[excerpt from Jonathan and Donna Fricker, 2010. Thanks to Michael Rouchell bringing this text to the attention of the TradArch list]
The lure of the past did not completely fade, even in the full glare of the Modernist
Movement in architecture. In the 1940s and ‘50s, there were still well established architects who could turn out a perfectly respectable Colonial Revival country house, a Greek Revival-looking plantation home, or a Gothic style church. And there were still moneyed clients who wanted them. Collectively, these were the still glowing embers of historicism.
The evangelical modernist attitude toward all of this has been neatly summed up, to wit: “the artistically valueless imitation of old, and therefore irrelevant, architectural styles for the gratification of the predatory, philistine rich by sentimental or dishonest architects who ignore their duty to create a vital twentieth century architecture at the service of the people.” The severity of this view moderated somewhat as the mid-twentieth century advanced. But there was still something in the background – the notion that a self-respecting modern architect would simply not practice in a historic revival mode, more or less, as a matter of conscience. Despite this censure, the period 1945 to 1965 produced at least a modest architectural flowering – striking and evocative buildings that paid homage to the past and made no pretense of being modern or progressive.
The mid-twentieth century saw a profound shift in the architectural profession as it relates to historic revival styles. In the era “between the wars” it was perfectly respectable for an established architect to practice in both the modernist and the historical modes. The distinguished and prodigious Philadelphia architect George Howe comes to mind. In 1931, he and his partner William Lescaze made history by completing the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (PSFS) Building, lauded as “the most dramatic example of high-rise modernism yet achieved in the United States.” Yet only a few years earlier Howe created a picturesque imitation old Normandy farm house for his client Arthur Newbold, “complete with pre-sagged roof.”
All of that changed after World War II as the modernist morality took hold, some might say “stranglehold.” Virtually all the new talent went into the European Modernist School. Older architects simply converted their practices, having found the “true way.” That said, there were still a small but noteworthy band of historic revival style practitioners. These tended to be regional architects, socially well-connected, with a loyal and upscale clientele. As years passed, many achieved the status of “grand old man” of the genre within their particular states or locales. Most also practiced modernism – at least occasionally.
In their more traditional approach to design they seemed to have valued taste and decorum above originality (precisely the opposite of the modernists). They were well established men with busy lucrative practices. And their work was much appreciated and admired by persons of consequence in society.
In 1979, the preeminent American architectural historian Vincent Scully wrote a forward to a new book on Texas historic revival architect John F. Staub. In it he recalled his younger days in the mid-twentieth century when traditionalist architecture was held in “deep contempt.” “In those years, even James Gamble Rogers’ spectacularly successful Gothic and Georgian colleges at Yale were regarded as embarrassments by everyone with pretentions to architectural culture – by everyone, that is, but a few aging Beaux-Arts holdovers, and they were the enemy, despised and feared.” “But now, thirty years later . . . the whole thing has turned right around: Beaux-Arts good, Bauhaus bad. But it can be said that the present intellectual stance . . . is not a paranoid one. Instead, it is based upon an inclusive rather than exclusive view of architectural truth.” (Here the term Beaux Arts does not refer to the style, but the French Ecole des Beaux Arts method of teaching historicism.)
When Scully wrote these lines, in the late 1970s, the historic revival styles of the 1920s were beginning to be taken seriously as legitimate works of architecture. Today, thirty years later still, it seems that Scully’s spirit of inclusiveness sets the right tone. For now, in the early years of the twenty-first century, we have come to value both the Beaux Arts and the Bauhaus.