Saturday, April 30, 2011

Steel Beam Vernacular: S 40th St

At first glimpse,the floral detail on the left seems completely decorative. This particular flower springs out of a horizontal steel beam. And at closer inspection, the flower's stigma is a 6-sided bolt that locks two C-channel beams into the structure. The steel beam spans a large shop-window and supports the exterior wall of a 3-story building above, similar to the situation in 222 Chapel St. As discussed earlier, the language of flower-bolts was introduced to Philadelphia by Frank Furness. In addition to the Furness Library at Penn seven blocks away, Furness's firm designed a number of row houses a few blocks away in West Philadelphia.

I don't think that this building is a Frank Furness original, but it clearly imitates his language. This is most evident in the vertical wooden pilaster that supports the steel beam. Executed entirely out of wood, this vertical support braces the steel with the vocabulary of medieval architecture. Although less refined, it derives from the interior steel beam of Furness's Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Like his contemporaries in Chicago (Sullivan, etc.), Furness merged Ruskinian creativity with the engineer's innovations. The end result became a distinct Furness style. The hundreds of buildings that he designed in Philadelphia, moreover, transformed this highly personal vision into a vernacular vocabulary that now characterizes 19th-century Philadelphia. The steel beams are not always evident, but I hope the last few postings have helped my readers to see them.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Steel Beam Vernacular: 4010 Spruce St

An interesting variation of the steel beam vernacular can be found in a group of row houses at 4010-4016 Spruce Street, West Philadelphia. As far as I can tell from other stylistic features, the houses date to the 1920s. They fit the Garden City development of the neighborhood.

As with the earlier examples of steel beam vernacular, the upper floors of these houses extend above the porch, an arrangement made possible by the use of structural steel. As you can see on the left, the lintel has the outline of an I-beam but instead of the Furnessian bolt-flowers it features elaborate floral decoration. At closer inspection, the decorated lintel is not structural at all, but a thin sheet of metal. A damaged limestone capital on the West side of 4015 Spruce reveals the structural detail of the ensemble, which I quickly sketched below.

What we basically have here is a pair of I-beams that span the length of the porch. Four wooden beams (which are obviously doing no structural work) are inserted in the grooves of the I-beams. A decorated metal sheet (duplicating the form of the encased I-beam) is nailed on the exterior of the porch and wooden panels are nailed in the covered side of the porch and under the beam.

What makes this vernacular solution interesting is its awareness of the the exposed I-beams of Frank Furness a generation earlier. These houses show evidence of a development in thinking about the I-beam. My conclusions here are still provisional. I haven't established the exact dates of these houses to argue for a chronological development.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Steel Beam Vernacular: 222 Chapel St

Structurally superior to older materials, steel could facilitate larger spans. William Le Baron Jenney developed the steel frame system in the 1890s, which facilitated the Chicago skyscraper. In all cases, however, the innovative metal structure needed to be covered to avoid exposure to fire. A generation earlier (1850s), wrought iron had been used as the primary material for tall manufacturing buildings (e.g. SoHo Cast Iron Historic District) but with great risks for fire.

In Philadelphia, the incorporation of steel in the exterior of buildings was limited but interesting in trying to marry the old language of masonry with the new language of metal. A modest building in Old City shows the process of stylistic incorporation. The building is located around the corner from the historic Christ Church, at 222 Chapel Street. It is a four story brick building with traditional stone lintels spanning the windows on the upper stories. On the first floor, where a shop front would have existed, the vernacular architect has placed a long horizontal steel beam to support the upper brick façade. Although redundant, two wrought iron columns bring an interesting twist. Their capitals are Byzantine and inspired from Ruskin’s Stones of Venice (1853). In addition to its material innovation, 222 Chapel Street testifies to the significance that Ruskin’s Byzantium played in the creative development of American culture.

We have already mentioned that Frank Furness was the first American architect to unite the steel beam with the decorative vocabulary of traditional materials. Our steel beam shows the Furnessian touch of making a practical steel bolt into a flower, thus bridging the gap between new technology and tradition. Tomorrow, I will show you another great example of this floral bolt detail from West Philadelphia.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Steel Beam Vernacular: Philadelphia

The incorporation of steel beams in the visual language of American architecture begins with Frank Furness. Historians credit his Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1871) as the first building to use exposed steel beams and to incorporate the new riveted technology into the decorative language. This is evident in the PaFA’s interior galleries, where horizontal steel lintels are married with Furnessean capitals. The connective rivet inside the beam channel turns into a rosette.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been tracking the application of the exposed steel beam in the vernacular architecture of Philadelphia. The Philadelphia row house is known for its continuous front porch. Anyone that has spent a summer in Philadelphia understands the necessity of such a feature and the climatic allegiance that the city holds with the South. Although Pennsylvania joined the Union, Philadelphians were split in their allegiance to the Confederacy. In the 19th century, Philadelphia flourished as the gateway to the southern markets.

Philadelphia’s porches are structurally appended to the brick structure of the house. Made of wood, these porches are the first victims of deterioration and collapse. Their sloping roofs keep the water outside the raised platform but support no additional weight. I haven’t yet established the precise dates, but some developer in the 1890s had the following idea. If the porch can be structurally more substantial, then it can support a floor. In comes the steel beam. Using steel rather than wood, allows for the second and third floor of the brick house to extend all the way out to the street and increase the house’s interior square footage. The steel beam that replaced the wooden beam became a site of pride and articulation. The row houses that introduced this element left the steel beams exposed. Using the architectural language developed by Frank Furness, they juxtapose chubby vertical stone columns with slender steel lintels.

Like the almost contemporary examples of steel beam expression from Greece, this Philadelphia innovation reveals the experimental ingenuity of vernacular architecture. In Philadelphia, professional firms (like Furness and Hewitt) were involved in residential development. Hence the interface between aesthetics and domestic application are not surprising.

Although this is by no means complete, here are the addresses in West Philadelphia with the finest examples of steel beam row houses.

219-233 S. 45th St
4010-4016 Spruce St
4500s Springfield Ave
4500s Baltimore Ave
419-421 S 40th St
4305-4311 Locust St

Monday, April 25, 2011

Steel Beam Vernacular: 1910s Greece

Revealing structural material to the viewer is central to a tradition of architecture that begins with Viollet-le-Duc’s structural rationalism and culminates to contemporary High Tech. Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavillion (1929) marks the ultimate aesthetization of the steel beam, which extends into Mies' invention of the American skyscraper in the 1950s (Seagram Building, etc.) As far as I know, few studies have looked at the early use of steel beams in vernacular architecture. In this post, I will explore a phenomenon from rural Greece that illustrates the porosity of vernacular architecture. This phenomenon is striking for the incorporation of modernist aesthetics before those aesthetics were formally canonized. If you look closely at the picture on the left, you will note a gray steel beam between the stone pillaster and wall. Just above the left corner of the pilaster capital, you can also see a rivet within the channel of the beam. The picture is taken from the Old Public School of Arachova in Central Greece. In the next post, I will discuss a contemporary phenomenon in the vernacular experiments of Philadelphia row houses.

While mapping villages in Greece last summer, I became aware of one consistent feature in the elevation of public buildings from the 1910s to 1930s. Many buildings seem to have incorporated steel lintels and, more importantly, made this incorporation a visible component of their exterior elevations. An ubiquitous number of I-beams are integrated in the stone architecture of Greece. They are not part of a steel structural system, but rather assist in spanning large opening within a traditional stone idiom. Whereas wooden lintels or arches continued to serve the needs of domestic architecture, buildings like new schools or shops benefited from larger opening that could only be facilitated by steel. A closer inspection of the masonry openings in the school (left) shows that even when the openings featured flat arches, they were structurally assisted by hidden steel elements.

This material shift is particularly evident in rural schools built by Eleutherios Venizelos in the 1910s. They are typically built in finely cut local stone that suggests that the building grew out of the regional terrain. The stone is bluish-gray and finely dressed. A unified surface of ashlar blocks contrasts with the taut window surfaces and the steel lintels. Although they blend with existing vernacular traditions, these public buildings stand out. I would not go as far as to argue that they are iconic, but we must remember that mandatory elementary education was instituted by Venizelos in 1911 by constitutional reform. Since every Greek child was suddenly obliged to attend school, the government needed to provide requisite spaces. The schools are utilitarian in nature and employed local craftsmen. As architectural works, however, they communicate a whole set of new ideas to the local agrarian population. On the West facade of the Arachova School, we see two-story industrial windows that facilitated large luminous spaces that wooden could not have never facilitated. The tension between old and new is very interesting and an important expression of the dialectics between public education and local society or between International Style modernism and local solutions.

Looking at the Main Streets of many towns like Arachova, we also note the steel technology was also used to create large shop windows and expand the commercial character of the central thoroughfare. The steel beams here assist in dissolving the wall between seller and buyer and bring the transparency of Walter Benjamin's arcades to the mountain town. The picture on the left might be hard to decipher; it shows a shop entrance. Local building styles, like the segmented arch (stone interspersed with brick) or the ashlar pilaster (with rusticated surfacing), meet the new steel beam. In terms of architectural development, the steel beam is simply taking the place of a wooden lintel. But its visible manifestation on the exterior seeks to mark the muscular optimism of industrial modernity.

Some of the Venizelos schools have highly rusticated walls, a phenomenon that warrants its own study. Although vernacular architecture may be generally considered "rustic," the stylized rustication of 1890s-1920s public buildings in Greece originates from academic sources (Renaissance models, like Palazzo Medici). The Greek train stations were designed by French engineers in the 1890s and feature rusticated masonry of this sort, as do engineering projects like bridges and walls. A similar rustication was used in suburban villas (Kephisia, Patras, etc.) replicating European picturesque prototypes. Whether used in private or public works, rustication seems to trickle into 19th-century Greece via a European channels.

We must return to the steel trabeation of Venizelos' schools. With their larger spans, the steel beams allow for large window openings and effectively “modernize” the educational experience of teachers and students. School houses before the 1920s were exactly that, houses. A recently renovated example of a school house with a hybrid steel-stone construction is found in the prosperous town of Arachova near Delphi (above). Although I have not done an exhaustive study of this modernist incorporation in vernacular Greek architecture, it is in Central Greek that I first became aware of it. This is important because, unlike the Peloponnese, the bulk of mainland Greece did not join Greece until Venizelos' times (cf. Greco-Turkish War of 1897)

One instance where the publicly visible steel beam entered domestic architecture is the house of Angelos Sikelianos and Eva Palmer-Sikelianos (left). The house, which was built by funds raised by Palmer in the U.S., became the anchor of the Delphic Movement. Recently renovated, the house is now a museum and contains an incredible collection of ephemera from the Delphic Festival, including costumes woven by Palmer for Prometheus Bound. One problem with renovations is that you can not tell how aggressive they may have been. The balcony on the second floor is supported by steel beams. Greek restorers have tended to strip facades down to the bare stone. So, I’m not 100% sure whether the steel beam might have been covered (like the rest of the façade) with stucco.

At any rate, the incorporation of modernist elements in vernacular architecture raises a host of interesting questions regarding the international relationship between new materials, new ideas and channels of transmission.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Colonial Revival (among students)

While my 1930s Architecture seminar students conduct their research on the campus architecture of William Lee, we had a chance to contemplate a new colonial revival building that was just completed at F&M's campus. The New College House was designed by Robert A. M. Stern and adheres to the traditionalism of Stern's campus buildings, anthologized in a new monograph Robert A. M. Stern: On Campus (2010).

The Stern commission has already received some critical attention in the Chronicle of Higher Education, but I will not review the debate here. Instead, I thought I might solicity my students personal opinions. Over dinner at Iron Hill, we went around and shared first impressions. I am including some of the responses below, which were overwhelmingly positive. We then proceeded to read William Rhoads classic essay, "The Colonial Revival and American Nationalism," in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 35 (1976), pp. 239-254, and asked not who embraced the Colonial Revival as our national style, but rather, who had serious problem with it. As early as 1886, for instance, Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, argued that the Shingle Style is more appropriate for an American style (Rensselaer is best known for her early monograph H. H. Richardson). We then extended the discussion to broader contemporary questions, such as, the associations of slavery that an African American student might have with this style, or the associations of Imperialism that an international student from India might provoke.


I personally like the colonial revival style and feel that it is appropriate for the college to use. One of the attractive aspects of this style is the sense of familiarity and homey-ness it can give off. Often people who are looking at something like modernism get the impression of it being very cold. Although one might not be able to extract the exact references the architect was referring to when constructing the building, there still remains this sense of familiarity. One can recount the same design of columns and brick in our own towns or famous American landmarks. For the college student who may be away from home for the first time and in a completely new environment, seeing something as simple as a familiar architectural style can be comforting.

I think the new college house is an excellent example of colonial revival style. It truly does incorporate the defining characteristics of an elaborately decorated front door with a Greco-Roman portico and symmetrical arranged windows. The building itself is also completely symmetrical. After going on a tour of the building and learning that most of the features like the columns are machine-made woodwork I thought these building follows the colonial revival style even further. I think it’s an interesting addition to the college architecture and landscape. It definitely stands out but still in some way fits with William Lee’s original plan to put every building in a uniform style.

Colonial Revival buildings always made me feel very comfortable. It’s beautiful without being haughty, and has a sense of history attached to it without seeming too old. I think it’s maybe that Colonial Revival buildings are usually relatively simple in their design, but still have enough decoration to feel elegant and comfortable. Maybe most of these feelings are because I’m from Connecticut, where colonial revival style has always been quite present, but the style just feels very homey to me, while at the same time inspiring my appreciation for its beauty. I don’t think the feelings that I have are very unique, which might explain the continued prevalence of Colonial Revival style at colleges. If you have to be far from home and alone, it helps if the style of the buildings reminds you of your country’s roots. I’m not sure how that affects international students, but maybe that’s not who the college is aiming for.

The colonial revival style of the new college house is fitting within Franklin & Marshall College’s campus. Consistency of college architecture is grounding and can be a sense of comfort for students during a turbulent stage of their lives. This can mean that all buildings are consistently the same or all buildings are consistently diverse. Long ago, F&M chose to be uniform and is now bound to this plan, unless serious funding arises to create a more architecturally diverse campus. Even the more modernist buildings like Stienman College Center or Hackman science center were architecturally restrained to blend in. The Colonial Revival itself is very homey for native East Coast students where the style is prevalent among residential buildings. Those from a far who seek a little, New England, liberal arts college are well rewarded with the consistency of the Colonial Revival at Franklin & Marshall.

Friday, April 08, 2011


There's nothing like the plastic sound that my antiquated cell phone makes when I close its flap. My toddler loves to open and close it and occasionally have her finger stuck. I also love the sound my phone makes when I accidentally drop it and it splatters into three parts: the body, the battery, the battery case. Call me corporealist, but the iPhone is too ethereal. Back in 1994, Umberto Eco argued that Macintosh is Catholic while DOS is Protestant, but I suspect he has changed his mind about the analogy. The i-products are Platonic. They are everywhere and nowhere.

Michael McGettigan, owner of Trophy Bikes, has been a powerful force in Philadelphia's cycling community. He's also been a pioneer in the rediscovery of the mechanical world that once included typewriters. Last December, Michael organized the first "Philadelphia Type-In" at Bridgewater's, the pub at 30th Street Station. I cannot imagine a better acoustic space to encapsulate the mechanical past than Pennsylvania Station in Philadelphia. The even was repeated in February. Unfortunately, I've divested myself of all family typewriters. I'm possibly one of the last people of my generation to have taken a typing class in junior high-school. Watching the third episode of Mad Men, I also wish I had learned stenography, too.

The clicking and clacking of the mechanical world of literary production received a nice spread in the New York Times, and Philadelphia got the international attention usually afforded to Brookly, see Jessica Bruder, "Click, Clack, Ding! ... Sigh," NYT (Mar 30, 2011).

Bonnie Halloran

I haven't been blogging much about one of my major research projects this current year, an exhibition of Georg von Peschke paintings from 1930s Greece. It's been a wonderful project with lots of help from friends an colleagues. F&M is excellent in providing funds for undergraduate research, including a summer-long collaborative fellowship, the Hackman. Having a Hackman students is like having a graduate student for the summer. Halloran worked with me on Peshcke May-July 2010. She decoded Richard Stillwell's travel diaries from 1921, she transcribed interviews with the von Peschke's family, she interviewed archaeologists, she traveled to Greece, researched at museums and collections of modern Greek art, visited archaeological sites, and joined a field school that I started with Todd Brenningmeyer dedicated to mapping medieval and early-modern sites (Glarentza, Tegea, Taxiarches, Lidoriki). So far, I have blogged about neither the Peschke research nor the mapping project, but I do want to highlight Bonnie's profile today in the F&M journal, see "Rediscovering Forgotten Art," The Diplomat (Apr. 7, 2011).

In addition to being one of the finest students in our department, Bonnie is one of the most serious students of Arabic (and Islamic art) in our college. This summer, Bonnie received a Critical Languages Scholarships, a super-competitive award granted by the U.S. State Department to continue advanced studies of Arabic. Bonnie is taking my 1930s seminar this semester and she will continue working on the Peschke and the 1930s as a Mellon Foundation fellow at the Phillips Museum.

If any of you are at F&M next Friday (Apr. 15), don't miss the Research Fair. Bonnie will be speaking on her Peschke research. Another student of mine, Caitlyn Frank, will be presenting her research on Islamic aesthetics during the Civil War based on her analysis of two mausolea at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Colonial Revival 1930s

My 1930s Art History seminar is embarking on a study of William Lee's architecture at Franklin & Marshall. Shadek-Fackenthall Library and Keiper Hall retained the Colonial Revival idiom set into place by Charles Klauder 1924 master plan, but I hope that my students will reveal the buildings' subtleties.

At the same time, the New York Times Style Magazine announced a forthcoming exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, "The American Style: Colonial Revival and the Modern Metropolis" (June 14 - October 30). I was thrilled to read Douglas Brenner's review because it reinforced the premise of my seminar, that a multiplicity of competing styles enlivened the architectural debate of the 1930s in ways that traditional histories underestimate. Art Deco and the International Style were only two voices among others.

Williams Rhoads seminar article sets the stage of early scholarship, "The Colonial Revival and American Nationalism," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 35 (1976), pp. 239-254. Without a doubt the Colonial Revival exercised ideological muscle. It provided new points of reference for different people in an overwhelmingly traditionalist and occasionally racist tone. After 1924, a traditionally German college embraced the Georgian Revival style for its modern identity. The conservative choice has left F&M in a peculiarly apologetic predicament. Its planner, Klauder, was mysteriously fired in the 1930s. Some claim it's because the college discovered that Clauder recycled his designs for Penn State and the University of Delaware. F&M seems trapped in layers of copying, whether we call it appropriation or plagiarism. Its new college house is almost complete. A Colonial Revival Revival building designed by arch-traditionalist Robert Stern now towers over the college's north entrance. Its completion will certainly generate some discussion.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States