Two Interpreters of National Architecture
ARCHITECTURE is not only a demonstration of art, it is also the epigraph of civilization ; and the succession of the historical styles is not merely a sequence of independent phenomena, not merely an alphabet of formulas, but visible evidence of the social, religious, and political conditions which have governed the progress of mankind. This fact, so familiar to us now, is one of the latest revelations of the nineteenth century ; the knowledge of it is doing more to make architecture intelligible, to restore to it its proper and peculiar function among the fine arts, and to rehabilitate it than any other influence whatever. Indeed, among the architects of to-day, the necessity of such rehabilitation and the way to secure it were not made clearly apparent until the true relationship of the art which they studied and practiced to the time in which they lived had been thus revealed. They discovered that if it was to be once more a living art, they must work in the spirit of their environment; must cease to be merely archæological or eclectic, and learn how to free themselves from the enchantment of their own memories. They discovered that the architects of the great eras succeeded in producing distinction of style by losing their individualities in coöperation, and that the development of a modern style adequate to express modern civilization has been seriously interrupted and delayed by the failure of modern architects to work together in this spirit.
The best that can be said of the architecture of the nineteenth century is that it has been an architecture of exceptionally learned, ingenious, and accomplished individualities. It has been an art of experiments which have failed, and of revivals which have been fruitless. These individualities, with their consciousness highly educated and trained, have been embarrassed rather than aided by their knowledge of the great achievements of the past. It does not seem to have occurred to them to appeal to the sympathies of the people by uttering their inspirations in the vulgar tongue, but they have labored with immense talent and ingenuity to interpret and apply dead languages. Their efforts have been reminiscent, excursive, and experimental. The architects have analyzed, theorized, disputed, and argued. They have formed schools, conserving classic or romantic traditions, — schools which have fallen apart because progress has been found to be impossible on merely archæological lines. Many of the individualities developed under these conditions have been brilliant and powerful, and have bad a great following of lesser men. As the century has advanced, certain of these individualities have been inspired by nobler and loftier motives. The architecture of the century, because it has been nourished in the same soil that produced the electric telegraph, the telephone, and all the other triumphs of industrial art, has exhibited a certain sporadic vitality, and, conscious of the universal energy, has occasionally thrown out mighty branches full of the possibilities of a great fruition ; but because it has not enjoyed the advantage of concentrated effort, it has not flowered as it flowered in the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, still less as it flowered in the ages of Pericles and Augustus. In the Court of Honor and in the other official architecture of the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago, we have seen the best that can be given us by a refined scholarship, by a learned dilettanteism, and by a skillful virtuosity. Rut this brilliant demonstration can hardly be accepted as the final consummation of the architectural spirit of the nineteenth century in America. The promise of such a consummation is rather to be found in the later commercial buildings of our great cities, simply because these have been produced under conditions of commercial necessity, and through economical and social forces which were stronger than the conservative scholarship of the architects, and compelled them to enter with doubt and hesitation into a purely modern held of endeavor.
Under these circumstances the history of the architecture of the century is practically a history of individual achievements. In no other era of the art has the personal equation been so insistent. In no other era has the architect been so constrained by the consciousness of his personal moral responsibilities to his art.
Perhaps the genius of John Wellborn Root, of Chicago, which has just been set forth in admirable terms in his Life by Harriet Monroe,1 is the most conspicuous and interesting as it certainly is the most prolific factor in these Plutarchian annals. The Life reveals the operations of an exceptionally sensitive and active intelligence, trained in the architecture of history, seasoned by the study of the masters, but peculiarly open to the influences of the present. It is especially worth while to consider the career of this man at this moment, because it presents a suggestive contrast to that of another architect, the pioneer of his profession in America, who lived nearly a hundred years before Root, and who practiced under conditions very different from those which inspired and perplexed his brother architect in our own day. This comparison is invited by the fortunate coincidence of the publication of the Life of the elder architect, Charles Bulfinch, of Boston, by his granddaughter.2
It is only of late years that the value of the services of this modest gentleman, in interpreting to us in terms of architecture the spirit of the era in which he lived, has begun to bo appreciated. He was born in Boston in 1763, practiced architecture in New England and in Washington, and died in 1844. John Wellborn Root was born in Georgia in 1850, practiced mainly in Chicago, and died untimely in 1893. There were thus but eighty-seven years between the beginnings of these two careers, but they were years of such unprecedented activity of development in all the arts of civilization, in the advancement of knowledge, and in the increase of resources that they seemed to bring about a radical change in the point of view of life and duty, and an immense complication and sophistication of ideals, especially in respect to architecture. Bulfinch, working in the midst of a community comparatively poor and provincial, unvexed by theories of art, produced in his long life of eighty-one years but forty-two buildings, principally state-houses, churches, court-houses, colleges, hospitals, and schools. Root, in his fruitful life of forty-three years, under the tremendous impulse of modern wealth and energy, was principally responsible, in the practice of the firm of which he was a member, for a series of buildings unprecedented in number as the productions of a single mind, unprecedented in aggregate value as investments of property, of great variety in style and character, and in several instances of a magnitude until then unattempted. These include forty-four structures of a public character, such as office buildings, hotels, churches, apartment houses, schools, and railway stations, in Chicago ; twenty - five of the same class elsewhere ; eight buildings to cost from $400,000 to $1,000,000 each, in process of erection at the time of his death ; and one hundred and twenty residences. These structures were complicated by conditions of occupation and use unknown in the time of Bulfinch, — sanitary conditions as applied to plumbing and drainage, electrical conditions as applied to lighting, mechanical conditions as applied to elevators and heating, structural conditions as applied to fireproofing, and conditions of new material and methods, the application of which to structure and design involved a fundamental departure from nearly all the ideals handed down in the venerable traditions of architecture.
For reasons which will presently be made apparent, Root’s work was often audaciously experimental in character, and, like that of his famous contemporary, Richardson, — a study of whose genius was printed in The Atlantic Monthly of November, 1886, shortly after his death, — was strongly impressed by the personality of the architect. Both of these modern architects, as men of high professional training, respected the traditions of their art, but both were so immersed in the tumultuous tide of life around them that they were but slightly impeded by the prejudices of archæological or scholastic conformity. The modern conditions of architectural expression could not be fairly met by any mere enlargement or combination of the great body of historical precedents which stood ready in their libraries to beguile and ensnare their creative powers.
On the other hand, Bulfinch knew only the formal, inelastic, stately language of the classic school as it was understood in his simpler and less spacious time; and there was nothing in the comparatively narrow and quiet life around him to tempt him from the orthodox lines of this form of art, or to offer any especial stimulus to his inventive faculties. His language of design was based mainly on the formulas furnished in the practice of the followers of Sir Christopher Wren in England. Of these, it is evident that his contemporary, Sir William Chambers, had the most marked influence upon his mind, and that the Somerset House of this master was to him a model of highest achievement. Nothing is more striking in the story of Bulfinch’s career than the simplicity of his equipment as an architect. His art was hardly recognized by his fellow citizens as a profession, and outside of Paris there were no schools in which it was inculcated. His father, a physician and man of means, and of unusual breadth of mind, proposed for him a commercial life. But when the young man, after graduating from Harvard, was sent to Europe, in his twenty-second year, to liberalize his education and to enlarge his views, he was far less interested in commercial statistics and methods than in the modern buildings, which he studied with sufficient intelligence to confirm his natural predilections for architecture, to cultivate his instinct for proportions, to correct his judgment, and to furnish him with certain simple ideals of classic form and classic details. His library was limited to two or three standard books on the orders, several contemporary English works, mostly on rural architecture, and a very few archæological collections. During his tour he collected a few picturesque architectural prints and measured a few buildings, among them Wren’s beautiful church of St. Stephen’s, Walbrook, and his papers give evidence that he made some special studies in perspective.
Untempted and unsophisticated by such affluence of literary resource as besets the modern architect, he was enabled to develop his artistic instincts in peace and prosperity upon the safe and simple lines established by the usage of his time. These instincts, thus guided and confined, were fastidious and correct, but they were not sustained or illustrated by any especial skill in graphic delineation, and, from the modern architect’s point of view, the few drawings left to us from his hand are of the most elementary character. But he was a man of sound practical judgment and of recognized probity and prudence ; whatever creative powers he possessed were always subjected to the correction of authority and precedent, and were thus protected from the dangers of illiterate aberrations or capricious invention. The letters quoted by his granddaughter and his own fragment of autobiography give few, if any, indications of a habit of architectural thought or speculation, and we look in vain among them for evidences of critical insight or study, or for expressions of enthusiasm or aspiration, such as fill the diaries and correspondence of every modern student of art. He seemed to be essentially a man of reason, cool and self - restrained, rather than a man of sentiment. As such, perhaps, he better commended himself to his fellow citizens as one to be trusted with the conduct of affairs. When he received his commission to build the State-House of Massachusetts he was but thirty-one years of age, but already he had been a member of the board of selectmen of Boston for four years. While practicing as architect, he was chairman of the board continuously for twenty-one years. Indeed, his qualities as a good citizen were held in such high esteem that when, by some unexplained vicissitude of local politics, he failed of reëlection to the board, every elected member immediately resigned ; and, on a second trial, he was reinstated by a large majority.
Meanwhile, his architectural work, adjusted to the conditions of a community stable and polite, but without great wealth or exacting standards of taste, was in complete accord with his character as a citizen, and was remarkable for purity, temperance, and an entire freedom from excess or affectation. To the eye of the young student of the present day his constant sense of propriety seems sometimes to border on prudery ; but if his play of fancy found abundant scope in an occasional and somewhat reluctant indulgence in the conventional garland or urn of the style which he followed, it must be admitted that he thoroughly understood and respected its formulas of detail and proportion, and never disobeyed its rules.
It is important to observe that in those days the public mind had not been debauched, as is now the case, by a profuse banquet of conflicting styles which it could not assimilate or digest. The true meaning and value of Greek architecture had not been revealed; Gothic architecture had not been analyzed, and as yet it had absolutely no message for the modern mind. There were no theories of the development of the historic styles, and no experiments in reviving them. The wild vagaries which, twenty years after Bulfinch’s death, constituted the vernacular architecture of America had not begun to disturb the dreams of the builders who, nourished by the simple and wholesome diet of such handbooks as Nicholson’s Carpenters’ Guide, developed in peace and simplicity of mind that narrow but highly respectable and consistent system of forms which our students are now conscientiously measuring, and our architects carefully imitating with all the respect due to “ the Old Colonial.” This style, if it may be so called, commends itself to us because it took shape without affectation while adjusting itself to the social requirements of the time. Its highest aim was to be scholastically “correct,” and it was “ correct ” whether applied to the stately mansion of a New England merchant or Virginia planter, or to the porch of the humblest farmhouse.
Bulfinch, having studied modern architecture in England and France, and having observed the works of the Italian masters in northern Italy in his hurried tour, was in position to make a valuable contribution towards the correction of the provincial element in the Old Colonial, and he made this correction with such modesty, discretion, and dignity that in these modern days we cannot witness the desecration or disappearance of any of his few remaining works, so unaffected, so impersonal, so expressive of the spirit of his time, without a pang of regret. For the qualities which were great enough and rare enough to distinguish them above all the other works of his time and country are qualities particularly refreshing to the modern architectural mind, perplexed as it is by a multitude of conflicting ideas, sophisticated as it is by theories of design, and dissatisfied as it is because these theories fail in their application to practice.
Owing to the necessities of rigid economy which he was compelled to observe, nearly all of Bulfinch’s works are simple to bareness ; and yet no modern attempt to enrich them has made them better works of art, and no attempt has been made to enlarge or extend them, as in the Massachusetts General Hospital, without detriment to their harmony of proportion. Thus, the modern student, in the midst of his studies of architectural magnificence and luxury, can learn and is learning from these modest buildings what difficult and almost unattainable virtues may be concealed in simplicity. Though these works give evidence of natural taste informed by observation and corrected by study rather than of genius or inspiration, though they are decent and orderly rather than ingenious or original, they contain the essential elements of good architecture, and justify the assumption that Bulfinch needed only the opportunity to produce work equal to the best contemporary monuments of his time in England or America.
When at last in 1818 he was summoned to Washington to complete the work of Thornton and Latrobe on the national Capitol, he accepted the large responsibilities with a reluctance due, not to a want of confidence in his abilities, but to an honorable fear lest, in supplanting Latrobe, he should seem in any way to be interfering with the just rights of his predecessor. Unfortunately, the main architectural features of this great building had been settled before his work began. But to him must be credited the great western central portico, and the steps and terraces which form the monumental approach on that side : and these may be accepted as the best features of the original central building of the Capitol.
The good taste and discretion which Miss Bulfinch has exhibited in uncovering this modest but honorable and useful career to the light of modern days are what might have been expected from the granddaughter of such a man. We recognize in his life a refreshing aroma of old-fashioned precision and domesticity, and incidentally it is an interesting revelation of the conditions of society in Boston and Washington in the early years of the century. The illustrations of his works are adequate to explain the high esteem in which they are held not only by all who love architecture as an art, but by those who are able to recognize in their characteristic and unconscious variations from the canonical forms of the Old World the promise and potentiality of a new civilization.
Bulfinch’s career as an architect had closed when the town of Chicago was thought worthy of incorporation as a city. Twenty-eight years after his death, it was the second city of the Union, and the scene of the beginning of the career of John Wellborn Root. There is a significance in this transition from the respectable tranquillity of Boston when the elder architect, the pioneer of his profession in America, was practicing his art with a serenity born of the simplicity of the conditions around him and of the entire absence of a competitor, to the prosperous confusion of Chicago when the new firm of Burnham & Root were challenging the irrepressible and strenuous world around them for employment. In the intervening years, more full of human experience than cycles of Cathay, new ideals had arisen, and, by a series of vain experiments, architecture, which had fallen behind in the race, was seeking recognition as one of the essential attributes of civilization. But it was no longer an art of formulas, punctilious, academic, absolute ; it had thrown off the despotism of classic traditions, and had attempted revivals of every style which had made an impression on the history of architecture. Though the classic formulas still served as the basis of professional training, they were rarely respected in practice ; mediæval archæology had tempted the student away from discipline, and he was amusing himself with travesties of every known demonstration of romantic art. He had become either a learned architectural agnostic or an eclectic virtuoso without solid convictions. Meanwhile, technical skill had advanced prodigiously, and the ingenuity and inventive powers of the architects were taxed to the utmost by the exactions of practical requirements which seemed to make the practice of an academic art impossible.
Root found himself in the midst of a conflict of faiths without fixed ideals, and at the mercy of transient fashions and capricious revivals. This was especially true in the tempestuous West, where the stimulus of immense opportunities and the noise of an unprecedented industrial activity were singularly unfavorable to serious thought and scholarly reserve. The architectural demonstrations of this era in the West were for the most part in a condition of illiterate anarchy, forming, however, a recognizable vernacular, of which the only good characteristic was that it adjusted itself without resistance to the fulfillment of practical needs. But this state of things could not last among an ambitious people, anxious to wear all the insignia of high civilization. This vernacular art prevailed only through a time of expectant probation, and there were not wanting certain trained intelligences eager to give to this abundant but disorderly vitality a direction toward a truer and more worthy art. Among these the young firm of Burnham & Root was destined to be preëminent.
It was the good fortune of Root to be dedicated to art even from his birth, and he speedily developed an intelligence singularly alert and warmly sympathetic with every demonstration of beauty in nature and art. The gradual unfolding of the flower of his mind under influences of nature rather than of books is set forth in his Life by Miss Monroe with all the literary skill which we have a right to expect from a poet, and all the affectionate detail which is natural to one so nearly associated with the most active part of Root’s career. Yet the narrative is not too redundant, and little is said which is not essential to the proper comprehension of the growth of a vigorous mind from a youth joyous and sunny to a manhood full of sweetness and light. It does not need the success which finally crowned his career to justify even the two hundred and eighty pages of this story. From a psychological point of view alone, it was worth writing as a study of the development of character. But our immediate concern relates only to the professional side of this interesting personality, because it was destined to become a notable force in what we believe will presently he recognized as an important transition in the history at least of American architecture.
His education, unlike that of the very few men in his profession who may dispute preëminence with him, was not academic, and when his instincts first turned him seriously to this art, he did not enjoy the inestimable advantages of education in a properly equipped school of architecture. He was not even studious as a youth. His love of art was inspired by nature ; it was kept from going astray by his own strong intelligence ; and it was instructed far more by independent observation and experience than by careful preliminary training. Every form of art was welcomed by him with eager instinctive appreciation, and his creative longings found relief and expression in music and painting nearly as happily as in architecture. In mind and body alike he was healthy and powerful, and his physical and mental qualities were in complete accord, one aiding the other.
From his home in Georgia he was sent to school in England during the desolation of the war for the Union, the steamer which conveyed him running the blockade of Wilmington, North Carolina. Here he remained two years, and passed the examinations for Oxford ; but he did not matriculate there. On his return to the United States after the war he entered the University of the City of New York, where, as if to counteract the obvious dangers of his innate romantic liberalism, he devoted himself to the most exact of the sciences and took the strict engineering course, graduating with the highest honors in 1869. Here, as elsewhere, his active mind imbibed knowledge by intuition rather than by effort; here, as elsewhere, he was confessed a natural leader, and drew all hearts to him in affection by the ardor of his sympathies, and all minds to him in admiration by the versatility of his genius. While in New York he passed one year as student in the office of Mr. Renwick, where his natural taste for romantic forms of art was stimulated and informed, and another year in the office of Mr. Snook, where he obtained a certain amount of practical experience and some small training, perhaps, in classic art. With this meagre technical outfit, but with a heart of healthy virile ambition, he went to Chicago a few weeks after the great fire, and entered the office of Carter, Drake & Wright. Here he met Burnham, and in 1873 was prompted to enter with him into that fortunate partnership of mind and heart which was destined to be profitable not to them only, but, in a far larger sense, to the advancement of an architecture adequate to stand for our new civilization.
These four short years of personal contact, as student and draughtsman, with the ordinary practice of the profession do not of course account for Root the architect. In fact, they were comparatively an unimportant incident in the formative part of his career. His natural genius — which, as his biographer says, was “ a happy union of invention and facility ” — might have made him merely a brilliant dilettante, had it not been combined with a mind of such peculiar sanity and force, such quickness and certainty of apprehension, as in some degree to balance and guide his ebullient enthusiasm without the aid of academic discipline. Indeed, he was one of the very few architects of whom it may be said that they were born, not made; for the education and training essential to qualify his natural inspiration for the service of mankind seemed to come to him more with the growth of his own observant intellect than from ordinary processes of study. But we shall have occasion to note that throughout his life the absence of a systematic grounding in the classics left him too free and unrestrained, too much at the mercy of his own moods. The delicate feeling for proportion and for refinement and precision of detail, which, as he himself acknowledged, can be obtained only from a study of Greek and Roman architecture in the schools, could not come to him as an instinct or as an inspiration.
Another essential element in the development of this man’s career was the fortunate influence of his friend and partner, Burnham, whose zeal, no less cordial and fervent than that of Root, was tempered by a personal force and by an administrative capacity which the world had cause later to recognize in the organization of the architecture of the Columbian Exposition. This warm sympathy and strong effectual support gave to Root the opportunity to develop his genius in peace and prosperity, and undoubtedly encouraged, protected, and chastened it. The activity of his inventive powers and the graphic facility with which he gave immediate expression to his quick conceptions often needed just that sort of cool, corrective judgment and discreet restraint outside of himself, which were supplied almost unconsciously by his partner. The fame which justly belongs to him because of the large results which he achieved cannot be diminished by a frank acknowledgment of this noble indebtedness.
Root’s work, so controlled, was the most potent influence in the elimination from the American vernacular style of all those characteristic elements of ignorant caprice, of vulgar pretense and lawlessness, which made it so hopeless. “Yet,” cried Root bravely, “ somewhere in this mass of ungoverned energies lies the principle of life ! ” This principle he undertook to set free that it might do its work unimpeded, and, by the silent but mighty force of good examples, he succeeded in obliterating all that had given to this vernacular its recognizable external character, and left only the hidden but germinating seed, — its ready adaptability to practical needs. Indeed, it was necessary to destroy this uncouth amalgam of forms, which really constituted the vernacular of America, before he could reform it; and he brought to this new labor of Hercules a spirit far more essentially American than that which had made the vernacular possible. He was, in fact, the most American of all the architects who have impressed themselves upon the history of our national art. His practice, the volume of which, as we have said, was unprecedented, was affected by no academic prejudices, no pride of archæological learning, no stiffness of conformity to conventional formulas or creeds, to prevent him from adjusting himself with the utmost frankness to American conditions as he found them, or from an honest endeavor to express these conditions in terms of architecture. Yet he knew the past thoroughly, and with all the sympathies of his poetic nature had saturated himself with the spirit of the romantic styles, especially of the vigorous Southern Romanesque, which the genius of Richardson had revived to continue its astonishing career of development in the New World, and of some of the latest demonstrations of the picturesque Gothic of France and the Low Countries. The grammar of these styles he knew as well as their poetry, but he never suffered himself to be controlled by them. Like a skillful writer, he was too sure of his style to be cramped by it. The exotic forms simply enriched and enlarged his vocabulary without making it unintelligible to the people whom he desired to interest. His reformed vernacular was without affectations of learning on the one hand, and without vulgarity or slang on the other. The designs which he made under these convictions of duty were scarcely scholarly in the conventional and academic sense, but they all bore the impress of a deep respect for knowledge and of an insight into the spirit of the styles. They were literary without being pedantic. He aimed also to have them American without that insolent disregard of historical precedent, that affectation of contempt for the great masters, which had been the principal characteristic of the indigenous architecture of the West.
It would have been a miracle if this young man, working in this exalted spirit, in the midst of a community which knew not how to criticise him with discretion, had made no mistakes. He himself admitted that he was “ the victim of his own moods, — too facile always carefully to reconsider his designs.” Indeed, his ideal was ever far in advance of his works, and in looking back upon them he was accustomed to express his dissatisfaction with the utmost frankness. He seemed to outgrow his own productions as fast as they were executed. Like a true artist, he progressed by his errors, which were a constant spur to higher endeavor.
Meanwhile, this rapid sequence of new buildings, each with a clear message of fitness and beauty, began to awaken in the public a new interest. When, for the first time, examples of good art, not speaking in a strange tongue with quotations from the classics, but expressed with elegance and force in terms not entirely unintelligible, appeared upon the streets of the principal city of the West, it became evident that they had no uncertain mission there. The architecture of pretense began forthwith to disappear, with all its bragging assumptions in galvanized iron and jig-sawed wood; facades decorated capriciously, like a bureau or a bedstead, were no longer built. They affronted the aroused intelligence of the people. The tonguetied language which the builders had been vainly trying to invent to express their inspirations withal gave place to a far more copious vocabulary and a far more grammatical system of forms, the literate product of all the civilizations. The times were ripe for reform, and reform came, not like a fashion to be soon replaced by another, but like a revelation of light. Of course there were many thoughtless imitations and echoes of details and motifs from Root’s work, but the most characteristic evidence of a healthy change was not in the copying of his work, hut in the observance of the broad principles of design which he urged, publicly and privately, whenever opportunity presented. It should be admitted that change was inevitable with the rapid advance of Western civilization, and with the advent of trained minds into the profession of architecture, and it would probably have taken place in due time had Root never appeared upon the scene ; but certainly it was his fortune to hasten it, and to confer upon it the wholesome local character.
The rapidity and completeness of the conquest over the old style, which had grown out of the crude conditions of the frontier towns, have no parallel in the history of architecture, and present a curious contrast to the slow and reluctant transitions of the past. The vital energy in the civilization of the West promptly rejected the lagging vernacular which represented only its least essential characteristics, and gladly recognized in the new types a more competent architectural expression.
The career which was the principal agent in bringing about such a result as this is worthy of careful analysis. Fortunately, the comprehension of the motives which underlay this career, the aspirations which quickened it, the methods and ideals which gave it form and character, need not wait upon the slow, uncertain processes of inference and deduction, for they are revealed with unusual clearness by Root himself in his occasional addresses and essays, and in the frankness and fullness of his conversations.
From household fountains never dry,”
opened his inner life to his friends, and it found unreserved expression in his correspondence.
The contrast between the modest reticence of Bulfinch and Root’s freedom of self-revelation is significant of something more than a difference of temperament. The former knew only a sort of orthodox art, bounded by formulas and defined by precepts, which made comparatively small demand upon his moral and intellectual resources. He had but to follow an accepted academic technique with elegant discretion, and his work was over without any strain upon his conscience. But Root, like all of his professional brothers in these modern days, had a vast embarrassing inheritance at his disposal, including all that had been done in the history of the world to express beauty in form under every mood and impulse of creative art. To use this inheritance wisely there were required exhaustive investigation and study, and an appeal not only to reason and taste, but to conscience. There was a right way and a wrong way to use it. The wrong way was that of the indiscriminating eclectic or the fashionable revivalist. The right way was the way of the true artist, and could be discovered only through a final settlement of the question as to how this rich inheritance should affect his creative powers, and how it should be reconciled with his obvious duties as an architect of the nineteenth century.
The most active men in the profession — not necessarily the most successful, but those who have brought to their work the most illuminated intelligence — are not content to let this question settle itself in course of time. They cultivate a sense of duty ; they seek for philosophical rather than merely scholastic convictions, and in this quest are ready to face all the perils of hold experiment in design.
Thus, Root, with mind alert and conscience aroused, formulated his impressions that he might not be lost in vain speculations, and challenged the sympathies of his friends in open discussion. No architects of any previous century had ever such processes to pass through before making up their minds as to their duties. They had only to float, unquestioning, with the tide of their own civilization. The modern architect has to take into account all the civilizations of the past. If he is ignorant of these civilizations or chooses to neglect them, he finds himself groveling in the crude vernacular of fifteen years ago.
Miss Monroe, with admirable intelligence, enriches forty-seven pages of her book with copious and well-chosen extracts from some of the numerous papers in which Root gave himself lavishly to architectural students or laymen seeking counsel. These papers are not merely perfunctory essays, but cordial expositions of his professional creed, of his methods of thought and study, of his relations to his clients and his art, and, in short, of all the operations of his mind while engaged in processes of design. No architect ever took the public into his confidence with greater frankness and sincerity, or ever more unconsciously justified himself. “ The vigorous modernity of Western life,” says his biographer, “ appealed to his imagination as a strong artistic motive, as much entitled to respect as any motive of the hallowed past.” This was the first article of his professional creed, and the evidences of it appear not only, in various forms, in what he said, but in all that he did as an architect. He studied his environment, he discovered its essential spirit, and he made it the inspiration of his best, most characteristic, and most prolific work. To the layman these pages of extracts are a revelation of the dignity and noble functions of architecture, and to the student of the art they are a liberal education and a vigorous stimulant; to all they reveal a man extraordinary in liberality and breadth of view, in adaptability and sincerity, in sweetness and strength. Other men in the profession have been more learned, but none have made a better use of what they knew, and surely none have had such an inspiring opportunity to express it.
Many architects of education affect to consider that a conscious effort to assist in the creation of national style is unnecessary ; that national style will come, without special effort of theirs, in its own way and in its own time ; and that meanwhile, like their great predecessors, they have only to “ float with the tide.” We have said that Root’s example has had a great effect in the West in preparing for an artistic and reasonable, and not a mere accidental differentiation of modern architectural forms in America from all others. That this was not brought about by any process of indifferent or indolent “ floating ” is evident not only from his professional work, but from the tone of all his literary exposition. We venture to quote passages from various essays and addresses.
“ To rightly estimate,” he says, “ an essentially modern building, therefore, it must not be viewed solely from an archæological standpoint. ‘ Periods ’ and 4 styles ’ are all well enough, but you may be sure that whenever in the world there was a period or style of architecture worth preserving, its inner spirit was so closely fitted to the age wherein it flourished that the style could not be fully preserved, either by people who immediately succeeded it or by us after many years.”
“ We fight our battles behind bulwarks made of stays and ruffs, laces and ribbons, baggy and tight trousers, snuff-boxes and smelling-salts, 4 Queen Anne ’ gables and 4 Neo-Jacobean ‘ bays and 4 Romanesque ’ turrets ; battlements behind which we risk our professional lives to-day, and which to-morrow we blow into oblivion with a sneer. For our own self-respect, for the dignity of our own position, for the sake of an architecture which shall have within it some vital germ, let us come out from our petticoat fortress and fight our battles in open field. In science and literature, in art, is heard, loudly calling, the voice of reason. For any branch of human knowledge or imagination or aspiration to shut itself from this cry is death.”
44 It will be seen that this tends directly against the literal use of historic styles. True. But so much the better for the styles as we understand them. A style has never been made by copying with the loving care of a Dryasdust some preceding style. Styles grow by the careful study of all the conditions which lie about each architectural problem ; and thus while each will have its distinct differentiation from all others, broad influences of climate, of national habits and institutions, will in time create the type, and this is the only style worth considering. This position is reasonable and is susceptible of rational statement.”
44 Architecture is so noble a profession that to allow its influence to be swayed by ephemeral fashions, to make its creations things lightly considered and cheaply wrought, is the basest of crimes.”
44 Architecture is, like every other art, born of its age and environment. So the new type will be found by us, if we do find it, through the frankest possible acceptance of every requirement of modern life in all of its conditions, without regret for the past or idle longing for a future and more fortunate day ; this acceptance being accompanied by the intelligent and sympathetic study of the past in the spirit of aspiring emulation, not servile imitation. If the new art is to come, I believe it will be a rational and steady growth from practical conditions outward and upward toward a more or less spiritual expression, and that no man has the right to borrow from another age an architectural idea evolved from the life of that age, unless it fits our life as normally and fully as it fitted the other.”
After describing in detail the effect of the new conditions of structure and use developed in the evolution of the modern office building, he says : —
“ To other and older types of architecture these new problems are related as the poetry of Darwin’s evolution is to other poetry. They destroy, indeed, many of the most admirable and inspiring of architectural forms, but they create forms adapted to the expression of new ideas and new aspects of life. Here vagaries of fashion and temporary fancies should have no influence ; here the arbitrary dicta of self-constituted architectural prophets should have no voice. Every one of these problems should be rationally worked out alone, and each should express the character and aims of the people related to it. I do not believe it is possible to exaggerate the importance of the influence which may be exerted for good or evil by these distinctively modern buildings. Hedged about by many unavoidable conditions, they are either gross and self-asserting shams, untrue both in the material realization of their aims and in their art function as expressions of the deeper spirit of the age, or they are sincere, noble, and enduring monuments to the broad and beneficent commerce of the age.”
These expressions of noble rebellion against those architectural conventions which, however beautiful and fascinating to the man of education, have no power of progression in the strenuous atmosphere of the New World or of adjustment to its new requirements, and are consequently sterile, are entirely consistent with the character of Root’s executed work. This is copiously and on the whole well set forth in his Life by forty-eight text illustrations, and twenty-four full-page etchings, drawings, and gelatine reproductions of his own sketches, which, when considered consecutively in the order of execution, show just that sort of consistent and steady progression which we have a right to expect as the outward expression of an active mind in a continuous state of development. There were, of course, occasional interruptions and aberrations in this series of graphic presentments which indicate how this eager intelligence was experimenting according to the variation of its moods and inspirations. But its essential progress was vindicated by the fact that Root rarely repeated au error, or failed in his subsequent works to make the best use of a success. His last works were his greatest ; they were full of his native energy, and gave no suggestion of fatigue or of any desire to rest upon the laurels he had won.
The series of studies for the general architectural scheme of the World’s Fair, executed by him while the preliminary projects were taking shape, furnishes a remarkable proof of the fertility of his professional resources, of the exuberance of his poetic temperament, and of his fidelity to his convictions regarding a national architecture. It was at the close of this period of stress and enthusiasm, when the organization for the carrying out of this great work had been completed, that he was overtaken by death.
The sudden and untimely interruption of this really great career has a peculiar pathos to us who remain behind to enjoy the best fruits of it; but to him we may imagine that there has come at last the supreme reward of the artist-soul in a final settlement of all his doubts and a final full realization of his ideal. “ Finis coronat opus.”
Henry Van Brunt.
- The Life of John Wellborn Root. By HARRIET MONROE. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1896.↩
- Life and Letters of Charles Bulfinch, Architect. With Other Family Papers. Edited by his Granddaughter, ELLEN SUSAN BULFINCH. With an Introduction by CHARLES A. CUMMINGS. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1896.↩