AMERICAN ARCHITECT AND BUILDING NEWS

LETTERS FROM PHILADELPHIA




 

  October 14, 1876
Pages 334-336





 

CORRESPONDENCE

BUILDING IN PHILADELPHIA

[334] Undoubtedly Philadelphia has a physiognomy. There are no quarters of it in which a New Yorker of a Bostonian would not feel a sense of strangeness. In parts of Arch and Walnut Streets, in Rittenhouse Square, and the like, a New Yorker would be reminded of the departed splendors of East Broadway and Bond Streets, and the departing splendors of Washington Square. Still there is a distinct difference. Philadelphia dwellings are not so “architecturesque” as the corresponding quarters of New York. The carefully wrought Doric order enclosing the front door, and the bits of molding or carving over the windows, are absent. The lintels are plain slabs of white marble flush with the wall. The old fashioned elegance is abolished, probably by Quaker feeling, into a simplicity, which is only bareness and becomes very tiresome. The one element of exterior effect, which is striven for in the typical Philadelphia dwelling is cleanliness. The marble stills and lintels are carefully pointed at regular intervals. So soon as a marble house gets to look a little grey and time-worn, it is carefully scrubbed from top to bottom, to the destruction of what little chance of ever becoming a picturesque object the squareness and flatness of its design had left it. Where money fails for the marble lintels, their places are taken by iron straps, instead of arches, flat or curved; or even oftener the wall is carried by the wooden window-frames. This limitation of the durability of brick-work to the duration of wood is very common; and the bad results of it are apparent in the older quarters of town.


It is to be understood, that in comparing New York with Philadelphia, [335] the typical dwellings are alone taken into the account, since these give the place its characteristic aspect and determine the total impression upon a visitor. The typical New York house is the brown stone front. The typical Philadelphia house has the red brick and white marble front just described. The brownstone front is “treated” by an ignorant man with pretensions and ugly ornament and no apparent intention except to make a show of expensiveness at the least expense. The brick and marble is not treated at all and the only intention of the builder and occupant seems to be to make a show of cleanliness. Neither purpose is artistic, but the Philadelphia purpose is at least not [illegible], and though it may be hard to tell whether a brown-stone [illegible] in New York, or a brick and marble square in Philadelphia, is the drearer to look at, the Philadelphia specimen is certainly less offensive. Moreover, the Philadelphia builder seems to [illegible] type, as the New York builder had. The style [illegible] in Poland and North Germany when New York began to [illegible], which Albany still retains examples, and lower New York [illegible] influences, through called “Renaissance,’ had nothing whatsoever in common with the work of Palladio or Serlio, or in conformity with the rules of Vetruvius. It was a real vernacular style, adaptable to all uses. There are no traces that show Philadelphia [illegible] used such a type, though the German settlements in Pennsylvania did; and the influence of it keeps Lancaster, for example, one of the most quaint and interesting places to this day. The Philadelphia home of today is not an architectural object, but it affords a basis for an architecture much more promising than the corresponding house in New York, from which a mass of extrinsic rubbish must be stripped away to get even a basis for straightforward fulfillment of real requirements.


In plan and arrangement the Philadelphia house shows much more intelligence than the New York House. The New York builder is a curiously greedy creature. If he has a lot of twenty-five by a hundred, he puts up a parallelopipedon twenty-five by seventy-five , with possible an extension ten by twenty-five, and a story across in back of it. This he does to “save room”; and he wastes the middle third of his house in unlit, unventilated, and uninhabitable rooms, besides darkening the back of his first story with his extension. The butcher, baker, and the grocer entreat the[illegible] basement door, and track past the dining room to the kitchen in the rear; while the main staircase rises from the front door straight into darkness. The Philadelphian builder stops the body of his house at thirty-five or forty feet, and then adds his extension some ten-feet narrower and perhaps twenty-five feet deep. This ten feet gives him a window in each story at the back of the main building. His staircase is at the back of the entry in a square well taken from the extension. The floors of the building and its extension are on different levels, making a well-lighted landing midway in each flight. The awful cleanliness of the Philadelphia housekeep sends the butcher’s boy up an alley at the side, to deposit his wares at the kitchen door; and the net result is that in really available room the economical Philadelphian gains nearly one-third, with the same extreme dimensions over the greedy and unreasoning New Yorker.


All this has nothing to do with art and architecture, but it has much to do with human comfort. With the archituresque portions of Philadelphia, there is the same trouble as with the architecturesque portions of other towns. The fine art of architecture is derived as completely as possible from the coarse art of building. People build houses in the vernacular and public buildings in an unknown tongue. The shop-fronts of Chestnut Street are, as a rule, quite as unsatisfactory as the shop fronts of other main streets. Mr. Fernbach’s building for the Mutual Insurance Company is readily recognizable as his, by anyone who has seen the Staats Zeitling Building the German Savings Bank in New York. Like them is a scholarly, dignified, and tasteful performance. The largest and costliest, and in several other ways the most noteworthy, is the new Municipal Buildings. Contrasted with the ordinary State House, and tried by the standard it implicitly appeals to, it is entitled to great praise and little censure. Compared with Mr. Mullet’s State Department, for instance, or his New York Post office, or Mr. Fuller’s design’s for the Albany Capitol, the differences in its favor are obvious and great. It shows refinement and study where they show coarseness and recklessness. All the detail which is selected is chosen with care and feeling. All which is original is scholarly and well studied. Where Mr. McArthur seems to fail is where he apparently undertakes to demonstrate the unlimited capabilities of expression in Renaissance architecture, as in some of the detail of the interior court, where parity is somewhat lost, and yet freedom not altogether attained.

Another lion of Philadelphia, perhaps the loudest after the Municipal Buildings and Girard College, is the Masonic Temple, One would suppose it to be by the author as Trinity Church on Rittenhouse Square, also a piece of Norman work, but I am told not, and that Mr. Windrim is the architect of the temple, is a pupil of the architect of the church. He does not surpass his master. The façade of the church is much better and more effective composition than that of the temple, in spite of its much smaller dimensions, the porch gives much more impression of depth and richness, and the arcade over it of intricate gracefulness. In spite of their admirable depth, the openings of the temple look shallow, and the whole front and flank flat and tame. Part of this disappointment is due to the material, a lightish grey granite in which it is almost impossible to get a sharp shadow, and affords a wholesome warning against that material; but executed in any material, the design would not deserve to be ranked above careful and scholastic commonplace. The same may be said of most of the Gothic churches, and not much more, in spite of more good detail, of a new Queen Anne stuccoed building in Chestnut Street.

By far the most important element in the recent building of Philadelphia is Mr. Furness’s work. Nobody would think of calling it commonplace; and it is so far from being scholastic that a good deal of it is hard to classify. A stranger in Philadelphia may be forgiven to attributing to him some things which are possibly not his, on the strength of their resemblance to things that certainly are. But it is so evident that has had much and multifarious employment. One sees business buildings, houses, public buildings, churches, part cottages, hospitals, all in the same handwriting and full of interest. There is a curious analogy, without any specific resemblance, between his work in Philadelphia and that which Mr. Mould has done in New York. Both are wonderfully fertile and brilliant in invention, with a keen delight in color, which sometimes make them forget that architecture is essentially an art of modeling light and shadows. One of the best things in Philadelphia is entrance to a hotel in Chestnut Street, which must be Mr. Furness’s. It is a brick pier between two brick discharging arches, turned over an iron girder, exposed and decorated, and the tympana filled with decorative brick-work. Considering how this problem is to really able architects, and they way in which is it generally shirked, this little thing inserted in a stupid front is a wonder in its way. But it not only depends upon its detail for effect, but the whole thing is itself a detail. There is not one Mr. Furness’s more important buildings which is not full of interest; but the success of them is almost inversely, as their size, and their strength in detail rather than in composition. An apparent exception to this in the admirable church on the corner of Broad and Arch, built mainly of the green “Chester serpentine,” so called, in which the “Ein feste Burg” motto carved over the first étage of the tower, supplied the architectural motive. But it is to be remembered that the type of a gothic church is settled, and with it almost all that is meant by composition. All the architect need invent is appropriate detail; and Mr. Furness is easily equal to this. Among the largest of his buildings are the new Fine Arts building, and a building for a safe deposit company on Chestnut Street. Both are admirable in detail; neither is as impressive as it ought to be in mass. The Fine Arts Building, in particular, considering its size, its site, and the elaborateness of its decoration, must be pronounced an architectural failure. Its lines are “pestered” instead of accentuated by its ornament; and it does not get the benefit of its dimensions. It is in buildings of moderate size that Mr. Furness is seen at his best, where the effect aimed at is of variety and picturesqueness, rather than of monumental grandeur; which is another way of saying that his best work is rather decorative than architectural. In the Jefferson Medical College Hospital (illustrated in No. 37 of the American Architect); and in a little arsenal in Twentieth or Twenty-First Street, near Market, a parapeted building of red and black brick on a basement of gray rubble is designed with great spirit and signal success. Whatever else, Mr. [336] Furness’s work is , [illegible] full of life; and the life of it would atone for much worse faults than it shows. It is altogether the most interesting thing to a student of architecture, to be seen in Philadelphia. It is the work of an architect full of spirit and invention, who has not yet reached the prime of his powers; and it only needs the chastening of its exuberances into sobriety and repose, to earn for its author a higher ran, even, than that he now deserves, of a clever, original, and brilliant architect.