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.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States