“First, What kind of life was lived in this place, that is, Why and how did its builders build as they did?
And second, what rules with general validity and applicability did they follow?”
Carroll William Westfall, Learning From Pompeii.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Jefferson Hotel: Urban Scale Ecole

Jefferson Hotel, American Architect and Building News, April, 1893.
Urbanismo has taken a bit of a break this summer to regroup and refresh our carefully calibrated sensibilities. We thought we would begin anew with an essay on one of our favorite elements of the urban scale in our provincial capital: the justly celebrated Jefferson Hotel.

The Jefferson Hotel, completed in 1895, outscaled in comfort and extent all that the New South metropolis of Richmond could require. It also played a significant national role in the development of the hotel building type. The Jefferson represents an ambitious effort on the part of civic leaders to affirm and promote a enhanced social and civic role for the hotel in the American city by providing an uncharacteristic richness of form and symbolic content. In spite of a disastrous fire and many renovations, much of the hotel’s fabric and even some of original furnishings remain intact. Thanks to its patron and exceptional French-trained architects, the hotel is a uniquely consistent manifestation of French academic architectural theories in the American context.
Jefferson Hotel Palm Court as rebuilt after the fire of 1901.
Lewis Ginter

The Jefferson Hotel was built for well-informed Richmond taste-maker Lewis Ginter (1824-1897), a wealthy tobacco manufacturer who played the role of civic philanthropist and patron of the arts. In later life he used his vast wealth to achieve personal and civic goals in harmony with the aesthetic movement known as the American Renaissance. By 1892 Ginter had taken up a plan to build a new hotel in the West End, determined to act as a benefactor to his burgeoning adopted city. The project’s extraordinary scale, complex plan, and high cost suggest that Ginter clearly intended to provide Richmond with an urban amenity similar to those in the American North and the capitals and resorts of Europe with which he was familiar.

The rectangular site selected by Lewis Ginter for the hotel occupied approximately one-half of a square or block west of downtown Richmond, between Franklin and Main streets, in what had been the city's most fashionable residential neighborhood for many years. The pressure of postwar industry and commerce in the city’s old center sparked new construction in the old residential areas. Franklin Street, which intersected with Capitol Square, had developed as a major axis of power as the city expanded to the west.
The lot might have suggested the massive block-like palazzo format utilized in most urban hotels of the period, but the architects took an alternate approach. The accepted proposal, as published in 1893, shows a strangely bifurcated building, with a three-story north front on West Franklin Street and a six-story section to the south facing West Main Street occupying about two-thirds of the site. This awkward juxtapositioning of facade elements, sometimes noted in the work of Carrère and Hastings, was derived from the emphasis placed on the plan in their French academic education and the subservience of facade to plan in their design philosophy.

The hotel exterior as built varied from the architects’ original proposal chiefly in the addition of two high campaniles which functioned as clock towers. The textures of the wall surfaces expressed each floor's position in the building's exterior hierarchy. Upper walls of closely laid, cream-colored brick rose above a brick ground floor incorporating banded rustication. The hotel rested on a low basement of rock-faced granite blocks sunk, on the north, into deep areaways. The walls were richly detailed with ornamental molded terra cotta window surrounds, arcades, cornices, and string courses.

The Franklin Street facade, seen above, stood back from the street and deliberately corresponded in height to the adjacent, three-story Archer Anderson House (enlarged in 1880 and since demolished) and other large Italianate-villa-style houses located along the street. A pair of towers flanked the main entry, topped with belvederes based on those at the Villa Medici. Lower wings with deep, bracketed eaves flanked the central portion of the north facade and behind these rose the tall, twin, domed campaniles that were visible across the city. A triple-arched loggia supported on paired, colored marble columns was located just above the vaulted entry porch. The campaniles served to unite the two sections more effectively and called attention to the building's civic role.
On the south front of the hotel (here seen immediately after the fire of 1901 destroyed the upper stories) Carrère and Hastings stacked terra cotta palazzo motifs. A plainly detailed ground floor, containing a smoking room, grill, billiard room, and other men's amenities, supported a long, nine-bay piano nobile, housing the dining room. The architects treated the dining room level like that of the garden front of Versailles, with an applied order (Corinthian here, rather than Ionic) clasping a window arcade. Here the order affirmed, in keeping with classical principles of decorum, that the hotel's functions culminated in and focused on a festive ritual of dining. 

The Palm Court, or Pompeiian Court (seen to the right), provided with very French paired columns, each crowned with archeologically correct versions of the Pompeiian Ionic capital, functioned as an enclosed atrium or winter garden providing light to the interior of the Franklin Street section. It centered on a statue of Jefferson surrounded by beds of grass, paths, and fountains. The Franklin Street section was intended to serve families and female guests. A monumental vaulted staircase led down to the austere Rotunda Lobby in the Main Street end of the hotel, which was treated, not as a rotunda, but as an enclosed Renaissance courtyard with the deliberate imposition of cast iron girders and columns.

The Rotunda was a full story lower than the Palm Court and, like it, was brightly illuminated by a glass ceiling by day and electric arc lights by night. It served as the club-like center for the masculine lower level of the hotel, frequented by business travelers.In this remarkable space (lost in the fire of 1901 that destroyed the south end of the hotel, and rebuilt soon after in a very different manner) Carèrre and Hastings quoted directly from the sculpture court of the Palais des Etudes at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The court, a central part of the school where Carèrre and Hastings had studied, was begun by François Debret in 1820, completed by Félix Duban in 1839, and enclosed by him with a glass roof in 1867. The architects imitated and elaborated the slender iron colonnettes that were added in front of the walls to support the gabled glass roof at the École. Contemporary writers noted the dramatic vista from the Rotunda to the Palm Court.

The Grand Salon, today the Dining Room of the hotel’s Lemaire Restaurant, embodied the most complete example in Richmond of what was called the "modern French style," accurately described in contemporary accounts as Louis XVI, based on the “Grand Salon” in Bordeaux’s Hôtel de la Préfecture transformed into an exercise in Beaux-Arts planning. The tripartite Dining Room, lined with gilded oak, at the opposite end of the hotel displayed contrasting features abstracted by the architects from the opulent forms associated with Napoleon III, such as the Reception Room at the Parisian Hôtel Continental and its prototypes at Versailles and the Paris Opéra.
The École des Beaux-Arts traditionally advocated the use of sculptural and painted decoration articulating or reinforcing the symbolic content of the building. Through its decorative program the Jefferson Hotel took on the character of a major public building. The works of art in the Jefferson, some of which were collected or commissioned by Lewis Ginter, conveyed the theme of civic virtue or by their presence proclaimed the hotel's role as a civilizing institution. The most important large-scale sculptural element in the hotel remains the figure of Thomas Jefferson by Richmond native Edward V. Valentine. By its position in the center of the Palm Court it emulated and rivaled Houdon's statue of Washington in the Rotunda of the Virginia Capitol.
Charles Garnier, Concert Hall of the Casino, Monte Carlo, 1878-80

Unexpectedly, the most direct inspiration for the front would seem to have been the Casino at Monte Carlo by Garnier (1878-79), seen to the left. The Casino served as the social center for daily promenades, gaming, dancing, and concerts at the popular resort city.  The Monte Carlo Casino, like Garnier’s Opéra, in its richness of decoration, pride of place, and exuberance of form, emulated or actually displaced traditional local civic and religious monuments. The casino as a building type might be taken as an appropriate model for a social center for a post-Civil War American city. Each building answered the unprecedented need of a newly mobile bourgeois society for an appropriately splendid public setting. 

It is questionable whether either building actually functioned as a civic institution. Instead, they were commercial enterprises that borrowed the scale and monumental treatment, as codified by the École, of such an institution. One very obvious way in which the Jefferson Hotel differed from a fully public building was in its relative exclusivity and focus on entertainment. Like a club, and unlike the Virginia Capitol, standards of dress and the possession of ready money were prerequisites for entry and enjoyment. 
Floor Plan, The Brickbuilder 1903.

Taken as a whole, in both plan and elevation, the hotel shows a more thoroughly French architectural character than most other American buildings of its period. Like Garnier, Carrère and Hastings effectively distilled and transformed Beaux-Arts planning principles dating from the eighteenth century. The École consistently based architectural design in the plan and its exterior expression. The intersecting circulatory rectangles so characteristic of Prix de Rome plans throughout the century and ultimately expressed in the design of Garnier's Opéra were condensed in their application at the Jefferson. The architects unified the remarkably articulate plan of the hotel, in which circulation worked on multiple functional and symbolic layers, by a regular repetition of interlocking elements and a cage-like grid of piers, columns, and beams, organized in tripartite groupings.

The building also displays how the eclecticism of Charles Garnier and his teacher Duban profoundly influenced the work of students at the École in the later years of the nineteenth century. This can clearly be seen at work at the Jefferson Hotel, with its references to both Garnier and Duban, its compositional and decorative bravado, its scenographic central processional route, and its civic pretensions.
There were, however, several ways in which the hotel displayed the commercial side of its character. Civic buildings in Richmond, as in Paris, usually occupy positions at the urban scale. The Capitol, Market Hall, City Hall, and many churches were placed either in axial locations or as self-contained elements in the streetscape. In Richmond as in Paris, commercial structures like hotels occupied conventional lots in the overall grid plan. The symmetrical and monumental aspects of the deeply modeled Franklin Street facade, appropriate for a free-standing civic monument, were diminished by their position on the side of Franklin Street. Although the loggias and campaniles formed a picturesque skyline and dominated the view over the rooftops along the street, the design would have been better served by an axial approach or forecourt. The uninflected south front better suits the hotel’s streetside location and commercial function.
The Jefferson Hotel represents an early effort of a firm of American Renaissance architects to develop a coherent form of architectural expression appropriate for the American city and an attempt to overlay the commercial aspect of modern urban life with the classical order increasingly visible in European cities. In spite of the effort to correspond to neighboring cornice heights on its Franklin Street front, the hotel loomed on the skyline of Richmond with an uncharacteristic bulk and unheard-of European ornamental splendor. No attempt was made to recall regional building traditions. With the advent of the Jefferson the former Confederate capital turned its back on its antebellum past. 
In the controlled sense of movement, the scenographic interpenetration of space, and the theatrical use of the disparate themes of Pompeiian antiquity, French kingly magnificence, and Mediterranean splendor, the hotel embodied many late-nineteenth-century French themes. The scale of the project envisioned by Ginter and the handling of volume and decor by Carrère and Hastings at the Jefferson made them precocious American heirs of the tradition of Garnier.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Gibson, saw a note about you in RichmondBizSense and StudioAmmons. Congrats! Can you send me a new email address so that we can keep in touch? My blog has been on hiatus since I spent the summer in Italy and now I am swamped with work and finalizing the presentation on Clifton for the symposium. Hope all is well with you. Jessica Bankston