Van Rensselaer Manor

From the year 1630 until well into the nineteenth century the Van Rensselaer family were lords of the manor of Rensselaerwyck, a vast fiefdom in upstate New York, around Albany. Killian Van Rensselaer had acquired the land from the Dutch West India Company ten years after the Mayflower landed and it remained in the family through successive Dutch, English, and American governments. I described the later years of the manor at length in my biography of James Fenimore Cooper, a friend of the family.

The manor house was dismantled in the 1890s and rebuilt as the Sigma Phi fraternity house, called Van Rensselaer Hall, at Williams College in Massachusetts. Unfortunately it was torn down by the college in the 1970s. The only surviving fragments of the house were interiors donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The wallpaper of the great hall has been used to reconstruct the room in the American Wing. On a recent visit to the museum I took the opportunity to photograph the furnishings in detail.

Greenwich Village Gothic

Grace Episcopal Church on the corner of Broadway and Tenth Street in Manhattan is the most important early example of Gothic Revival architecture in New York. I posted a picture of the beautiful courtyard in an earlier post. The architect was James Renwick, Jr., who went on to design the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. He was only twenty-four years old when he undertook the design of Grace Church.

It was constructed between 1846 and 1847 when wealthy New Yorkers were moving north into Greenwich Village from the crowded Downtown. Nevertheless the parish had a limited budget. While the edifice itself is marble, the spire was initially wooden, and much of the interior is lathe and plaster. A marble spire was added in 1881.

The church is a landmark of the Village. During its heyday its congregation comprised fashionable society. As Matthew Hale Smith wrote in 1869, “To be married or buried within its walls has been ever considered the height of felicity.”

Plymouth Rock, 1920

A hundred years ago this year for the tricentennial of the Mayflower landing, a neoclassical portico by the architectural firm, McKim, Mead & White, was erected over Plymouth Rock.

The lead architect on the project was partner William M. Kendall. It was Kendall who had chosen the inscription, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” for the New York City General Post Office building designed by the firm in 1912. The line, taken from a description by Herodotus of the Persian postal couriers, has become the unofficial motto of the US Postal Service.

Kendall was the son of classicist Joshua Kendall, and a Mayflower descendant.

See also: The Mayflower Quadricentennial and Around Plymouth.

Lambeth Palace Library as it Might Have Been

The library of Lambeth Palace contains the great collection of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the records of the Church of England. It has historically been kept in the palace complex but this year a purpose-built edifice was erected to house it.

Mock-ups of the design were released well in advance so it will surprise no one that the finished building is cold, institutional, and modern. But it might have been very different.

The architect Francis Terry recently shared designs on Twitter that he had submitted to the project. Terry’s vision for the library was a lovely Victorian gothic building sensitive to its surroundings and in keeping with the Tudor and Gothic survival/revival layers of Lambeth Palace itself.

This is Terry’s design:

This is the design that was built:

Terry describes his plan in an essay for UnHerd, writing:

Back in 2015 there was a competition to design a new library for Lambeth Palace. My scheme was up against the great and the good of the architectural establishment. I decided to design a Gothic style library reminiscent of the other buildings of Lambeth Palace. To avoid a huge tower with no windows overshadowing the garden, I decided to put all the archive space underground. It was a concept that would be more detailed and rationalised if my design was chosen by the judges. It is extremely rare for traditional designs like mine to win prestigious architectural competitions and so it came as no surprised when my scheme was rejected at the first available moment.

The winning design strikes me as distinctly inappropriate for an ecclesiastical setting.

American Classicism

The White House has drafted an executive order that would make neoclassicism the default style for new federal buildings. If the administration follows through it will be cause for celebration. Neoclassicism was the architectural language of American public buildings for two hundred years.

In the post-war period this style has been abandoned in favor of egregious modern designs. Marion Smith of the National Civic Art Society, which proposed the order, tells The New York Times, “For too long architectural elites and bureaucrats have derided the idea of beauty, blatantly ignored public opinions on style, and have quietly spent taxpayer money constructing ugly, expensive, and inefficient buildings.”

The National Civic Art Society is fast becoming one of my favorite organizations. NCAS is also leading the campaign to rebuild Charles McKim’s original Penn Station.

As an aside, I wonder who in the administration is a champion of classicism. Probably not the president himself since we know what his taste in architecture looks like.

Rest in Peace, Sir Roger

Sir Roger Scruton has died. We lose the greatest contemporary English philosopher and an irreplaceable voice for Burkean conservatism. A statement from his family reads:

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Sir Roger Scruton, FBA, FRSL. Beloved husband of Sophie, adored father to Sam and Lucy and treasured brother of Elizabeth and Andrea, he died peacefully on Sunday 12th January. He was born on 27th February 1944 and had been fighting cancer for the last 6 months. His family are hugely proud of him and of all his achievements. (12.01.2020)

At the time of his death Sir Roger was working on the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. He had been appointed, removed, and finally reinstated as a commissioner in 2019. I wrote about his appointment at the time.

The commission has now published its report, Living with Beauty. The entire report is compelling, accessible, and worth reading. Its recommendations fall under three broad aims: Ask for Beauty, Refuse Ugliness, and Promote Stewardship. Specific recommendations include a “fast track” for beauty and a “re-greening” of towns and cities.

The report has been received warmly by the government, and if acted upon will be a worthy legacy for Sir Roger who has been a crusader for traditional architecture and urban planning.

Machen on Architecture

In 1987, The Prince of Wales famously excoriated the shortsighted city planners and developers who rebuilt London after the Second World War. “You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe” he said. “When it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble. We did that.”

Decades earlier the weird-fiction writer and sometime Londoner Arthur Machen expressed similar sentiments. In the Spring 2019 issue of Faunus, R.B. Russell quotes a letter by Machen to Montgomery Evans around the end of the War. Machen writes:

And that brings me to the confession that I don’t curse the Germans very fiercely for their London destruction so far as the new buildings are concerned. It is we who destroyed London & wrecked the Strand, pulled down the Adelphi, abolished Clifford’s Inn (pre-Great Fire), built flats where Clements Inn once stood with green lawns. You can remember the old Café Royal: it wasn’t Germans who ruined it. And as for the Wren churches in the City: it was with great difficulty that the Bishop of London was restrained from pulling many of them down & selling the sites 20 years ago.

Modernity Encroaches on Dr Johnson’s House

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In London it is not hard to find surreal juxtapositions of the old and new. One of the most striking, I think, is the view from the upstairs window in Dr Johnson’s House.

17 Gough Square can be found in the warren of alleyways between Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and Fetter Lane. It is the only surviving London residence of the lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). The perfectly restored eighteenth-century building has been open to the public as a museum since 1914.

Inside one can easily imagine oneself in the reign of King George II—until one looks out of the north windows. A massive glass and steel block of barristers’ offices at 5 New St Square fills the view. There is a moment of dislocation in time. One feels like a Georgian suddenly confronted with a temple to an alien god outside of his bedroom.

Rebuild Penn Station

“One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.” That was the judgement of Yale historian Vincent Scully on Penn Station in New York after it was buried under Madison Square Garden.

The demolition of the original McKim, Mead & White-designed station in 1963 was an act of architectural philistinism unmatched in American history. It is often said to have galvanized the historic preservation movement but that movement has been on the defensive ever since. Year by year the immense stock of beautiful architecture in New York is whittled away at, and the number of ugly ill-considered developments increase.

It would be nice to reclaim some lost territory in the name of beauty and culture. Where better to start than Penn Station itself?

The National Civic Art Society is campaigning to reconstruct the original 1910 edifice. Visit the NCAS’s Rebuild Penn Station website for more information on the project and how to support it.

Pictured below, Pennsylvania Station as it was…

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…versus Madison Square Garden, erected in its place…

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…with “new” Penn Station in the basement…

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renderings of the NCAS plan

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…and a hopeful outlook for 2024…

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Saint-Petersburg As It Might Have Been

In 2014 a design by the Russian classical architect Maxim Atayants was selected for a new judicial quarter in Saint-Petersburg. The centerpiece of the project would be the home of the country’s supreme court which is being moved from Moscow.

Atayants submitted an austere Roman design nicely embellished with Beaux-Arts decoration. It would include a number of government buildings, a dance theater, and a pedestrian embankment along the River Neva. This would have been a splendid reaffirmation of traditional architecture in one of Europe’s most important cities. Unfortunately it was not to be.

For reasons that are altogether unclear approval of Atayants’s design was revoked in 2017, as reported by Peter Kellow. A modernist design was selected to replace it. Renderings by Atayants can be found on the internet; many appear below.

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