Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Frank Miles Day's Byzantine Book

Byzantium's shadow is damn perplexing. So, you read about the profound influence that Byzantine architecture had on the late 19th-century. You can understand it theoretically, the moment you start reading John Ruskin or looking at H. H. Richardson. There is a Hegelian sensibility of process and becoming, there is a playfulness in the improper use of classicism, and there is lots of spiritual dazzle through color and surface. The 19th-century city is saturated with Byzantinizing dreams. But how did it actually work? How did architects with minimum exposure to the Byzantine world (even if they traveled to Europe) learn how to execute Byzantine details. Thinking about one of my favorite houses, Frank Miles Day's Francis Kennedy House (1888), I came with the following threads (see earlier thread here). This little house is full of medievalizing quotations from Germany (towering roof), Tudor England (bay window), to Byzantium (arched windows). Well traveled (see bio here) Day's sketchbooks and travel notebooks show multiple sources of inspiration that could be recombined with each commission. His most celebrated public buildings--Penn Museum, Baptist Publication Building, Art Club of Philadelphia--show no shortage of compositional freedom.

This is how Patricia L Heintzelman Keebler describes the configuring process, in what remains the definitive study of Frank Miles Day, her 1980 Delaware dissertation “The Life and Work of Frank Miles Day," (Wilmington, Del.), p. 135:

House of Edward R. Wood, commissioned Nov 1888. 245-47 S 17th St, four-story brick residence with English red sandstone trim. “As in the Arts Club, designed a few months earlier, there is a combination of eclectic references here rather than a simple model. In fact, the early Renaissance decorative motifs, were probably inspired by the Art Club. Elements from the large houses of Nuremberg and Regensburg are also present, especially in the dramatic shed-roof dormers that appeared so often in Day’s sketches. Other references to Tudor and Jacobean houses can be seen in the prominent chimneys, rectangular bays, and Gothic mullioned windows. There is probably a debt to the Norman Shaw Queen Anne style, as well, in the irregular size and picturesque variation of the windows and arched openings. Day was familiar with all of these eclectic styles, but he did no directly copy any of them.”

But what about elements that could not be reconfigured in some general mode. What about the details? the moldings? and the ornament? How did Frank Miles Day design the clearly Byzantine ornament on the sandstone block below the springing of the large arch of the first floor? The answer is simple, Arne Dehli's Selections of Byzantine Ornament, published in New York in 1890, and found in Frank Miles Day's library. It came in two volumes and it offered folio after folio of Byzantine ornament derived predominantly from Venice (vol. 1) and Ravenna (vol. 2). My sketch, below, copies Dehli's pl. 33 that illustrates the acanthus foliage in the hexagonal altar in the nave of St. Mark's in Venice. Without any words or interpretive histories, this volume offered over 100 possibilities from which the designer could innovate. Over 100 plates illustrate the tensions between grapes, acanthus leaves and flowers, infinite variations of twists and turns. This is why Ruskin loved Byzantium. As a civilization it had loosed up the Corinthian order and reconfigured it in an ever-ending number of combinations, precisely what the 19th-century architect needed to do for himself.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Hidden Tension: Furness's Hockley House

Michael Lewis has shown us that the genius of Frank Furness was most provocatively unleashed in 1875 at the Thomas Hockley House (235 S 21st St). Lewis gives a brilliant reading of the significance of the house's corner porch in Architecture of the Violent Mind. I made a pilgrimage to the house and looked a bit more closely. It is an amazing composition, indeed. Looking closely at the juncture between the provocative tympanum and the columns, I noticed something that I haven't seen in the scholarly literature. The dramatic tympanum is raised above the springing of the supporting arch by a few inches. This gives it a sense of levitation that counterbalances the piece's heaviness. But if it does not rest on the springing, how is this massive block supported?

If one looks closely to the underside of the tympanum, one notices three grooves that seem like a tri-partite stone moulding. The middle groove, however, is just slightly darker. At closer inspection, it is clear that it is not stone at all, but rather an iron beam in tension inserted in the intrados of the arch. That's how the tympanum is supported. I returned with my camera to take a close up of that detail.


I include here a photo of the Hockley House porch for those that have never seen it.

In previous posts, I have been tracing the steel beam vernacular in Philadelphia (and in Greece) see here. The tension rod here adds another wonderful piece to the discussion. Soon after using exposed steel beams in his Broad Street Station, Furness used it in a house around the corner, which I will discuss later.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Futurism 1876: The Machine Gun

Believe it or not, FUTURISM began in Philadelphia on April 20, 1876, when the Reverend William Henry Furness gave the dedication speech for the opening of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, designed by his son Frank. The Unitarian Reverend Furness was an intellectual of great repute among figures like Emerson and Whitman. What is amazing about his speech is the notion of TERRIBLE BEAUTY emerging from the mechanical killing of the Civil War and articulated for the first time in his son's architecture. Michael J. Lewis discusses this important passage in, Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind (New York, 2001) p. 123. It was first published in the Philadelphia Inquirer (April 20, 1876).

"In popular speech we distinguish the beautiful arts from the useful. It is a distinction in hardly anything more than a name. What mortal thing is so useful as beauty? It is eternal joy. It feeds as instinctive insatiable hunger. And, on the other hand, how beautiful is use! Fitness is beauty. I was shown the other day, at Fortress Monroe, a Gatling gun, an instrument of death, discharging two hundred bullets a minute, and yet what a terrible beauty there was in the exquisite contrivance by which a man could sit at his ease, and by turning a crank, sweep away files of men."

Friday, January 11, 2013

Frank Miles Day Surprises

Michael Lewis' Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind has got to be one of the best written architectural biographies. I was engrossed in ch. 5, which reveals the big bang of the exposed steel frame, when it was time to walk home. On my way, I decided to swing by the Thomas Hockley House, which in ch. 5, revolutionizes American architecture.

But on my way to 21st St.,  I was captivated by a highly romantic row house on 1922 Spruce St. I had to quickly sketch it, if only to remember the salient elements. The same thing had happened to me a few weeks ago  on 17th and Latimer Sts, amidst of Christmas shopping. With freezing hands, I doodled the basic elements.

As it turns out, both were designed by Frank Miles Day, a major Philadelphia architect (mentor and later partner of Charles Klauder who designed half of my college). Both houses are blatantly medievalizing, but have smooth monochromatic fleshy surfaces with material variations of stone, brick and iron. Both work with slight asymmetrical compositions and contain objects of medieval curiosity, such as niches, sculpture, or grills. My gut had placed them in the 1920s, and I was thrilled to learn they were much earlier. A web search led me to one of Jeff Cohen's Bryn Mawr Cities classes, a site created by student Alexis Gorby. The scholarship on Frank Miles Day is not huge, unfortunately. He's very well known among the Philadelphia scholarly community. His drawings are well cataloged at the University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives. Patricia Keebler's dissertation  is still the last word, see "The Life and Work of Frank Miles Day" (U Delaware, 1980). See also  Philadelphia Architects.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

Polis Pectoral

Congratulations to Amy Papalexandrou and Bill Caraher for their essay on the Byzantine phases of  Polis, the Princeton excavation in Cyprus, just hot off the press. My favorite objects in the catalog are the three pectoral crosses found in the proximity of the chest of three buried individuals. Amazingly enough, they are not made of metal or ivory but are carved stone (ca. 2-3 cm in size). What I love about them is their formal inventiveness that take the objects away from a singular reading. Yes, they are crosses, but they are also a whole lot of other shapes, too. That multiplicity demotes the singularity of the symbol and opens associations with other realms. I suspect that some of the grooves may have had some intricate interaction with the leather or cloth chain that would have wrapped them and held them around the neck.

Amy Papalexandrou and William Caraher, "Arsinoe in Late Antiquity end the Middle Ages," in City of Gold: The Archaeology of Polis Chrysochous, Cyprus, ed. William A. P. Childs, Joanna S. Smith, and J. Michael Podgett (New Haven, 2012), pp. 267-282.

Two of the crosses have been already published by Amy in the Curcic Festshrift, see:
Amy Papalexandrou, "Polis/Arsinoe: A Cypriot Town and Its Sacred Sites," in Approaches to Byzantine Architecture and Its Decoration: Studies in Honor of Slobodan Curcic, ed. Mark J. Johnson, Robert Ousterhout, and Amy Papalexandrou (Farnham, 2012), pp. 27-41.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Cavafy Came to Read

The year 2013 is dedicated to Cavafy. So, I dug up my Cavafy and, in the second volume of the standard Savides edition, a postcard dropped out, Robert Campin's Annunciation triptych at the Cloisters Museum. A little note in the book tells me that I bought in the summer of 1992 during my second season at the Morea Project, where my adult acquaintance with Greece began. Dated a year later, the card was sent by my dear friend Angela Volan, a fellow Greek American that also found herself soul-searching her Hellenism in the academic mountains. Angela had not yet decided to go to grad school in art history. After the Morea Project summer, she started working for a publishing house in New York. Angela in New York became my ambassador to the intense NYC rembetiko scene of the 1990s. Our conversations were filled with Greece and post-structuralist literary theory. It was then that Angela had her first heart surgery, the first reminder of her Marfan Syndrome, which  sadly struck again in 2006, but fatally. Sent 20 years ago, this card from the past hidden in the pages of Cavafty puts me in a Derridian revelry, and helps me remember dear Angela. Fred Cooper, the director of the Morea Project where we met, passed away this year, adding an extra dimension of loss.

I look at myself in a photo from a trip to Istanbul I took with Angela and Celina in 2001  and note my Cavafian glasses on my nose (see here). What does Cavafy mean to us? This question will get repeatedly raised during the next 12 months and it will be answered by all the requisite sub-categories of importance, a landmark in global Hellenism, the postmodernism of his alterity, his Anglo-American homosexual aesthetics and (probably to a lesser extent) his internalized colonialism towards the real Alexandria. But for me, he is only a crutch to occasionally pull from the library and navigate through the other sides of ordinary life, where boundaries are less defined, where there are no expectations of reason or clarity. It is friendships with Angela and, indirectly, with Cavafy that help us juxtapose Campin's sacred inferior domesticity with a 23 year-old reader in abandon.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Furness Sublimation in Tile

Ceramic tiles rescued by pioneer Philadelphia preservationist Penelope Batcherer in the 1960s, when the wrecking ball reduced two Frank Furness banks to dust to make room for the colonial fantasy of Independence National Historical Park in the late 1950s. Provident Life and Trust Co, once on 409 Chestnut St., featured interior tiles depicting naturalistic flowers budding out of a pot. The three green shades create a sense of lightness and abstraction very different from Furness more typical brights. There is an element of japonism and a delicateness more akin to Oscar Wilde's aesthetic movement rather than the Furnessian machismo.

The second tile was in the exterior of the Guarantee Trust and Safe Deposit Co., also on bank row at 310-320 Chestnut Street. More geometric and bright, this tile illustrates the psycho-sexual sublimation in Furness's work.

Both tiles belong to the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Athenaeum, where they are currently on display for only two more weeks. They are well worth the visit to" Face and Form: The Art and Caricature of Frank Furness."

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States