The Suburban Architecture - An Architectural Chronology

Pre-Suburban West Philadelphia

Through the American Revolution, two strong architectural traditions existed. One was the vernacular traditions of Pennsylvania. Older vernacular structures reflected more medieval Germanic and English origins, while newer ones often revealed more recent neo-classical influences. These neo-classical influences came from a very different tradition, one that involved a more formal architectural design process and reflected the rationality of Enlightenment thinking.

In America, this first wave of romantic neo-classicism is referred to as “Georgian.” It used an architectural vocabulary derived from rediscovered ancient Roman cities. The best designs were highly rational, developed using defined volumes, simple geometric forms, symmetry, and proportions based on mathematical relationships. In carrying out the actual construction, local materials and techniques generally sufficed. Stone was favored in the rural areas and brick more so in the cities. Nevertheless, on buildings built of field stone, a stucco surface would frequently be applied. Furthermore, on more formal buildings, the surfaces were made to look like ashlar, that is square cut stone.

After the American Revolution, although architecture continued to be neo-classical in appearance, there was a marked shift in design. It came from both the discovery of ancient Greek buildings and a new interpretation by English architects led by the Adams brothers. The Adams created lighter and more elegant the visual composition along with circular interior circulations. One can see the move toward flatter details, thinner proportions, and lighter looking components. Finer houses also had curved interior walls and doorways leading to adjoining rooms. There was also an emphasis on the picturesque. Fine country houses used the windows and even mirrors to emphasize views of the “natural” landscape. One of the earliest and most successful American examples of this was William Hamilton's The Woodlands, praised by Thomas Jefferson as the best example of an English Country house this side of the Atlantic.

Men like Thomas Jefferson saw ancient Athens as the more perfect model than ancient Rome for the new nation, and drew heavily on the latest discoveries for their architectural designs. Neo-Grecian soon pervaded the landscape of the new republic. However, it was frequently applied in rather superficial ways. The result was even vernacular and village houses sported white paint and temple like porticoes. Eventually this led to a backlash from architectural critics.

Early Suburban and Village Architecture

By the 1840s, critics like Andrew Jackson Downing, derided the Greek Revival as inappropriate for American dwelling houses. This contributed to a major shift away from using classical models for houses. The problem was to come up with a substitute style. Downing wanted something more “practical” and also something that could be considered inherently American. He turned in part to vernacular architecture.

By practical architecture, Downing meant that the architecture should fit the land around it, that the style should fit the owner, that the materials should not imitate another, and that it should function. For a house to function, the architect needed to see that the interior got plenty of light and ventilation, that it was easy to move around, and that space was planned practically. It was from this background that Samuel Sloan designed his West Philadelphia houses.

In the end, neither Downing, nor the architects he drew from, nor those that followed, were entirely successful in finding an “American” style. No single source dominated or was believed to be universally superior. Oriental, Gothic, and Italian buildings were all used loosely as models. However, during this period, the styles are only little more than ornament, or dressing. They were mostly inspirational, not archaeological models and there was no attempt to accurately replicate from these sources. In fact, the Gothick Revival of this time period is often written with the 'k' at the end of gothic to emphasize that it was a non-archaeological revival and separate it from the later Gothic revivals.

Post Civil War & Centennial Era

After the American Civil War, fundamental changes in design accompanied the rise of a new generation of architects. These changes came about in part because of the influence of American architects that had received at least some Beaux Art's training. They also drew upon the new currents of English and French architectural philosophies that were being espoused. As a result, there was less concern about finding an “American style,” more interest in traditional and even exotic vocabularies, along with a more professional way of designing.

John Ruskin's book, The Seven Lamps of Architecture was extremely influential. It encouraged design using massing to emphasize strength, bold surfaces, more natural and life-like designs. In keeping with the previous current of architectural thought, it continued to connect aesthetics to moralistic aspirations and meaning. From France, Viollet le Duc's writings also encouraged depth of forms to produce masses and shadows. However le Duc's approach was more rationalized and academic, and therefore less insistent on using gothic forms literally. From both sides of the English Channel came the fundamental view that details were not just applied ornament, but basic to a building's composition. This was a near about face in thinking.

The American public was apparently also ready for a change. Charles Eastlake's book Hints on Household Taste was a dramatic hit when brought to the States. Although not an architectural book per se, it reflected the thinking of the architectural leaders of the English Gothic movement. Eastlake encouraged simpler, more rectilinear and solid craftsmanship, and looked to medieval work for examples to create furniture. Eastlake saw this as more honest than the florid, and heavily upholstered designs popular in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and that he felt were excessive. His message was not always clearly understood. Years later Eastlake was quoted in The Builder as regretting the way his name was used by some American furniture makers for designs he would not approve of at all.

Around the time of the Centennial, there began a subtle shift in the design work of at least some architects working in West Philadelphia. In the literature of the time, the new aesthetic would often be referred to as "Queen Anne" or simply modern architecture. It made use of modern materials, systems, colors and patterns previously unavailable, liberally mixed with ribbed brick chimneys and towers and other features reminiscent of the brick English Manors of the early 1600s. Although most architects leaned toward a more exuberant aesthetics, some in Philadelphia, most notably Frank Furness, continued to explore the sublime.

The Trolley Era

At the beginning of the 1890s, Philadelphia was bucking the national taste in the continued construction of bold brick red buildings. In fact, the facades were just one obvious manifestation of the conservative nature of most West Philadelphia builders. For example, one frequently finds southern pine floors when advice books were already promoting hardwood. But even in Philadelphia, modern architecture was beginning to take on a new look. Already in West Philadelphia, leading architects were reaching out in other directions, opening up interiors, simplifying everything from massing to motifs, and drawing on English and Spanish Colonial architectural vocabularies.

If Philadelphia's architectural taste was out of fashion, its ability to house its residents was source of pride. At the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago (1893), Philadelphia proudly exhibited a model row house. The point of the exhibit was that row house helped it be a "City of Homes", nearly free of tenements, overcrowding, and its evils.

But the Columbian Exposition, with its great white classical buildings built on the shores of Lake Superior, dramatically pointed the return of a more classical academic architecture. It also demonstrated the potential for academic planning of an entire city.

The Garden Court Era 

The Columbian Exposition has also been credited with helping give rise to the City Beautiful movement. Certainly there was a revived interest in the possibilities of planned communities around the turn of the 20th century. The Garden Court development was a leading example of a developer working within this context.

Not all academically designed houses were classical, and at the turn of the 20th century, there were architects who designed classical buildings in a non-academic way. Academic designs were developed starting with the ground plan, and then building the forms up. There also were other strong architectural currents effecting domestic architecture of the time, particularly the arts and crafts movement, and a revived interest in the colonial era.

Exhibit by Matthew Grubel, 2008