Saturday, July 16, 2016

Samuel Sloan: Italianate Planner and Architectural Theorist

Woodland Terrace in Philadelphia (1861).
This is Sloan's most impressive surviving architectural ensemble and is
characteristic of his numerous works in West Philadelphia.
Perhaps no other architect worked as hard as Samuel Sloan (1815-1884) to popularize not only the Italianate Style in the US, but also to revolutionize construction, decorative, design, and technological practice for American architects. Sloan, as his writings show, saw himself as a person who could help American architecture develop an inventiveness, creativity, technological prowess, and stylistic vocabulary beyond the mere copying of European precedents and designs. From Sloan's perspective, his role was to help improve American architectural practice (which he did not have the greatest confidence in from his early training) and encourage the development of an intelligent, quality, and independent American architecture.

The best published work on Sloan is Harold N. Cooledge's Samuel Sloan: Architect of Philadelphia 1815-1884 (1986) which not only provides a thorough biography of Sloan's life and career, but also a catalogue of his works. Additionally, Sloan's own voluminous writings give us more insight into his thoughts and architectural ideas and practices than we have for almost any other mid-19th century architect. Born in 1815 in rural Beaver Dam, PA to a family of cabinet makers, Sloan was by 1833 an active builder in Philadelphia. His first recorded work was building some elements of Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and he moved up the ranks working for well known architects like John Haviland and William Strickland. Soon after, Sloan began producing designs for the opinionated and visionary Thomas Kirkbride, a hospital and mental health theorist, giving Sloan an immense amount of training in institutional design and providing him with a patron who encouraged and transformed him from a carpenter into an architect and designer. Most of the early decade of his career was spent in the background, working on institutional and governmental public buildings, schools, court houses, and hospitals guided by the theories and ideas of powerful and opinionated clients.

Sloan's independent career properly begins in 1850, when he was given the commission to design a villa for Andrew Eastwick, a locomotive manufacturer. This building, which Sloan designed in the "Norman" style, combining Italianate features with north Italian medieval design would gain him architectural renown and introduce him as a unique architect. At exactly the moment Sloan appeared on Philadelphia's architectural stage, the city was expanding, and several developers aimed to construct a model suburban community in West Philadelphia. The selection of Sloan as the principle designer for many of these developments, mostly in Gothic and Italianate styles, meant that he would shape the entire architectural vocabulary of suburban Philadelphia. Even later architects who continued the project followed Sloan's design principles, giving this area of the city a distinctive architectural harmony, disrupted only in the later 19th century by scores of Jacobean, Colonial Revival, and Queen Anne rows. In 1855, Sloan even got to plan and design an enclave of fine villas in Riverton, NJ. Additionally, he became a designer for most pf Philadelphia's public schools, several major commercial buildings, and several speculative residential rows within central Philadelphia.

Sloan's design for the Eastwick House "Bartram Hall".

Between 1851-3, Sloan worked on and published his first major architectural work, The Model Architect. While plan books were plentiful in the 19th century, Sloan's contribution was different. Not only did he provide dozens of plans and elevations, but Sloan also offered several illustrated pages of details, in which he depicted up-close the doors, windows, cornices, brackets and sometimes interiors and furniture choices for architects. A few plans contained full landscape plans, complete with a series of fantastic gazebos, squirrel houses, bird houses, and conservatories, all carefully designed. But Sloan didn't stop as many other designers did, in just offering a superficial set of designs. This book also included theorizing on styles, advice on good joining and construction practices (including complete drawings of the framing of buildings), detailed discussions of heating and cooling mechanisms for homes, a frank discussion of comfort and practical designs, as well as detailed descriptions of cost, construction timelines, and architectural accounting. Sloan provided basically a full tutorial on architectural practice in America. The Model Architect was a revolutionary book and so central to American architecture that copies of it spread across the US. No other architect gained as much exposure as did Sloan, and it's thanks to this book that Sloan's designs ended up all over the US, with thousands of buildings based on his work. Thus, while Sloan had a confined set of commissions he personally worked on, his designs spread far beyond his personal reach, stamping his legacy on dozens of towns. The book was so popular it was reprinted every decade until the 1880s. Below are examples of Sloan's detail pages as well as his designs for non-architectural members, such as birdhouses (an Italianate birdhouse!).

From 1852-8, Sloan formed a partnership with builder John Stewart. In this period, Sloan came up with one of his most original designs, the Bennett & Co. building, a fantastic commercial edifice in the Norman/Gothic style. He also designed the Second Masonic Temple in Philadelphia, a fantasy of lacy Gothic, in 1855. Joseph Harrison as well in this period commissioned Sloan to design his planned communities in West Philadelphia as well as his palatial estate on Rittenhouse Square (1856). Unfortunately, this period of prosperity came to an end in 1857, when Sloan and Stewart dissolved their partnership after a major financial panic. In 1858, Sloan published his second work, City and Suburban Architecture, which offered a wider range of designs ranging from commercial, civic, religious, to residential. In it, Sloan focused on the difficulties of designing buildings appropriate to sites and for different functions. The book has numerous beautiful drawings, more polished than his earlier work, which the draftsman Addison Hutton contributed. As Sloan's career matured, so did his architectural approach, and in CSA, we can see a far more austere and sophisticated approach to European style Renaissance ornament.

In 1859, Sloan was to begin work on his most famous building, the octagonal oriental villa "Longwood" in Natchez MS. Based on one of his plans from The Model Architect, seen by Haller Nuttit, the owner of Longwood, it would consume many bodies from Sloan's office until 1860, when the outbreak of the Civil War convinced the northern workmen to return to Philadelphia. The house would remain, its exterior complete but its interiors unfinished. As work tapered off during the Civil War, Sloan published two more books. Sloan's Homestead Architecture and American Houses: A Variety of Designs for Rural Buildings (both 1861), both of which recycled material but also explored the concept of well-designed affordable housing. In this period as well, Sloan designed Woodland Terrace in Philadelphia, his most significant surviving ensemble. The contentious city hall competition in Philadelphia coupled with the war meant that Sloan's work slowed during the 1860s, when Sloan was partnered with Addison Hutton (1860-8), during which he focused on designing hospitals and courthouses. In one case, the increasingly cantankerous Sloan sued the town of Williamsport for stealing his plans for their courthouse. Additionally, he began publishing editorials criticizing the narrow stylistic stubbornness of architects whom Sloan saw as ignoring their client's wishes in favor of abstract devotion to European stylistic canons. For Sloan, American architecture did not need to be so prescriptive; it should revolve around practical requirements, convenience, comfort, and fitness, more than abstract theories about the moral and ethical implications of style.

"Longwood" Photo: Wikimedia.
Sloan joined the American Institute of Architects in 1868 and founded the periodical The Architectural Review and American Builder's Journal which served as a vehicle for his ideas and plans until it folded in 1870. In this periodical, Sloan took to task the architects (calling them in his first essay "mere constructors") with whom he disagreed, earning him many enemies and critics, but the periodical did allow architects from outside the east to display work and promoted the formation of the AIA. As Sloan alienated Philadelphia society and architects, his interests began to turn elsewhere outside of Pennsylvania. His involvement in the renovations to the NJ state capitol resulted in a very different appearance for the architecturally confused building. With little work coming in from Philadelphia, Sloan received commissions for public buildings in North Carolina, which encouraged him to move his office to Raleigh in 1877. In this period Sloan changed with the styles, and his design for the NC governor's mansion is an essay in fanciful Queen Anne. Sloan died in 1884 from "typhoid fever" according to several conflicting accounts, leaving behind not only hundreds of buildings he directly designed, but thousands based on his plans, as well as a robust and transformative philosophy that would help professionalize American architectural practice, even if Sloan often fell short of the strict standards he advocated.

Sloan on the "Italian Style"

Sloan worked in three principles styles, Italianate, Gothic, and Oriental/Italianate, but the majority of his works can be classified as Italianate in spirit and in principle. In Sloan's writings, he identified four different styles that I would classify within the realm of Italianate design, "Italian", the typical Italianate style we have explored; "Norman", a heavier castellated kind of Italianate based on Medieval Italian architecture and German Rundbogenstil; "Bracketed", a less formal form of design with larger brackets and eaves; and "Oriental", which is basically Italianate designs with applied Indian ornament (as I have discussed as Indian Italianate). Sloan's inventiveness, creativity, and focus on convenience, comfort, and fitness over rigorous stylistic canons, as well as the modifications many of his designs underwent in the hands of builders, means that his approach has a smaller degree of unity than many other architects.

For Sloan, the Italian style was primarily an appropriately suburban idiom. He explains in MA that the style is "so well adapted is it to the wants and tastes of our people, that it is likely to become, if it is not already, one of our most fashionable styles for country residences. It possesses very little of the rural character, and seems much more appropriate for the retired home of one accustomed to city life, than for one born and bred in the country. Its location, consequently, should not be in the depths of the forest, but within a few miles of the city." Sloan similarly wrote, like other architects, that while classical Greek and Roman ideas were suitable for public buildings, it was Italian design that suited domestic design. In defining the style, Sloan zeroed in on irregularity as its primary feature: "Most generally, Italian villas have an irregular outline from every point of view. The predominant figure is the rectangle, but many being introduced and so disposed as to break in upon each other, the irregular outline is formed without difficulty. The angular effect is relieved by the semi-circular arch which is freely used. Great license is also permitted in the ground plans, thus admitting almost every possible arrangement of apartments." He also noted the significance of towers, or "campaniles" as he terms them. Additionally:

"It has been stated that gables do not occur, but this is incorrect: we simply cite Raphael's villa, in the Borghese Gardens. Hip roofs are, however, common. In all cases the eaves are heavy and projecting, being supported by brackets and cantalivers of various patterns. The chimneys are prominent, and serve to give greater variety to the outline. The windows are made double, or treble, and, together with the doors, have either square or arched beads, according to the importance of their position. Bay-windows are frequent. All window and door dressings are made very heavy, and, indeed, throughout there is a tendency rather to boldness than minute decoration. Heavy arcades, porches with large square pillars, verandahs, balconies, anta?, pilasters, quoins, rustic work, and string courses, all often occur."

"The character of this style is far from being rural, but is genuinely picturesque. The irregularity of the ground plans and vertical outline, and the great freedom allowed in general design, give considerable room for the exercise of taste. In Italy, the surface of the country is greatly diversified by hills and valleys, and advantage is taken of this in erecting the villas so as to command landscapes."

For Sloan, Italianate was a style perfectly suited to his belief in function over form and in his suburban ideal, both his ideal for the concept of the suburb as rus in urbe as well as his ideal of the suburban inhabitant: "Country residences in the Italian style are becoming more and more popular, both here and in the old world. Its great pliability of design, its facile adaptation to our wants and habits, together with its finished, elegant, and picturesque appearance, give it precedence over every other. It speaks of the inhabitant as a man of wealth, who wishes in a quiet way to enjoy his wealth. It speaks of him as a person of educated and refined tastes, who can appreciate the beautiful both in art and nature ; who, accustomed to all the ease and luxury of a city life, is now enjoying the more pure and elevating pleasures of the country."

Norman architecture for Sloan was as much an ornamental style as a conceptual mode. He traced its origins to the barbarians who invaded Italy and adapted architecture for their own needs, creating the style we would now call Romanesque, upon which Italianate design was based. Sloan characterizes this style throughout as massive and suited primarily to public buildings. For residences, he advised caution and attention to scale: "For dwellings, this style is only adapted to those on a large scale. Its heavy, bold, and rich expression would be lost in a building of small size, but for an extensive villa it presents most admirable features."

As for the Oriental style, Sloan considered its application to housing to be a matter of decoration and not design. In essence, he created an Italianate plan and plastered on Oriental ornament: "It would be sheer folly to introduce the original pure style into this country, for no wise man will sacrifice his comfort in order to secure consistency in the appearance of his house with those which have been built in other countries, in other climates, and perhaps for other purposes by people with different customs. Our style of living is totally unlike that in the East, and were we to build just such houses as they have, we would certainly part with comfort. This last is of the first importance. Let every one arrange his dwelling so as to secure the greatest amount of convenience, and then exercise his judgment in decoration. We hold that, in a manner, each building is an independent being, and if it be consistent with itself both internally and externally, and as to its purpose, then no fault can be found with it on that score. Many buildings similar to the one here given have been erected in this country and command universal admiration. The best location would be on the banks of some of our noble streams, the Mississippi or the Hudson."

As for the Bracketed style, Sloan considered it a subset of Italianate design in which the eaves were oversized: "In sunny climes, it is highly desirable that the walls of dwellings, especially, should be protected, as much as possible, from direct rays. This fact has given rise, in Italy, to a style in which the eaves of the building project considerably. This projection is often so great, that unless there be some apparent support for the eaves, the eye is offended by a sense of insecurity. The defect is remedied by the use of cantilevers and brackets; whence the name bracketed style, in use among some authors. The style is growing among us, and deserves high commendation, for country residences especially, since, in addition to cooling shade, it gives many other pleasing effects."

Thus, for Sloan, Italianate remained the bedrock of planning. Most of his designs maintain the irregularity and convenience of the Italianate style which was suited for his ideological beliefs about residential and architectural design. The Norman and Oriental styles consisted mostly of an ornamental idiom applied to the convenience of Italianate design, and that idiom in his plans always remains an intriguing dress over the consistent Italianate features of irregular or convenient planning, brackets, towers, and large eaves.

In the next series of posts, I will look at all of Sloan's direct architectural work as well as provide a survey of all of his Italianate plans from his publications to give a full impression of his influence on the style. Additionally, where I have found them, I'll provide examples built from his plans to show how his theoretical work influenced designs throughout the US.

Like this post on an architect? Check out the posts on John Notman!

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