The American Style: Colonial Revival and the Modern Metropolis

A message from our President, Paul Gunther

Paul Gunther

An Exhibition and Catalog From the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY)
With A Special Welcome to the Institute and its Many Friends

The Institute of Classical Architecture & Art has had the pleasure in recent years of assisting the Museum with this seminal exhibition opening in New York on Flag Day, June 14, 2011 (through October 30) which examines a flexible and enduring style of continuing reinvention, which in its late 19th and 20th century iterations, was largely one conceived, launched, and marketed in New York City.

The American Style cover

As the Institute itself does not presently have the capacity for exhibitions at any scale apart from occasional display of the fine work resulting from the core classes of the Grand Central Academy division, it is thrilling that a major cultural institution of renewed distinction took on this rich, dense subject hidden in plain sight in the place we operate the national headquarters. Original objects, reconstructions, and photography both old and new will help tell the story.

While long associated with Williamsburg, Philadelphia, Boston, and other cradles or simulacrums of a young American Republic, it was in New York that cutting-edge marketers and style leaders led the Colonial Revival trend in architecture, town planning, and decorative arts. All combined, it permeated American homes and the collective consciousness that welcomed its claim to an authentic historic identity: A bridge to the solid principles of our founding. The Georgian or Queen Anne Style that nurtured the native (and Palladio-inflected) Federal Style, when the thirteen colonies defined America, provided the essential parts for such a bridge in the long wake of the nation’s centennial.

This show considers such contributions to a national groundswell celebrating and reviving a storied past proven useful and popular in the face of strife and uncertainty during times of deprivation or rapid change as so frequently erupted over the course of the last century.

It is fitting that it takes place at MCNY not only due to its now updated 1932 colonial revival James Freedlander headquarters at Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street, but also as a measure of its recent commitment to exploring design and architecture as core aspects of New York history allowed by the work there of its especially well-qualified co-curators, Donald Albrecht and Thomas Mellins. They are also the authors of its eponymous catalog published concurrently by Monacelli/Random House.

Museum of the City of New York

Museum of the City of New York, Fifth Avenue between East 103rd and 104th Streets, New York City, Joseph H. Freedlander, 1932. Photograph by Samuel H. Gottscho. Museum of the City of New York, Gottscho-Schleisner Collection (34.443.01).

Peter Pennoyer’s role as exhibition designer provided one final bond along with inclusion of some of the recent work of ICAA members. Their example today reveals how Colonial Revival as one aspect of the classical tradition in America remains a dynamic and adaptable one for meeting modern needs and helping to sustain this national design identity.

Fairfax and Sammons House

Carriage house and studio, West Fourth Street between Barrow and Morton Streets, New York City, Anne Fairfax and Richard Sammons, 2007. Photograph by Durston Saylor.

Colonial Revival presented as such a continuum recalls cultural memory understood and maintained and thus goes directly to the ICAA’s guiding educational mission. American Style reveals how it is too often overlooked or dismissed as mere nostalgia when instead it met and meets contemporary needs with rigorous aesthetic expression. It is a vocabulary characterized by the impulse to look back while marching forward with economy, restraint, and proportion identified as quintessentially American regardless of its departures from exact precedent.

Willard Straight House

Willard Straight house, Fifth Avenue and East 94th Street, New York City, Delano & Aldrich, 1915. Photograph by David Paler, 2010. Courtesy David Paler Photography.

The Museum’s Ronay Menschel Director, Susan Henshaw Jones, summarized well her leadership in sticking by this initiative over many years of planning and gestation, “As we continue to modernize the Museum founded in Colonial Revival’s initial heyday, it seems especially fitting that we consider the city’s many contributions to a vibrant, compelling and dynamic stylistic force that remains alive today.”

“The Colonial Revival is an American style fulfilling a collective desire for tradition, while offering a malleable sense of the past shaped by ever-changing contemporary forces. The style is comprised of a wide range of vocabularies from strict adaptations to freer adaptations using new materials and means of construction,” according to Curator of Architecture and Design, Donald Albrecht, who also cites the Susan B. Wagner Wing at Gracie Mansion by Mott B. Schmitt opened in 1966 at the acme of optimistic modernist hegemony as strong evidence of such stylistic resilience and perennial demand.

Coffee Pot

Coffee pot from a twelve piece coffee service, manufactured by Black Starr & Frost-Gorham, Inc., gold, 1936 Museum of the City of New York, bequest of Percy L. Hance (75.156.17a), photograph by John Halpern

Settee

Settee manufactured by the Company of Master Craftsmen, mahogany and modern upholstery, c. 1926 Museum of the City of New York, Bequest of Helen Van Praag Tallmadge (60.103.35), photograph by John Halpern

Mr. Albrecht’s curator partner, the architectural historian, Thomas Mellins, amplified upon New York’s role as diverse mecca, “Even as the ultimate modern metropolis, New York has long been home to some of the world’s great revivalist styles of architecture. None has been more enduring than the Colonial Revival.”

Knickerbocker Club

Knickerbocker Club, Fifth Avenue and East 62nd Street, New York City, Delano & Aldrich, 1913 Photograph by Wurts Brothers Company Museum of the City of New York, Wurts Brothers Collection (X2010.7.1.4568)

Classicist Blog readers and ICAA Members are urged to attend The American Style soon, return often, and inform their friends and colleagues. As a special gesture by the Museum, Institute E-Newsletter subscribers will be offered admission at half the normal level requested, along with a 10% discount on the exhibition catalog and other museum store purchases. Please present a copy of this E-Newsletter at the Admissions Desk to receive your discount. This volume belongs in the libraries of contemporary classicists who share the curiosity and appreciation that has propelled American Style since its inception.

The lead donor to this enterprise has been Taconic Builders. They were joined by many like-minded others who can be found and appreciated at the Web site www.mcny.org.

Taconic’s president Jim Hanley summarized his impulse well in stating, “As builders we recognize our role not only as purveyors of bricks and mortar, but on a higher level, as collaborators with all stake holders and practitioners to foster a greater understanding of and love for architecture.”

The MCNY Web site also describes related programs and visitation details. Leave time when there for a visit to the Conservatory Garden across Fifth Avenue, the most classical corner of the overall park plan as so brilliantly reinvented and replanted by the Central Park Conservancy under the watch of ICAA friend and lecturer, Lynden Miller.

All Images Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

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