December 31: The End

2016/12/31 § Leave a comment


On this day in 1907 a New Year’s Eve celebration, in which an illuminated time ball was lowered on a flag pole, took place for the first time in the triangular plaza once known as Longacre Square.

The roots of the event stretch to 1903, when the tenant of a new building (designed by Eidlitz & MacKenzie) at the head of the square decided to draw attention to their new headquarters by hosting a big fireworks extravaganza on its rooftop.  That tenant, the New York Times, also convinced the city to rename the square in honor of the Gray Lady.  Already using their building as a launchpad for the immediately popular festival, a few years later they changed things up by lowering a time ball on a flag pole.  A “time ball” is, actually, a thing: historically (at least as far back as the early nineteenth century) they were used as navigational aids, usually wood or metal spheres lowered on a staff at a particular time of day within eyesight of ships in a harbor.  (In the States they’re lowered at noon; in England and Europe at 1 PM, because 1 PM is, apparently, metric noon.)  Although radio made them obsolete in the 1920s, they were still recognizable to folks deciding an interesting way to ring in the New Year.

The time ball in question here (which drops on a 140′ staff–that’s about 280 hot dogs, according to New York measure) was built on a five-foot framework of iron and wood, glittering with 100 25-watt bulbs.  Although it has been replaced and tarted up through the years, and the Times has long since moved away, that glow ball been a consistent part of New York’s festivities ever since 1907, except for two years during World War II.

The Times Square time ball may be one of the last things of its particular kind that people still pay attention to, but its setting is certainly not unique in being a place where architecture plays an important role in the big communal event of turning the calendar.  Around the world these events take place almost always within the framework of buildings.  In part this just makes sense, because when lots of people get together they typically do so in a city which by its nature is going to have buildings.  But buildings are not just a coincidence of gathering.  Indeed some of the most spectacular celebrations depend on architecture: the buildings themselves as launchpads, plinths and focal points, as well as the big urban furniture that defines the spaces into which people gather by the dozens or thousands or tens of thousands or gazillions.  People identify the celebration with its setting, especially so in places with great architectural scenery: check out Sydney, London, Beijing, Paris, BrusselsRome, Dubai, Seattle, Hong KongBerlin, and, significantly this its first public New Year’s celebration–humbly so, but still–in Myanmar.

Enjoy your bubbly.  Yank the end of one of those plastic confetti bottles.  Blow a horn.  Make noise with a noise maker.  But don’t neglect looking at the place you’re in; it matters.  It matters more than the way it’s important as the backdrop for your event (or your non-event, if you are just over these sorts of things) (and the Muse understands if here, at the end of 2016, you are Over It).  By its nature, architecture is a contract with the future; hopefully it’s an optimistic one; one made for you and people before you and people to come after you.  It’s there for our future plans, our current events, and our memories.  And that’s history.

Image: the ball in 1955 (from this source)

December 26: Richmond On Fire

2016/12/26 § Leave a comment


On this day in 1811 the Richmond Theatre burned.

The tall building had been completed only the year before.  Almost six hundred people were gathered to see a double-feature of sorts, but early in the evening, during a scene change behind the lowered stage curtain, one of the backdrops was set alight by candles in a chandelier.  Although the timber, canvas and oil-painted material was great fuel, the fire might have been snuffed.  But no one in a position to do much of anything knew about the fire until it spread through layers and layers of sets and then started chewing at the building.  A great brick box full of wooden furnishings and finishes, the building did not have a chance.  Nor did a large portion of the audience: 72 people perished in the fire.

The building was a loss, and no one had much of a stomach to rebuild a theatre on the site anyhow (another theatre would be built at another location in 1819).  A monument to the dead was proposed and carried out by local architect Robert Mills.  It is an odd thing: the Monumental Church is both worship center and memorial for the fire victims.  Mills designed a curious octagonal plan covered by a low saucer dome with a lantern; boxy projections appear on four sides.  The front portico holds the actual monument inscribed with victims’ names; their remains are gathered in the crypt below.

Although in other projects Mills would have greater success in adapting the Classical vocabulary to new uses; the Monumental Church remains a bizarre experiment.  It’s both Greek and Roman with a bit of Egypt tossed in for good measure.  Is it a short polygonal Pantheon?  A wide Tower of the Winds?  An imperial mausoleum?  Or one of those rare Erectheum-type mash-up temple-things?  Hang on to your hat, since Mills’ original intention, with the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer church steeple, makes it even more of a mystery.  His later works are quite a bit more tame, loads more legible (although never as crisp and commanding as those by his peer, William Strickland).  And later, too, he became better known for technical mastery that may have been inspired by his work in Richmond, as Mills was (for a time) the country’s go-to architect for anything fireproof once he mastered techniques that he began mulling in Richmond.

Image: “The Burning of the Theatre in Richmond, Virginia” (from this source)

December 25: The Great Dome

2016/12/25 § Leave a comment

1846 Capitol

On this day in 1851 Thomas U. Walter investigated the cause of the Christmas Eve fire that gutted the original Library of Congress.

Yes, it was Christmas Day but duty called and Walter, as the recently sworn-in Architect of the Capitol, heeded that call. The previous evening’s fire was devastating, destroying much of Thomas Jefferson’s original collection as well as the library room itself.  Positioned in the center of the west side of the Capitol, it overlooked the mall to the west, where the stumpy unfinished Washington Monument stood.  The library was a complete loss and it is  a wonder that more of the building did not go up in the blaze–in particular, the awkward timber dome completed under the direction of Charles Bulfinch.

Walter was directed to rebuild the room using fireproofing strategies.  By early January he completed the plan for a virtually all-iron library, lit by skylights, lined by tiers shelving, ornamented with ornate Italianate features like big beefy (but hollow) iron consoles.  Complete, and completely satisfactory, within a few years, the widely admired design–noted for its beauty and incombustibility–helped pave the way for Congressional approval of another all-iron addition that Walter would make to the building: the soaring metallic dome that is one of the world’s most recognizable architectural symbols, looking as spiffing as ever due to the humungo restoration project carried out through 2016.

Image: the Capitol as photographed in 1846 (from this source)

December 23: Madame Walker’s Villa

2016/12/23 § Leave a comment

walker villa
On this day in 1867 Sarah Breedlove was born.
Born on a Louisiana plantation, she was the first child in her family born into freedom.  She spent her life making the most of what that freedom could offer her  by taking an unusual route into business.  Home experiments to create hair-care products led to the development of a small mail-order business that grew and grew.  As a businesswoman she became Madame C. J. Walker and eventually a very wealthy woman, regarded by many as the first black female millionaire.
Like other tycoons of the Gilded Age, Madame Walker fancied a fancy house.  In 1918 she commissioned Vertner Woodson Tandy, the country’s first licensed African-American architect.  On a great site overlooking the Hudson River he built the Classically-inspired Villa Lewaro. The grand house features a projecting Ionic entryway flanked by symmetrical wings, from one of which a porte-cochere projected, providing protection for guests who would arrive by auto.  Madame Walker only lived one more year after her house was complete, but she is recorded as saying the house was not really for her, but rather meant as a source of inspiration for generations of free African Americans to aim for the success that she herself achieved.

Image: the villa (from this source)

December 19: Four Ships, Three Corners, No Architecture (Just Yet)

2016/12/19 § Leave a comment


On this day in 1606 the Susan, Constant, Godspeed and Discovery departed England carrying settlers who founded Jamestown, Virginia.

Starting in 1607 these British settlers, who founded the first settlement in the Americas that would survive, had permanence on their minds.  As their old maps show, and as early written descriptions explain, their first buildings had the general form and planning of those back home, but built, necessarily, of the materials at hand.  Neat timber frame houses with thatch roofs and wattle-and-daub construction lined the streets in the triangular palisade that defined the newly planted civilization inside and protected it from the wilds without–which apparently (by the look of the map above) included one monstrously huge Native American.  This was all well and good for getting started, but it was clear here, as it is in colonial settlements generally speaking, that transplants desire to recreate whatever they left back home, recreating the long-standing traditions of real architecture for a sense of longevity tied to tradition.  As early as 1639 they raised a brick church, and as they filled out Virginia, within generations were building as closely to models of good taste–as defined by contemporary British preferences–as possible.

Image: old map (from this source)

December 17: A House for the Circus-Man

2016/12/17 § Leave a comment


On this day in 1857 Iranistan burned down.

Iranistan was a crazy carnival of a country seat designed by Leopold Eidlitz for Phineas Taylor Barnum.  What a pair!  The client: well, you know the huckster-showman-hawker-author-conniver-philanthropist-shyster-politician-rascal, founder of The Greatest Show On Earth.  With that kind of c.v., Barnum couldn’t just have your garden variety Italianate villa or Greco-Roman manse in the country, but of course turned to an architect who was known to have a wild hair.  Eidlitz was a bit of a nut–that wonderful kind of historically curious and wildly inventive nut that the nineteenth century had by the bushel.  The house Eidlitz designed for Barnum was as much a dazzling event as the three-ring circus that made him famous.  Blending exotic Moorish and Persian sources with not a little homage to the Brighton Pavilion, the three-story structure was girdled with lacey balconies and topped with bristly pinnacles and a small army of onion domes, and complimented by fantastic garden pavilions and furnishing designed specially for the place.  Its reported cost of $150,000 was a sum that would have paid for a substantial library or hospital at the time.

In mid-December Barnum went to New York to see to business and left workers in the otherwise empty nine-year-old house to make adjustments and repairs.  It was probably a smoldering pipe or segar that touched off the blaze.  In just two hours the fantastical creation and all its stuffing burned to the ground.

Image: the house (from this source)

December 16: Architecture’s Feast Day

2016/12/16 § Leave a comment


On this day every year the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church celebrates the feast day of architects Richard Upjohn and Ralph Adams Cram (and, for good measure, artist John LaFarge).

The trio’s day is sandwiched between holidays dedicated to a bishop, missionary, priest, and prophetic witnesses, showing that this kind of homage to significant lay contributions to the church is not unique, but is unusual.  The three are acknowledged in this significant way for the significant contributions to their design of worship environments.  Richard Upjohn popularized the Ecclesiological Gothic movement in antebellum America (famously at Trinity, less so at our favorite in Raleigh); more than a half-century later Ralph Adams Cram (who, like Upjohn, was a practicing member of the Episcopal church) became famous for his medieval work that he landed on the cover of Time (13 December 1926).  LaFarge did not profess a deeply spiritual life as did the others, but he’s allowed in nonetheless thanks to the impact his amazing windows have in coloring churches across the country.

Their recognition reflects well on the Episcopal church and its tradition of valuing good, emotive design as part of the worship experience, and should give hope to all those architects who work so hard on their own martyr complexes.

Image: Church of the Covenant, Cleveland, by Cram in 1911 (from this source)

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