Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A New American Architecture (1859)

We recently came across an interesting defense of William A. Freret's Merchants' Insurance Company building, erected in 1859. As the structure was being completed, it provoked the ire of local critics who considered its non-traditional "mixed styles" in negative terms. An anonymous Daily Picayune writer supported Freret's approach:

“This building is three stories and a half high; the iron pillars of each story being of a different style; the ornament in the blocking course represents the fit attributes of the insurance company: the centre is occupied by a fire plug, with hose and pipe attached, and an anchor resting against it; on either side are bales of cotton and barrels, the prow of a vessel, with spars and furled sails and roof of a house visible in the back ground. The “mixed style” of the building has been a subject for criticism, and we have heard remarks made, especially concerning the second story, which are made in the shape of a plain round column, with a rope twisted around it, giving the profile and undulating instead of straight appearance. It is difficult to judge of a building before it is completed; when the whole work is put up, the tout ensemble is more striking and we can form a correct opinion. We cannot see the reason which should bind an architect to follow strictly the rules of such or such an order of architecture, because it is established since times immemorial, more than that which would compel us to wear coats of a certain cut or hats of a certain shape, because our ancestors wore thus. What would have become of the thousands of improvements of every description, which have been bequeathed to us by modern invention, if such a reasoning had been adopted and why should the rule, inapplicable to any other art, be adapted to Architecture alone? We are a new people and there is scarcely an instrument invented in Europe, that we have not improved, or  better, in most instances we have had to create so as to supply our wants. And why should we not create a new order of architecture. Admitting that churches, public edifices, should be constructed according to the time-honored rules of the art, they cannot well be applied to the construction of stores, covering streets after streets. The five orders of architecture were not invented or adopted at the same time; even the first in date was an innovation and an improvement; they were successfully adopted because they pleased the eye; and such is the rule by which our American architects may safely be guided. Let fault finders sneer, and build according to your judgment and fancy; if you have taste, if you have genius, the public will find it out in spite of all sarcastic theorists. It is not by copying that great masters have become famous, invent and you will create a new school.”(1)

(1)"The City." The Daily Picayune 25 September 1859.

Image above:  Unidentified photographer. L & L Fur Shop [Formerly Merchants' Mutual Insurance Company]/622 Canal Street, New Orleans, LA. Circa 1940s. American Institute of Architects/New Orleans Chapter Records, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

No comments: