream. A series of articles in the Hartford Courant, suggest that the relationship between developer was not always great. In 1968, for example, the Middletown Housing Authority turned down the permit for the Carabetta projects due to a 1967 shakedown. On June 27, 1968, the City Planning Commission approved the controversial subdivision. As early as 1977, the Carabetta company was involved in legal battles for raising the rent in 11-owned housing projects. In 1992, they also sought Chapter 11 protection. These are only impressionistic glimpses that I've got from the Hartford Courant. Middletown politics are very complicated. Stonycrest Towers in sociologically interesting. It pithces the Italian self-made, hard-working immigrant community (and its associations) right next to the African-American impoverished population.

The medievalizing public inscription is a beautiful work of mid-modern American design. It needs to be celebrated (and hopefully preserved). It represents the complicated interaction between a federal stimulus package, a national Broadway fantasy and local politics.

Location: 41°34'07.13"N, 72°40'14.82"W
352 Newfield Street, Middletown, CT 06457

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

It's Only a Matter of Time

The Pyla Koutsopetria Archaeological Project has released Trench Sounds, the first archaeological example of podcast vérité ever released (to my knowledge) on webspace. The experiment sprang from Bill Caraher's interests in punk archaeology, in new technologies and in documentary theory. Trench Sounds is profound in its simplicity, like an Andy Warhol movie (e.g. The Kiss, 1963). Trench Sounds is a 10-minute recording of the sounds produced in an excavation trench this last season at PKAP, Cyprus. We hear the irregular percussion of the scraping trowel, archaeological interpretation, but also the serendipitous small talk that makes up the social space of a trench. It might not mean much to many listeners, and I suspect some may wander "so what" or even be slightly annoyed. What I like about Trench Sounds is that it addresses time. It rescues a mere 10 minutes of archaeological life. It enlightens the non-archaeologist but also raises questions for the archaeologist. Isn't excavation all about the exploration of time, in reverse sequence, in stratified layers and unstratified jumbles?

I know many archaeologists that have been influenced by minimalism. My two mentors, unbeknownst to the reader of their scholarship, have been affected by minimalism, directly or indirectly. Cecil L. Striker's meticulous method, his love for the abstract beauty of dendrochronology and the incisive excavations by hand drill, not to mention his architectural taste is one example. Frederick A. Cooper, a lover of Proust and Le Corbusier, once told me that John Cage inspired his archaeological directions (especially into computers). Both Striker and Cooper are masters of precision, both are craftsmen of a post-war America, a time when the U.S. lead both the realms of technology and the arts. Like their contemporary artists, they turned method into ammunition against the superficialities of American culture, its consumerism and arbitrary values.

But I return to Trench Sounds. Listening to the podcast made me wonder. Why hasn't anyone written an archaeological opera, or an archaeological performance piece? Alternatively, why hasn't anyone written an archaeological report where time as quantity becomes the manipulated medium. Consider the new opera Timberbrit, where composer Jacob Cooper slows down songs by Britney Spear and Justin Timberlake. The technique is called "time-stretching." Consider the production of Hamlet by the Wooster Group, where the 1964 TV version with Richard Burton is re-timed into Shakespearean meter, projected onto a screen and replicated by live actors (see Scott Shepperd's/Hamlet's interview on Studio 360). Consider Bruce Nauman in the Venice Biennale. Consider Bill Viola's deconstruction of Renaissance space with his time-delayed videos, or Gary Hill's fragmented utterings. And finally, consider Jeff Wall's 2003 project Fieldwork (above), which takes up the mysteries of excavation directly. These are only contemporary examples of the minimalist (or post-minimalist) tradition. Such works have not really flavored the archaeological mindset -- as far as I can see.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I would like to read an archaeological field report (not an opera, a play, or a movie) that intentionally speeds up or slows down stratigraphic time. I'm imagining a fictitious collapse of archaeology's double time 1) the time taken for contexts to stratify and 2) the time taken by excavators to peel them off. This would be a biographical, documentary and semi-fictitious genre. And I'm not talking about the overly self-referential methods of post-processusalist archaeology, but a work of postmodern literature. Or maybe I don't really know what I'm talking about. Trench Sounds is a work of imagination, a dream, a reality show, a fragmented experience that brings PKAP's field season into the neighborhood of conceptual art.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


The art of lettering has disappeared thanks to the automated fonts that come with computer software. Graphic designers and font historians have noted the utter ugliness of our contemporary lettering landscape. We are surrounded by signs, quickly produced without any concern for graphic coherence or physical context. The golden age of American inscriptions corresponds to the golden age of American advertising from the 1930s to 1960s. The television series Mad Men makes this amply clear.

I have started to look at building inscriptions more carefully. Middletown, Conn., like most American towns, is a treasure trove of stone carving from the 19th and early 20th century. As I take my 9-month daughter for a walk every morning at 7 am, I stop at buildings around Wesleyan's campus and quickly sketch some letter forms. I can spend a maximum of 10 mins. on each stop before my daughter gets bored and cries out for us to keep on moving. I am concentrating particularly on medieval fonts tracing their style along five buildings from 1867 to 1969. I must confess, I know very little about medieval lettering, as I have little technical expertise on manuscripts, for instance. Nevertheless, I am trying to train my eye on the formal differences of the letter forms and the following blog postings will hence be experimental.

Before showing some of these transcribed letters, I'll mention two books that I'm casually consulting to understand fonts. Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style, Version 3.1 (Point Roberts, Wash, 2005) is a fundamental introduction to the principals of typography. I am also consulting a drafting from 1929, a time when lettering was essential to architectural practice. Thomas E. French was professor of engineering drawing at Ohio State. His book, A Manual of Engineering Drawing for Students and Draftsmen, 4th ed. (New York, 1929) was used as a standard textbook from its first publication in 1911. For those interested, French's 2nd edition (1918) is freely available on Google Books. To understand the spirit of architectural inscriptions, I quote the opening paragraph from the lettering chapter:

"In a broad sense the subject of Lettering is a distinct branch of design. There are two general classes of persons who are interested in its study, first those who have to use letters and words to convey information on drawings; second, those who use lettering in applied design, as art students, artists and craftsmen. The first class is is concerned mainly with legibility and speed, the second with beauty of form and composition. Architects come under both classes, as they have both to letter their working drawings and to design inscriptions and tablets to be executed in stone or bronze." (p. 34)

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States