“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.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Where is Council Chamber Hill?

In the late Spring, Urbanismo joined Renaissance Richmond in a tour of the neighborhood once known as Council Chamber Hill. Our search was for the site of Clifton, the long-vanished house with links to architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Having completed an impressive archival search, Richmond Renaissance blogger Jessica Bankston, a student at V.C.U., had engaged our attendance at her search for the house on the ground. Jessica took the photographs attached to this essay, since Urbanismo forgot their camera.

Detail from James Madison, A Map of Virginia 1818 (orig. 1807) [Virginia Historcal Society]. The Council Chamber House is 
seen just to the right of the fold, standing nearly alone at the top of the steep slopes of Council Chamber Hill. 
Council Chamber Hill was a unusually dense neighborhood occupying a small spur protruding from Shockoe Hill and the steeply falling ground around it just east of Capitol Square. It commanded a dramatic view of the Shockoe Valley and of the James River. The hill was usually included in lists of "the seven hills of Richmond" and figured darkly in the accounts of some of the city's most colorful history.
Here, courtesy of a signboard in Capitol Square, is a map of Council Chamber Hill today, an area occupied by high-rise state office buildings and parking lots.

Today it is mostly a parking lot that is banked above the broad barrenness of the relocated Fourteenth Street and surrounded by aging office towers. We assumed that it would be hard to find anything in the deserted asphalt behind the labyrinthine bulk of the State Highway Department headquarters. We underestimated the resistance of the urban fabric to utter oblivion. This neighborhood, still extant when Mary Wingfield Scott wrote in the 1940s, was largely obliterated in the expansion of state office facilities at mid-century. Council Chamber Hill is little remembered today, but it was once best known for its demi-monde character, as Richmond's "Red Light District" in the post Civil War years.

Looking west along Ross St. showing the dip or ravine between Council Chamber and Shockoe Hill, up which Governor Street runs. The region east of the Governor's Mansion was a haven for bawdy houses, gambling dens, and houses of prostitution during the years before 1870, when a reformers disrupted their activities. Arabella Yarrington Worsham met her future husband, railroad tycoon Colis P. Huntington, at Johnny Worsham's gambling establishment on Fourteenth Street on Council Chamber Hill. According to Mary Wingfield Scott, Worsham later operated a faro bank in an Antebellum house that stood on the lot to the right. It was replaced by the Richmond Press Building seen on the right in the photograph above on the corner of Governor and Ross streets. Arabella Worsham's dramatic rise in fortune has been recently documented at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts by the reassembly of the remarkable Aesthetic bedroom from her house in New York City.

Our walk began on Ross Street (now called Grace). Ross Street is a tributary of today's Governor Street, the "county road" that in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries connected the original town east of Shockoe Creek with the new platted area on the hill. The county road is the curving route dashed in to the north of the "Public Square" and eat of Twelfth Street. The land atop Council Chamber Hill was apparently acquired from the Byrd family before the newer section of town was platted. It is seen as the blank section at the upper center of the detail from 1809 map attributed to Richard Young seen above, with Governor Street (called County Road on the plat) to the west and Shockoe Creek, which ran west of Seventeenth Street on the plat, to the east. Thus it was not at first laid out in streets, although its steep geography would have stymied development for a long time had it been laid out as a continuation of the overall grid.
Col. John Mayo, builder of the eponymous bridge over the James, lived in a brick house built as the interim seat of the Governor's Council and executive offices and which gave its name to the hill. Mayo is said to have kept a close eye on the condition of his ramshackle bridge by the use of a spyglass from his house on the hill. The view above may be similar to his, if it can be imagined without the modern buildings. The view below crosses his house site, looking along Old Fourteenth Street toward Broad Street.
As the nineteenth century progressed and property values increased, John Mayo felt called to develop much of the site. This he did by creating a series of narrow lots on tiers of streets and alleys that stepped down the hill to the east and south. These can be seen on the detail from the map of 1817 by Richard Young shown above. The undeveloped portion of the hill containing the Mayo House is marked J. Mayo. The original bed of Shockoe Creek is the curving stream to the right, Ross Street is to the left, and Monumental Church can be seen in the upper left corner. Fourteenth Street was later extended up the hill to Broad Street [through the site marked J. Mayo on the map] and was flanked by Mayo Street on the east. Jessica Bankston has explored the likelihood that the watercolor illustration for one of Latrobe's most elegant villas was intended for the Mayo family on Council Chamber Hill, as she has documented on her blog. In a useful map on her website she was able to determine the modern location of Clifton by applying a section of the 1876 F. W. Beers Map to an aerial photo of the area today. Her map indicates how dense Council Chamber Hill had become by the late nineteenth century.

Here we found the only remaining (relatively modern) building from the neighborhood and the foundation of a successor building that stood on the site of Clifton, an often remembered building that Jessica believes was based on the plans for the unbuilt Mayo villa. The photo shows us standing in amazement on the nearly obliterated southeast corner of the intersection of Fourteenth and Cypress Alley. A fragment of the granite curbing of Fourteenth Street emerges from the asphalt in the foreground.
Old Fourteenth Street was itself as much the result of a radical reshaping of the topography as the new Fourteenth Street down the hill. The two views, above and below, show nearly the same spot today and in the 1860s. The house known as Clifton stood originally at the head of a steeply sloping lot running down the south slope of Council Chamber Hill. When Fourteenth Street was extended up the hill, it was necessary to cut into the slope to lessen the grade, and Clifton was left standing high above the street.
This illustration of Clifton during the war years is from In War Time, by E. G. Booth, Philadelphia, 1885.

Here is the reshaped lower slope of the hill, originally terraced by the Mayos into lots and alleys. Mayo Street ran near the sidewalk visible on the opposite side of the new, straightened, four-lane Fourteenth Street. The neighborhood continued down the slope beyond the new thoroughfare.

The final image with which our tour closes looks south along Fourteenth, completely reconfigured in the mid-twentieth century. The Exchange Hotel, Richmond's most architecturally sophisticated hotel in the Antebellum era, once stood on the immediate foreground in the photo facing toward the camera. It stood on the north edge of what is now the modern extension of Bank Street.

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.