"American architecture is the art of covering one thing with another thing to imitate a third thing, which, if genuine, would not be desirable."
This remark by Leopold Eidlitz accompanies the photograph of the Smithsonian Institution's Arts and Industries Building (1880, designed by Cluss and Schulze) in the AIA's guide to architecture in Washington, which describes it as "a fairy-tale castle in polychrome brick." Indeed, the description seems to fit much of the Victorian 19th century.
The intellectual, systematic classicism of the early 19th century had become tiresome to many stylists looking for something different to pursue.
In the 1830s and '40s, anyone keeping a finger on Europe's architectural pulse could feel new rhythms. When London's Parliament was rebuilt after a fire in 1834, the style chosen was Gothic.
The industrial revolution had begun. New technologies were changing not only how people worked, traveled and communicated, but also the perceptions about the world, and society's ability to control it. People on both sides of the Atlantic believed that freedom and justice no longer were abstract philosophical concepts; the new American experiment might succeed.
In architecture, liberty meant abandoning arbitrarily rigid rules or formulas connoting dictatorship and absolute rule. Designers of buildings wanted to be free from the stylistic strictures of ancient Greece and Rome.
Surprisingly, their search led back to the Middle Ages. Gothic was in. Its symbolic soaring and thrusting upwards, its conscious interplay of mass, structure and detail, its mixing of symmetries and asymmetries fascinated mid-century architects.
Instead of temples, historicists turned their attention to a variety of building types -- cottages, chateaus, castles and cathedrals.
Instead of Rome and Athens, architects drew inspiration from Venice and the pre-Renaissance towns of Italy, France, central Europe and England.
It may seem paradoxical that the new age of industry and machines should generate interest in asystematic, often mystical buildings typical of medieval times. But it made sense to the romantics of the 19th century for whom Gothic architecture symbolized freedom, truth, nature and adventure, while formalistic classical architecture seemed unspirited, sterile, static, dispassionate, even oppressive.
In 1848, English art critic and social reformer John Ruskin penned "The Seven Lamps of Architecture" to explain the virtues of designing natural, humane, appropriately symbolic environments.
His declaration of principles, influential both in Europe and America, advocated among other things honesty of expression in materials and decoration (painting plaster to look like stone was dishonest!); the nobility and beauty of nature (form follows nature -- straight lines are unnatural!), and stylistic eclecticism that's "frank" and "audacious."
He especially admired the richly decorated Italian Gothic style exemplified by the Doge's Palace in Venice and Giotto's campanile in Florence.
The European arts and crafts movement, with its emphasis on picturesque, figural, nature-based decoration and informal composition, had gained momentum and was propagated widely in the era of great international exhibitions which began in London in 1851.
Mark Twain expresses an American view of the romantic "zeitgeist" in "The Innocents Abroad," his account of the first commercial transatlantic steamship excursion to Europe in 1867. He recalls visiting the great Gothic cathedral at Milan:
"At last, a forest of graceful needles, shimmering in the amber sunlight, rose slowly above the pygmy housetops, as one sometimes sees, in the far horizon, a gilded and pinnacled mass of cloud lift itself above the waste of waves, at sea . . . so grand, so solemn, so vast! And yet so delicate, so airy, so graceful! A very world of solid weight . . . in the soft moonlight only a fairy delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath! . . . an anthem sung in stone, a poem wrought in marble!"
Fourteen chapters later appears, in his terse comment on the Acropolis in Athens: "I remember but little about the Parthenon."
So, while Queen Victoria reigned (1837 to century's end) over the British empire, American architects again followed England's lead, and sometimes France's. In Washington, Victorian buildings kept filling in the Baroque plan conceived by L'Enfant.
What are the architectural characteristics of this half-century of "romantic" building? In contrast to earlier classical structures, Victorian architecture was much freer in its use and distortion of classical motifs and often directly allusive to Gothic motifs.
In fact, buildings such as James Renwick's Oak Hill Chapel in Georgetown (1850) or Gallaudet College (1867) in Northeast are pure Gothic revival buildings.
Generally, roof pitches became steeper, angling sharply toward the sky, unlike more earthbound classical pediments.
Square, round or octagonal towers, turrets and projecting bays topped by cones or pyramids mark many of the buildings of this period, as illustrated dramatically by Renwick's Smithsonian Castle (1849) inserted into the Mall, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (1880) at 14th and C streets, or block after block of row houses on Capitol Hill, north of downtown and in Georgetown.
Red brick was frequently the favored material, exploited by 19th century architects as never before. Because a brick can be set to overhang the one below it slightly (a technique know as "corbling"), it was easy to develop substantial, three-dimensional relief in brick wall surfaces.
Thus, many Victorian buildings have elaborate cornices, brackets, dentils, friezes, window and door moldings, and belt-courses modeled entirely of individual bricks in lieu of stone or wood.
Top stories or attics were expressed through variations on the Mansard roof, named after the 17th century French architect who revivied its use.
Steeply sloped roof surfaces accomplished several purposes: diminishing the apparent height of buildings by shortening facade wall height; celebrating more dramatically the presence of another potentially decorative, textural material, the roofing; improving the quality and utility of attic spaces; and affording new opportunities for ornamentation at roof ridges, corners, eaves, dormers and chimneys.
Sometimes, Victorian roofscapes became veritable fantasies of form. Beginning perhaps with a simple Mansard roof, architects could add projecting subroofs over large and small dormer window assemblies with sharp pediments or curvaceous arches, or pull numerous chimneys and parapets through the roof. The old Blaine Mansion (1881) at 2000 Massachusetts Ave. NW is a good example of such compositional exuberance.
Windows often had glass transoms under semicircular, partially circular, or, in purer Gothic language, pointed arches. Rectangular windows might have slightly curved or straight carved stone lintels flanked by brackets to create a drapery image.
Victorian decoration is unforgettable: wrought-iron finials atop roof ridges or spires, sharply profiled against the sky; quasi-naturalistc wood or metal filigree around the tops of porches and columns, in windows, and along parapets and railings.
But the austerity and rationality of Rome were to make a comeback. The watershed, neoclassical 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago catalyzed a new generation of architects, many of them trained at Paris' Ecole des Beaux Arts. The architectural principles of classical antiquity were being revived for the second time in the New World, one century after Jefferson and 60 years after Queen Victoria ascended the throne of England.