BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Movin' on up ...

This was another title that came my way through the monthly “Early Reviewers” program over on … which more months than not pairs my library with at least one of my requests for books that have been offered by various publishers. It is also at least the third book that I have recently acquired via LTER from the McFarland publishing house. As those keeping score at home may recall, I have been intrigued by this group, as their books are evidently targeted to the academic market (and so have extremely high cover prices), appear to be produced via print-on-demand (the covers have that tell-tale dimensionality of the plastic covering over the ink/toner), and, in the cases I've seen, appear to be “vanity” projects of various graduate researchers' papers. This volume, however, Skyscraper Facades of the Gilded Age: Fifty-One Extravagant Designs, 1875-1910, by Chicago-based architect Joseph J. Korom, Jr., is a true delight. While it may, indeed, be a labor-of-love “pet project” for the author, it is a remarkable look at the flowering of a certain type of building at a particular point in time, with the eyes of a specialist who can dissect the specifics of the architecture to a degree that the casual observer would have little chance of managing.

The book is a visual delight (for architecture fans, of which I'm one), chock-full of vintage (and some contemporary, shot by the author) photos of buildings, line art, Victorian advertisements, portraits of notable architects and financiers, close-ups of decorative elements, etc. This alone makes Skyscraper Facades of the Gilded Age easy to recommend, but the text is also a pleasant surprise. This certainly could have been staid, dry, and “professorial”, but if anything, it veers in the other direction, often exhibiting a floridness that echoes the buildings he's discussing.
An architect's exact process of design is almost never evident to the casual viewer of the architect's end product. The final resolution of any architectural design problem has an infinite number of pathways to resolution, hence the varieties of resolutions – buildings – that surround us. Those who resided in America's great cities in the Gilded Age were surrounded, just as we are now, by an unbridled variety of building designs.
As one would gather from the book's sub-title, Korom takes a look at fifty-one buildings that were put up in the 35 year period around the turn of the last century. These are spread out across six sections which, to a greater or lesser extent, sort them into design categories. The chapters have evocative names: “Ways and Means”, “Hopes and Dreams”, “Togas and Parasols”, “A Time for Funny Hats”, “Towers, Dragons and the Stuff of Dreams”, and “Eclectic Explorations”.

Although he certainly isn't over-bearing with it, the author does have a bit of an axe to grind … as a Chicago architect, he has an affinity for the famed “Chicago school” of skyscraper design, clean, unadorned lines, and powerful profiles … so there is a certain amount of wondering what his predecessors were thinking in creating the melanges of historical themes and stylings that were de rigueur in the “Gilded Age”.

And what, you might well ask, is this “Gilded Age” thing? Korom helpfully addresses this:
The term “Gilded Age” was coined by none other than Mark Twain, one of the period's most beloved and admired novelists. Between pipe puffs and satirical anecdotes, this silver-mustachioed character of mythical Americana managed to produce, with the hand of editor, essayist, and writer Charles Dudley Warner (1829-1900), a piece entitled The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. This novel, a product of 1873, satirized post-Civil War America by focusing on the nation's inequities, polarization, racism, materialism, corruption, and government graft. Various sources have cited the Gilded Age as one that spanned from the 1870s to the year 1900. Others, more persnickety, have pegged the period only from 1878 through 1889. Certainly, considering the novel's contents, any American period could suffice, with special honors given to the here and now. But for the purpose of this study, the Gilded Age's span of years applies to those from 1875 to 1910, since the social norms, personal values, and architectural aesthetics held in 1875 were, by and large, the same as those held in 1910.
One of the things I found amazing here was how briefly some of these towers existed. A good number of them only stood for a few decades before being razed for newer structures. Frankly, I don't necessarily share the author's (and the great Louis Sullivan's) distaste for these buildings, and in many cases I feel cheated to not have been able to see these proudly standing in their respective skylines. However, I'm also thrilled that so many of the Chicago entries in the book are still there to look at … and even had the serendipitous occurrence of being reading about one (1896's Fischer Building) on the bus, and getting off a half-block away to be able to ogle the actual item with fresh eyes of having just read its history!

Obviously, with various segmentations, and over 50 case studies, it's hard in the context of a review to take a meaningful dip into the descriptions involved. So, instead, I'm going to give you a rather long-ish excerpt here, which I think at least encapsulates the thrust of the book. From the intro to the second chapter:
      The Gilded Age was a time of hopes and dreams. The hopes of the investment community were for wealth. The dreams of the architects were for fame. These were the forces that helped to drive buildings in America’s cities higher than ever. Skyscrapers were singular achievements that were now clustered into groups; there were lots of them, and they were rising in both large and small cities, in towns, and in smaller towns. Like religion, jazz, or architecture, and to paraphrase Le Corbusier, skyscrapers, especially, were meant to “move us”. America appropriated the skyscraper as a homegrown invention and even touted some as “proud and soaring things”. The Gilded Age skyscraper symbolically allowed American to feel good about themselves and their achievements; after all, America was the heir to Greek democracy, Roman law, and Renaissance humanism. Virtues such as these deserved to be expressed by means of either wealth or architecture. Both investors and architects wished to make their mark, to leave something of themselves for posterity. One wished to do so with a brick of gold, the other with a brick of clay.
      Our national identity derived not only from the ancients, as there were other design sources, other inspirations that entered into the country's collective consciousness. Tall office buildings helped to shape the nation's identity and these provided sources of regional and national pride.
      American skyscrapers were diverse animals, creations that appeared in a multitude of styles; their forms were limitless and downtown America evolved into an architectural zoo. There were, though, many that defied any sort of neat categorization. Hybrids of hybrids sprung from the minds of educated architects, men well versed in the arts, cultures, and histories of that big, and old, continent across the Atlantic. Designing skyscrapers was challenging fun, and almost anything passed for serious work. Facades could include almost anything: angels, dragons, mythological creatures, animals, gods, goddesses, even nudes. Skyscrapers could rise to resemble castles, basilicas, chateaux, palaces, campaniles – almost anything dreamt of. It was an intellectual free-for-all that included combining these in any number of permutations.
Needless to say, if you're a fan of architecture, of that period of American history, or of the development of aesthetics, you will find a lot to love about Korom's Skyscraper Facades of the Gilded Age. The one thing that most folks will not love about it, however, is its $49.95 price tag (for a sub-250 page book) … the on-line big boys aren't helping here (Amazon is only knocking off 5% on this at the moment), but the new/used guys do have “new” copies at about 30-40% of cover – still steep, but in this case, probably worth it.

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Tags: book review
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