Making It New

American architects who revived Old World styles

By Stanley Abercrombie

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In the American and European architecture of the early 20th century, the new thing was to be old, and all smart eyes looked to the past. This trend had begun decades earlier, when William Strickland toyed with the lotus-and-papyrus columns of ancient Egypt, H.H. Richardson evoked the Romanesque, and McKim, Mead & White revived Renaissance design.

Four prominent architects in the later phase of this eclectic revivalism are the subjects of new books. Born in 1864 and 1866 respectively, Whitney Warren and Charles D. Wetmore headed the firm that is best known for the 1913 Beaux-Arts Grand Central Terminal in New York City, designed in partnership with Reed & Stem. In The Architecture of Warren & Wetmore (W.W. Norton, $60, 256 pages), authors Peter Pennoyer and Anne Walker devote their longest discussion to Grand Central but make clear that there is much more worth our attention, beginning with the young firm's competition-winning design for the New York Yacht Club (1901), an ornate vessel that sails majestically down West 44th Street.

Later Warren & Wetmore work is more circumspect, like the stately Biltmore Hotel (now the Bank of America Plaza Building) and the copper-roofed New York Central Building (now the Helmsley Building), which belonged to a group of hotels and office buildings around Grand Central envisioned as "Terminal City." The firm also designed a grand country house in Centerport, N.Y., for William K. Vanderbilt Jr., and a Manhattan mansion for James A. Burden Jr.—not to mention department stores, country clubs, and a university library in Louvain, Belgium. But Grand Central is the masterpiece, particularly in its most critical aspect: circulation. As Robert A.M. Stern notes in his foreword to the book, Philip Johnson called its great concourse "the American San Marco."

Arthur Brown Jr. (1874-1957) was the design partner of the San Francisco firm Bakewell & Brown, which is also best known for a single important building, San Francisco's City Hall of 1916, and for much of its surrounding ensemble, including the War Memorial Opera House of 1932. Jeffrey T. Tilman's Arthur Brown Jr., Progressive Classicist (W.W. Norton, $60, 272 pages) traces Brown's education, his partnership with John Bakewell Jr., which lasted from 1905 to 1927, and his later work on the Federal Triangle in Washington, D.C. (the Department of Labor and Interstate Commerce Commission buildings) and for Stanford University. Like Whitney Warren, Brown studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and the San Francisco City Hall is an exuberant example of its teachings. Between City Hall's two vast rectangles of office space is a public concourse to rival Grand Central's, topped by an enormous dome and featuring a grand stairway rising to the opulent Board of Supervisors' chamber.

Despite the book's title, Brown was not always a classicist. At Stanford he followed the formula of round-headed Romanesque arcades and Spanish tile roofs that had been established by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, the successor firm to H.H. Richardson's office. More surprisingly, Brown devised for the Pasadena City Hall of 1927 a very personal and romantic blend of classical and Spanish colonial styles. In 1933, Brown's Agriculture Building for Chicago's Century of Progress Exposition moved wholly into the modern realm with its long terraces of aluminum and glass. Tilman makes the case that the classical tradition was at the root of even Brown's most modern work: Brown understood that classicism must evolve to meet the demands of modern life.

George Washington Smith, Architect of the Spanish Colonial Revival (Gibbs Smith, $39.95, 178 pages), by Patricia Gebhard, tells the story of a more consistent designer. Smith (1876-1930) grew up less privileged than Warren, Wetmore, or Brown and dropped out of Harvard because of lack of funds. In 1912 he went to Paris to paint, returning when World War I began. By 1918 he had finished building his first house for himself in Montecito, Calif. It established both his career and his style, which shows the influence not only of California's Spanish missions but also of the Spanish colonial revival architecture of Bertram Goodhue and Irving Gill.

Of these books—which include complete catalogs of their subjects' work—the one on Smith is the least obviously compelling, probably because his practice was chiefly residential, whereas the other firms produced some of America's most celebrated public spaces. All offer insight into a period when the styles of past times and foreign places seemed the best guides for the here and now.

A retired architect, Stanley Abercrombie is a writer and an editor in Sonoma, Calif.