A tremendous poignance attaches to the exhibition of architectural drawings by a forgotten architect named Peter Bonnett Wight on view at the Octagon House. The drawings are handsome and full of interest, but shadowed by a sense of absence. Of the public buildings, commercial structures and houses that Wight designed in the 1860s and 1870s only four still stand, each altered almost beyond recognition by succeeding generations of clients and architects.
Wight was not a great architect but neither was he some obscure drone. His youthful scheme for the National Academy of Design in New York was the first building in this country to boldly announce, in physical form, the architectural principles of the great English writer, John Ruskin: a polychrome stone-and-brick facade in Ruskin's beloved Venetian Gothic tradition, truth to materials in building and faithfulness to nature in ornament, and the unity of all the arts under the elevated leadership of architecture.
Wight won a design competition for this prestigious structure in 1861, when he was 23 years old. The building was demolished in 1901, when the architect was 63. Luckily the drawings survived and even this was a near thing. Until resurrected for this traveling exhibition they languished for more than half a century in untended boxes in the the archives of the Burnham Library of Architecture, part of the Art Institute of Chicago. Besides providing delight, Wight's drawings enable us to assess his contribution and to recreate an interesting piece of American architectural history.
Wight's place in this story was obscured even during his lifetime by vast changes in style and in technology for which he seemed to have been unprepared temperamentally. His singular successes came in New York during the 1860s where in addition to the pace-setting design for the National Academy he also won a competition for the Mercantile Library in Brooklyn, another striking Ruskinian building (also demolished) that Wight designed totally, inside and out.
These two fine buildings were notable arguments put forward at a time of some confusion and much competition concerning the aims of architecture--in this a time not so unlike our own. Today they seem especially remarkable for the way in which their rich exterior and interior ornamentation fits into a serious, circumspect whole. The young Wight, like other followers of Ruskin, believed in this type of Gothic architecture as a kind of moral reform, far superior in its sensuous truth to materials than the picturesque Gothic revival that preceded it.
This seriousness of form and purpose seems strange to us today mainly for two reasons. The notion of Gothic architecture as the solution to modern architectural problems has for a long time seemed quaintly wrongheaded, and rightly so. It was a short-lived position, here even more than in England.
Nonetheless, looking at the Wight exhibition can send you back to Ruskin's writings with a new respect. Ruskin's sinuous style can sometimes be a trial but his rich vision of architecture and of history ring in our day with renewed clarity. With more eloquence and persuasiveness than most contemporary writers have been able to bring to bear upon our post-modern dilemma, Ruskin wrote:
"And if indeed there be any profit in our knowledge of the past, or any joy in the thought of being remembered hereafter, which can give strength to present exertion, or patience to present endurance, there are two duties respecting national architecture whose importance it is impossible to overstate; the first, to render the architecture of the day historical; and, the second, to preserve, as the most precious of inheritances, that of past ages."
Precisely and economically this defines the challenge to architects and theorists today who would repair the terrible gap between present and past created by modernism's proud, anti-historical, utopian stance. In terms of P.B. Wight's work, it establishes the terrible irony of his efforts, for he lived to see his best buildings literally succumb to the whirligig of architectural fashion.
As I said, the days of Ruskinian high Victorian Gothic in America were numbered indeed. The second reason it may seem strange to us today is that there is so little of it left. Wight's work was obliterated, and so almost was the powerful Ruskin-esque work of Frank Furness, a far greater architect, in Philadelphia. However, Furness' outstanding monument, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, somehow made it through, and in Washington we have been amazingly fortunate: our Ruskinesque architects, Adolph Cluss and Paul Schulze, who added their own eclecticism and a strong edge of social consciousness to the theoretical brew, are still well-represented in town.
A second happy side-effect of the Wight exhibition is to increase our appreciation of Cluss and Schulze, whose still-standing efforts include the Arts and Industries Building, so dazzling and rational; the Sumner School house at 17th and M, whose window arches with bands of alternate colored stones could have come right out of Wight's book; Eastern Market; the Franklin School; and especially the model hall inside the Greek Revival Old Patent Office Building (now the National Portrait Gallery), whose beautifully stylized decorations are living reminders of Wight's even more elaborate decorative scheme for the Brooklyn Mercantile Library.
Wight's drawings for this building, encompassing perspective studies of the exterior and detailed studies for interior ceilings, walls and moldings, and Gothic-modern furniture of his own design, are a high point of the exhibition, just as the building was a high point of his career. As architectural historian Sarah Bradford Landau points out in her fair-minded, thorough catalogue essay on the architect, Wight's English-inspired emphasis on original craftsmanship and his practice of designing all aspects of a building preceded the Arts and Crafts movement in this country and anticipated similar aims on the part of Frank Lloyd Wright.
In 1871 Wight moved his practice from New York to Chicago, where the architecture business boomed following the great fire. Alone and in collaboration with others he designed a large number of buildings in a few years there--none of them as distinguished as his earlier works. Most were four-story commercial structures; only one survived the skyscraper age, which followed so quickly.
Wight's later career is not so tragic as, say, that of the great Louis Sullivan--Wight seems not to have succumbed to bitterness and he kept himself busy in the fireproofing business and as a writer until he died in 1925. Nonetheless his tale strikes a somewhat melancholy note. If fashion deserted him, so did his talent. When the National Academy announced its intentions to expand in 1893 Wight tried to save his building by adding to it a wing and a fourth floor in inapt if more fashionable style.
If it is indeed odd and discomfiting to see an architect trying to save his own best work by ruining it, we must at least admit that the provocations were immense. The exhibition and the cataloguing effort that preceded it make sure that, in a sense, Wight's best work no longer goes unheeded. Sponsored in Washington by the American Institute of Architects Foundation, the show was organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and supported by grants from both of the national endowments. It remains on view at the Octagon House, 18th Street and New York Avenue NW, through May 2.