Urban – Ruskin: Week One


Ruskin’s Dissection of the Gothic:

Like many of his late-19th century contemporaries, Urban was influenced (consciously or not) by the ideas of John Ruskin (1819-1900). Ruskin was a strong proponent of the Gothic style of architecture, and his writings deeply influenced the Gothic Revival movement and Victorian-era architects on both sides of the Atlantic. Ruskin saw intellectual honesty and ideological agreement in the Gothic and identified six fundamental elements that expressed in the nature of Gothic in his book, The Stones of Venice, written in 1853. These elements are: (1) Savageness; (2) Changefulness; (3) Naturalism; (4) Grotesqueness; (5) Rigidity; and, (6) Redundance.

Ruskin identified savageness as a quality of the architecture that originated in northern Europe, as opposed to the classical architecture originating in southern and Eastern Europe. ‘Savageness’ meant a rude, wild, and rough quality that owed much to the characteristics of the people from which the Gothic sprang, as well as the climate and tribal societies in which people in the North lived. For Ruskin, savageness also implied deference to the worker (the craftsman) to which Gothic owed its element of “revolutionary ornament”; its imperfections in detail and design were preferable to Ruskin and meant that the worker was, literally, “free”. A society in which the worker was “free” was desirable to Ruskin because he believed that it allowed for the worker to have a sense of dignity and self-worth. “No architecture can be truly noble which is not imperfect,” Ruskin writes.

The second element of the Gothic, according to Ruskin, is changefulness. Ruskin believed that the Gothic best embodied this element because “great art…consists in its saying new and different things.” Ruskin identifies the pointed arch as an embodiment of this changefulness because it was not “merely a bold variation from the round, but it admitted of millions of variations of itself.” Third, Ruskin defined the naturalist quality as an element of the Gothic because it sought—in form and detail—to depict nature in its most rugged and severe state. Fourth, Ruskin identifies the grotesque element of the Gothic: fantastic and ludicrous and sublime in character. The fifth element, rigidity, refers to the structural system of the Gothic, and its activeness, depiction of tension, and expression of energy. Finally, redundance defined the Gothic as a style that essentially ‘wore its style on its sleeve’: its accumulation of ornament reflected the wealth of labor from which it was conceived.


Urban’s Evolution:

In the mid-1880s, C. Emlen Urban worked as a draftsman in the firm of Philadelphia architect Willis G. Hale (1848-1907), who himself worked in the firm of Samuel Sloan in the 1860s. According to

Willis G. Hale, Peter A. B. Widener Mansion, Philadelphia, PA (1887)

Michael J. Lewis, “Hale’s genius was to take … essentially identical rowhouses, with their mass-produced industrial parts and lathe-turned woodwork, and to make them distinctive.” To a great extent, Hale labored in the shadow of his contemporary, Frank Furness, but never quiet managed to achieve the originality or innovative quality of Furness’s designs. Hale was a Ruskinian architect in the fact the he strongly embraced the contemporary Victorian design language of his era. Urban, unsurprisingly, would do the same.

Urban's Lancaster Post Office (later Municipal Building), 1891

Urban’s career, however, served as a bridge between the 19th and 20thcenturies, and his buildings reflected a broader movement away from the Ruskinian tradition and towards thethe classical Beaux Arts tradition. This transition occurred roughly between 1891 and 1898. While Charlie Wagner’s Café of 1891-1892 was pure Ruskin, Urban’s Lancaster Municipal Building of 1891 was his first Beaux Arts structure. To Build Strong and Substantial refers to it was “Venetian Renaissance”. It was hardly, however, invocative of the decaying Venetian Gothic that Ruskin so admired.

Urban would again return over the next few years to the Ruskinian tradition, designing the

Urban, "Roslyn", 1896

Rathfon Houses in a Romanesque Revival Style (1892-1894) and Roslyn (Peter T. Watt Residence in 1896. Perhaps, however, Roslyn was Urban’s last truly Ruskinian Victorian Building.

Urban, Wharton Elementary School, 1898

In 1895 and 1898, respectively, Urban would design Jennie Potts’s Store and the Davidson Building in a style I would describe as “transitional”. However, by 1898-1899, with his designs for the Watt & Shand store and the Wharton School, Urban’s metamorphosis to the Beaux Arts was complete.

He would not return to medieval revivalism for buildings other than churches again until the eclectic revivalism (such as Tudor) of the 1920s.


2 Responses to “Urban – Ruskin: Week One”

  1. Beth Bathe Says:

    Good morning, we have just recently purchased 655 West Chestnut Street in Lancaster and would like to find out the architect. It is a Queen Anne, Romanesque Revival, with terracotta and pressed metal accents (with arabesques and grotesques). It is a duplex, one of three buildings (655/657, 659/661, 663/665) built in 1891/92. The only information I could find was that all three were built by the same developer on spec. These are grand, formal facades, different from anything else I have seen here in Lancaster. Can you help me track down some info? I have done some research and know the original owners of the home. Thank you,
    Beth Bath

  2. jhausladen Says:

    Reblogged this on Artistry and Architecture.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: