VICTORIA reigns again. The Victorian Restoration has been accomplished not by a coup but a steady underground effort, which seems now to have completed its takeover.
In the first part of this century, Victorian architecture was rudely dethroned by critics who deplored its excesses of ornament. Even that great master of ornament, Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, advocated abolishing ornament entirely for a period. And that we did. But in architecture, as on thrones, today's enemy of the people is frequently tomorrow's beloved king.
The funny part of the new realty to Victoria is the copies being turned out today. Victorian revival houses are being built -- a hilarious idea since Victorian design itself is a memory book of ribbons and shiny ornaments gathered magpie-like from all periods, the more fantastic and pompous the better.
The best of the Victorian Restoration is just that -- the restoration of the mid-to-late-19th-century buildings that still work well and have a purpose in life.Not all old buildings are worth saving -- contrary to some efforts by the more rercent preservationists -- perhaps a traitorous remark to make. But many of the Victorian buildings did have extraordinary grace notes: soaring atriums, imaginative color in paint, brick and tile, expansive glass, flamboyant flowers and plentiful palms inside and out.
All these Victorian virtues are held by the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building, which will receive an honor award during the American Institute of Architects National Convention in Cincinnati June 14. The award is especially interesting in Washington because not only is the building here, one of everybody's favorites, but its restoration team is also local: Hugh Newell Jacobsen and the Smithsonian's Office of Facilities Planning and Engineering Services, headed by James M. Murphy with staff architect William L. Thomas. Paul Perrot, Smithsonian assistant secretary for museum programs, who had a particular interest because his own offices are in the building, oversaw the project.
The Arts and Industries Building currently exhibits the leftovers from the Philadelphia Centennial show -- Wooton desks, dried flowers and massive machinery, a reminder that the building was erected to house the trainloads of stuff from the 1876 show. The museum is the source of the Smithsonian's nickname, "The nation's attic," not as appropriate with today's slicked-up exhibits.
Perrot once suggested that the building would be a great place for a big exhibition of turn-of-the-century design, picking up where the Centennial exhibit leaves off. Now would be a great time to have such an exhibit, when interest and prices of Art Nouveau and fin-de-siecle objects have never been higher. It's also about time someone recognized the important contributions that United States designers made to the Arts and Crafts Movement and to Art Nouveau.
The Arts and Industries Building was erected in 1881, to a design by Adolph Cluss (who also designed Sumner School). It is a tribute to Cluss that the building still works well for its original purpose. The museum opened just in time for President James Garfield's inaugural ball. Its electric lights, the first in Washington, electrified the visitors. Jacobsen said that the aim was to "recapture the essence of the original building without a backneyed imitation of the past." To that end, elaborately stenciled walls, architectural features trimmed with color and painstakingly reproduced tiles were restored.
The central rotunda with its magnificent dome banked by galleries announced in ornamented arches is the epitime of Victorian design. The jurors called the museum "the best interpretation of extended use we received. The interior is delightful . . . complete in concept and detail."
Jacobsen was also the architect for the interior of the Renwick Gallery, another Smithsonian museum (John Carl Warnke was the exterior architect) as well as dozens of Georgetown and Chevy Chase domestic Victorian houses. There's a joke that all the elaborate wood work and trim Jacobsen took off the old houses reappeared in his restored building. Jacobsen himself describes Victorian restoration as: "Nothing succeeds like excess."
More recently, Jacobsen is the architect for the restoration of Gallaudet College. He has designed a great many very classy contemporary houses, including a new one for Jacqueline Onassis. A few years ago, Jacobsen won another AIA honor award for a house in Chevy Chase in which he designed an addition to a Victorian house in the manner of the old house, but with an honest contemporary glass link.
The other great Victorian projects underway in Washington currently are the massive remodeling (not restoration) of the great Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue to a design by Arthur Cotton Moore of Georgetown, and the effort to turn the Pension Building into a museum.
Though Washington seems to feel it has a monopoly on Victorian architecture, and indeed this city flourished during that period, leaving behind many buildings as mementoes of the late 19th century, Victoria's reign is equally heavy across the country. Other AIA medals have gone to Victorian victories elsewhere:
Lankmark Center in St. Paul, Minn., was built in 1893 as a Romanesque federal building. Its cortile, four stories high, opens on the ground floor as an exhibition space. Offices and exhibits are perched on the balconies. Architects were Perry, Dean Stahl & Rogers Inc. of Boston; Frederick A. Stahl was project designer with Allen Trousale. Winsor/Faricy Architects Inc. of St. Paul were associate architects. Owner is Minnesota Landmarks, Inc.
The Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles also was restored to its original use.
Ridgway Ltd. of El Toro, Calif., restored the building at a cost $30 million. Classic modern furniture set against the elaborate plastic decoration makes a knock-out interior. The jury noted that the hotel rooms look like a luxury liner. The renovation set off a reaction in this section of town, with other businesses following suit.
Other restoration and renovation winners were the Newburyport (Mass.) Market Square Historic District, by Anderson Notter Finegold of Boston, and two New York townhouses (see Page 1).
New building were honored in another category. Indiana Bell Telephone Switching Center of Columbus, Inc., has a remarkable addition of what may well be the only skyscraper garden trellis in the world.Heaton Court of Stockbridge Mass. by Goody, Clancy & Associates Inc. of Boston is a splendid cedar clapboard building complex for old people. The long porches make it seem, as the jury noted, like the old resort hotel that once stood on the site. The Colonial Church of Edina, Minn., by Hammel Green & Abrahamson Inc., borrows the best of colonial design: exposed posts, beams and trusses, a good choice for the area's heavy snow load.
Energy efficency got a nod or two among the new buildings. Qume Corp. of San Jose, Calif., by Hawley & Peterson of Palo Alto, Calif. has a spectacular atrium, 26 feet wide and 430 feet long, where trees blossom, a pool splashes with fish and a path offers an escape from the office space. The glass faces south and the skylight is screened. The Wayne State University Health Care Institute/Detroit Receiving Hospital/Detroit Medical Center Concourse has an elaborate monitoring system to control energy use. Architects were William Kessler and Associates Inc., Zeidler Partnership, Ltd., Giffels Associates, Inc. of Detroit, Mich.
Southern Service Center for Equitable Life Assurance Society in Charlotte, NC., designed by Wolf Associates Architects, Ltd. of Charlotte, has a curtain wall of bands of alternating aluminum and glass with pockets recirculating solar heat/cooling from the south and west to the north and west. The Environmental Health Laboratory in St. Louis, Miss. was designed by Holabird & Roof of Chicago for Monsanto Corp. The animal rooms and cages as well as the rest of the structure use water heated by the sun. Light is filtered through the trusses.
The New York firm Edward Larrabee Barnes was honored for achievement, including IBM's 43-story office tower in Manhattan. And Lever House, also in New York, designed by Gordon Bunshaft, then of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, was chosen for AIA's 25-Year Award.
All the buildings made some bows, no matter how shyly, toward fitting into the neighborhood, giving access to the handicapped and energy efficiency. It is a reflection on the state of architecture today that no gold medal was awarded to an architect (Philip Johnson was honored in 1978, I.M. Pei in 1979). No honors were given for a new single-family detached house nor a new high-rise office building. When the best buildings are the old buildings, it would seem that architecture needs a new direction.