“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.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Christmas at Sixth Street Market in 1956

Bell Worsham. Catalog cover for Thalhimers, 1956 (all rights reserved, G. Worsham)
View looking south on Sixth Street toward Broad showing Thalhimer's Department Store with Lowe's Theater (Carpenter Center) beyond. Sixth Street Meat Market with terra cotta bulls heads to left. The flat princess pine and holly wreaths shown, a traditional ornament unique to Richmond doorways, are still available at the Seventeenth Street Market.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Richmond, Virginia: Basic buildings along Bacon's Quarter Branch

Bacon's Quarter Branch by Bell Worsham, 1934, all rights reserved, Gibson Worsham

This half-rural, half-urban landscape, probably located along the northern edge of Richmond’s Jackson’s Ward, depicts the blurring of boundaries that accompanied the visible decay of the city in the mid-twentieth century.  The evocative scene may be along Bacon's Quarter Branch, perhaps on Mitchell, Orange, or Bacon streets, includes some paradigmatic Richmond row houses- "basic buildings."

Monday, August 15, 2011

An American Search for Urban Unity: Alexandria Louisiana- Part Two

A previous post detailed the planning and antebellum growth of the city of Alexandria, Louisiana. By the 1850s the prosperous city took part in a new national emphasis on the heritage of democracy among the Greeks. The new buildings were part of the confident building of civic buildings utilizing details and forms associated with the Greek Revival movement. The story continues with the conclusion of the Civil War:

The war ended in almost complete catastrophe for the town. Most of the antebellum public buildings, along with the rest of the town, were burned during the retreat of Union troops in 1864. The two decades following the war were lean, and a new, plain, courthouse was not provided until 1873. In the words of a recent historian of the city: Cloaked in an atmosphere of lethargy and defeatism, the town was not drained, and it had no waterworks or sewer system. Livestock roamed at large on the unpaved and largely unlit streets, which were obstructed by numerous ditches and not clearly designated by signs. There were no banks, and concerns vital to regional agriculture—such as cotton compresses, oil mills, and machine shops—were nonexistent. However, Alexandria’s location in the middle of Louisiana and the rich timber resources surrounding it had enabled it to attract two railroads [Spletstoser, Fredrick Marcel. Talk of the Town: The Rise of Alexandria, Louisiana and the “Daily Town Talk”. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2005]. The population had risen to 1,800 by 1880.

The post-war depression eventually came to end as new mercantile and industrial capital entered the region. The increasing success of the region’s agriculture and a timber boom in the early twentieth century led to an almost complete remaking of the town. New commercial buildings appeared along the city streets and spread back three blocks from the river to form a dense downtown commercial district. While many of the buildings were modest, traditional commercial structures with a narrow plan and an unadorned front, owners of some new structures added classical details on the lower and upper stories, often in pressed or cast metal, to add dignity to the structure and a positive contribution to the streetscape.

Rapides Opera House

Among these new buildings was a splendid new theater, unfortunately demolished in the late twentieth century. According to the National Register nomination, The Rapides Opera House is a brick 3 story building set in the old central business district of Alexandria. It has floor seating (seats replaced) and one balcony (original seats), which makes for a total seating capacity of approximately 800. Built of brick and steel, the building has a type of exterior articulation which was common to many of Alexandria’s grander commercial buildings at the turn-of-the-century. Features include Romanesque sets of round arch windows with continuous label molds, Doric pilasters, and brick rustication above and below the second story [National Register form].

The buildings gradually formed a continuous wall along both sides of the central streets. Third Street, which had replaced the river as the principal route through the locality, increasingly became the chief commercial avenue. The downtown grew to include, as did most American cities, a tightly organized but flexible set of lots. A lack of planned alleys in the original design, which permitted an initial flexibility in building placement, led to a structure of dense blocks with courtyards and passageways provided as needed. The buildings tended to face the numbered east-west streets.

Churches, most of which made use of Gothic Revival decorative forms, were located off the original plat. The first church was a Catholic chapel. In 1832, by which time the parish was known as St. Francis Xavier, the church was rebuilt on a new site east of the main part of the city, at which time it was the only religious structure in the town. The church relocated to its current site west of the central city in 1897. In 1910 it was elevated to cathedral status. Emmanuel Baptist Church moved to the city from nearby Pineville in 1897. The first St. James Episcopal Church was built in the antebellum era and burned in 1864. The parish relocated to its present site east of the downtown area in 1874. The present building was built in 1926.

Joseph Bentley and E.W. Zimmermann arrived in the area about 1892, originally hailing from Pennsylvania. Bentley, in particular, proved to be a major power in the redevelopment and growth of Alexandria. The men founded the Zimmerman Lumber Company and the Enterprise Lumber Company, businesses that eventually controlled tens of thousands of acres of virgin pine forest in the region. In 1903, a huge sawmill was built near town by Enterprise Lumber. Bentley provided strong economic and aesthetic leadership as the town grew. He materially assisted in setting architectural standards and improving the urban form. Architects were summoned from New Orleans and other regional cities to assist in implementing an expansive vision for the town’s future.

In the first decades of the century, a series of important new structures were added to the city, as part of a consistent architectural and urban project to complete and perfect it as both a destination and a place to live. The era was one in which architectural and general education prepared citizens to expect a substantial expenditure on public and institutional buildings such as post offices, government buildings, churches, lodges, and schools and the important commercial buildings, such as hotels and theaters, which served a significant role in the life of a community. The effect of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago on American urban planning was considerable. The movement known as the American Renaissance invigorated American planning and resulted in a full-blown and self-confident kind of classical architectural expression.

In the new American Renaissance, as in previous periods of classical expression, the elements of architectural expression were used to augment and express the community’s political order. Much of the large-scale form and detailing was based in architectural pattern books, but by the early twentieth century classically trained professional architects were available throughout the nation. As was the case throughout American architectural practice, architectural elements were often applied without close regard for their historical basis. Designers regarded the value of the ability of architectural forms to express the community’s structure as more important that any historical reference. The three basic classical orders, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, were present in their full variety, in their Roman and Greek forms. The hierarchy of the orders as understood in the western tradition was used to emphasize the city’s internal order. In contrast, religious buildings in the city utilized details and forms ultimately derived from European Gothic sources. This change from the traditional American provision of related classical forms for all public buildings suggests that the religious component of civic life was increasingly distinguished from its political and commercial elements.

Rapides Parish Courthouse, 1904. Corinthian

A new H-shaped courthouse was built in 1904 on the historic courthouse square. The Classical Revival-style structure utilized, as was appropriate for the most important government structure in the city, pilasters of the most elaborate of the three basic orders of architecture, the Corinthian.

Hotel Bentley, 1907. George R. Mann, architect.

Alexandria City Hall. Ionic with dome.

An important group of buildings of similar style, color, and materials were constructed in 1907, giving a consistent tone and feel to the growing city and radically improving its civic image. The most important new buildings were the Hotel Bentley and the new City Hall. The structures were apparently both built by the F. B. Hull Construction Company of Jackson, Mississippi. The company moved to Alexandria in 1907 for the time needed to construct several major buildings. The Hotel Bentley and the new City Hall were located in dramatic relation to one another with an eye to improved civic amenities. The City Hall was built in the center of a square towards the western end of the downtown section. With its four facades and central dome it provided a powerful center to a green urban park.

Three sides of the square were filled with conventional commercial buildings, but the entire west side was filled with the enormous bulk of the Hotel Bentley. In the words of the National Register nomination: “The Bentley Hotel stands as probably the only major commercial example of the turn-of-the-century Renaissance Revival architecture and of Beaux Arts axial spatial planning in central Louisiana. It shows a remarkable degree of high style sophistication for the area and for a time when commercial architecture was largely a matter of applying conventional detail to a conventional shell.” The architect was George R. Mann of Little Rock, Arkansas. The cost of construction was $750,000, including the furnishings.

Both buildings were built of matching cream-colored brick with stone trim and both featured corresponding Ionic columns. The City Hall had four matching porticoes and the hotel was provided with a dramatic, long, deep-shadowed colonnade between two projecting wings. The Ionic order, the second most elaborate of the classical orders, was probably selected as appropriate for such important secondary structures in the city’s expanding urban fabric. A Confederate monument occupied one corner of the square.

Rapides Bank Building, 1898, façade added, 1914. Tuscan/Doric.

First National Bank. 1919, Emile Weil, Architect.

In 1911 Joseph Bentley became president of the First National Bank and in 1919 the bank built the town’s first skyscraper, a ten-story bank building near the southeast corner of the square. The bank tower was also classically detailed with Ionic pilasters and built of buff brick with stone trim. In addition, the most classically correct building in the downtown area resulted from a refacing of the 1898 Rapides Bank in 1914 with an elegant Doric façade melded to the paired arches of the original building. As the National Register nomination explains: “Of Alexandria's somewhat depleted stock of turn-of-the-century commercial buildings, most depend upon an unstudied accumulation of brick pilasters, brick arches, and corbel tables for their articulation. The Rapides Bank has considerably more pretension than this. It has a fully developed classical facade with four colossal . . . columns, an entablature and balustrade which are more or less correctly proportioned. Moreover, with the one exception, which is the enormous Bentley Hotel, the Rapides Bank is the most classically refined and pretentious commercial building in Alexandria.

The Alexandria Public Library, 1907. Crosby and Henkel, architects. Greek Doric

Another significant building dating from 1907 is the Alexandria Public Library. Funded with matching money from Andrew Carnegie, the new library is classical in style. It utilizes massive Doric pilasters (antae) to support a complex entablature and features Greek-inspired details. Like the other public buildings from this period, it is built of buff-colored brick. Interestingly, the library was placed away from the downtown on the square originally intended for literary and cultural purposes, but held by the city and used for a courthouse and jail at the time. Doric, used for the banks and the library, was the plainest and most economical to build of the three classical orders and indicated the buildings’ more modest stature within the city’s hierarchy of buildings.

Calvary Baptist Church, Corinthian

Houses of worship, which often made use of Gothic Revival decorative forms, began to participate in the new classical consensus are located off the original plat. Calvary Baptist Church was founded in 1921 and was housed behind a wide Corinthian temple front built of beige brick. A second temple built in 1908 for the city’s Jewish population by Congregation Gemiluth Chassodim, featured beige brick, a central plan crowned with a tiled dome, and a highly ornamented projecting temple front. The architect combined Ionic columns with a Doric entablature featuring alternating triglyphs and disk-shaped ornaments called paterae. While the new civic architecture provided an irresistible pattern for new public buildings, the Baptist and Jewish congregations may have chosen classical rather than Gothic forms, in part, to de-emphasize the inherent challenges of these newer arrivals to the conventions of local culture.

Jewish Temple, 1908. Ionic

By the second decade of the twentieth century, the area along and adjoining Third Street had become a cohesive downtown with a varied and sophisticated building stock. Citizens centered their lives around the neat and colorful downtown. Department stores and specialty shops vied for business. The simple grid of the city, punctuated by the several green public squares, successfully borrowed the cosmopolitan air of the great Eastern and even European cities. Classically detailed cast-iron electric streetlights in some location gave a cohesion and elegance to the city in keeping with the “Great White Way,” a name for the brightly illuminated main streets installed in towns across the nation in the years after the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Third Street looking North, 1920

Masonic Temple, 1927. Herman J. Duncan, architect.

Bolton High School, 1926. Favrot and Livaudais, Architects, New Orleans

The Masonic Building of 1927 and the classical façade of Bolton High School (1926) added to the complexity and dignity of local urban expression. The Masonic building is a delicate and almost Regency essay in Neo-classicism. According to the National Register nomination, “the high school “is Rapides Parish's largest and most imposing example of the neo-classical tendency of the early-twentieth century known as the ‘American Renaissance.' Exemplary features include the building's quiet lines, severe classicism, and five-part pavilion articulation. . . Bolton's local preeminence as an example of the "American Renaissance" is important for Rapides Parish. This style was regarded in its day as representing the maturity of American architecture. It was generally thought that American architecture was at last taking its place with the architecture of the older countries of the Western World. So, taken in this light, Bolton can be seen as the most urbane and sophisticated early-twentieth century building in the parish.”

U.S. Post Office

In the 1930s, a new US Post Office and Federal Courthouse was built using the popular Art Deco version of “Stripped Classicism,” emphasizing the respect afforded the increased role of the Federal government in regional affairs.

As the twentieth century progressed, Alexandria lost its position as a great regional trading center. The Southern economy lagged and the city saw few new buildings, certainly none of the caliber of the structures built during the confident years at the beginning of the century. As the automobile increasingly dominated thinking about transportation and development, the downtown area suffered from neglect and abandonment. From a high water mark at the middle of the century, when the city reached its apogee from an urban design perspective, it began to fall off rapidly. Classicism lost favor as measured against the new trends towards “modernistic” and “International style” architecture. Few buildings using the new architectural vocabulary reached the level of quality found among the earlier classical buildings, which now seemed hopelessly old-fashioned.

The present parish courthouse was built on a new location in 1940. The elegant 1904 courthouse was demolished in 1957 after years of neglect and the courthouse square purchased and built upon. In the 1960s, the elegantly detailed centrally planned city hall was demolished. The city government infilled the under-utilized but potentially urbane square on which it was sited with a large new city hall in the “Brutalist” style, executed in formed concrete.

City Hall with urban park to the east and Hotel Bentley beyond

The losses in the urban fabric during the second half of the twentieth century was immense. The city’s open squares were lost and there was no longer a vantage point from which to view the façade of the Bentley Hotel. A need for parking resulted in the demolition of many buildings and a resultant “snaggle-toothed” and incomplete streetscape. Front Street lost its character and all its historic buildings with the gradual enlargement of the levee along the water’s edge. The city lost a visual connection with the water. In 1969, no longer able to compete with newer alternatives on its original terms, the Bentley Hotel closed.

As soon as urban decay and demolition became apparent, in Alexandria and across the nation, city leaders began to search for solutions that would re-invigorate historic downtowns. What happened in Alexandria mirrors what went on in countless locations. The city commissioned a series of studies, master plans, and government-sponsored interventions, each based in current planning concepts that changed as the years passed. The Hotel Bentley underwent a series of renovations and opened and closed without any long-term success.

A new convention center, Holiday Inn motor hotel, and parking garage, all of indifferent design were built to reposition the downtown as a tourist and visitor destination. Like the new city hall, the convention center, connected by a pedestrian skyway to the Hotel Bentley, was placed without regard to the city’s grid or the historic urban layout. Traffic was redirected and some roads closed or built over. In more recent years, a new emphasis on parks and river access and a series of local festivals have been used to attempt a return of traffic and prosperity to the downtown area.

In spite of all this the city has largely failed to respond to the various surgical and prosthetic operations improvised by local and regional authorities. One reason is the obliteration of the architectural and urban amenities that made Alexandria a unique and appealing place.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Letter to a Professor

Caro Professore,

I have really appreciated your willingness to discuss the issue of what I will call uniformity in architecture, or perhaps more appropriately, urban scale architecture. Obviously this is a point of contention among architects and urbanists and I will need to be able to justify my position. As I understand it your argument is predicated on the belief that modern issues in urban design can only be addressed by a carefully composed variation in architectural and urban forms, rather than a single unified vision. Unity in this view is achieved not through uniformity, like an endlessly repeated theme, but through differentiation which provides for the individual “character” of a place. This now commonplace approach is founded in the work of Leon Krier.

I think we can both recognize a pattern in our discussions this semester; namely, the role of regularity and uniformity in architectural design and in urban planning. I am convinced that there is truth to what I am attempting to put into words and buildings. I can see it both in writing and traditional architecture and urbanism; it is my lack of eloquence that is doing it a disservice. This is something I have finally had to defend because it helps me explain how architecture integrates commerce into the civic realm. So, I will try to first do the best I can to describe in writing what I have been trying to say, and secondly, attempt to defend it.

Beginning with my conversations and work with Mario Gallarati, based on the Muratori school of urban design a year and a half ago, I began to be interested in the study of formal Renaissance squares. As a student of the Muratori school, Mario Gallarati has consistently worked within the understanding that cities and buildings are composed of a number of scales and that to be successful each part must engage its appropriate station in the hierarchy of the city or state. Given this understanding, it is not surprising that I am interested not only in individual buildings, but in the concept of the formal square, and on a larger scale, the form of cities. The Muratorian approach is based on this idea of an intelligible system of architectural scales. These urban scales can be described or “read” using “synoptic tables” that compare traditional building similarities and differences from the scale of entire regions down to the scale of window treatment. I began to read the few translations available on Muratori and his students. I tried to test it against the indubitable theory of my professor Carroll W. Westfall. So far I think them consonant in their essential ideas; the main difference being their focuses on theory and practice respectively, and the empirical approach of Muratori in contrast to Westfall’s reliance on rhetoric. Together they give me a compelling theory of architecture combined with an “operative system” of practice. I am afraid I am an inadequate evangelist of this theoretical combination and have barely scratched the surface of understanding either thinker, but I am enjoying making the best of what I have.

From what I understand of Westfall and Muratori it seems that the different architectural scales of the city embody the order of communal life which has the common good as its end. These various scales are hierarchically more or less important according to the degree to which they deal with the public realm. More directly, parts of the city on the architectural, or building scale are subordinate to the urban scale (Muratori), or “urban ensembles” in the words of Westfall. Urban ensembles are members of the city, but are in turn, wholes composed of building members. Significant events in the urban scale might include civic places such as law courts, libraries, markets, theatres and baths. These places are more important than private buildings, but in turn subordinate to the larger, more public building which is the city.

The various scales are represented by their use of similar components. Without similarity between these scales comparison between them would be impossible, and yet without difference their location in a higher order would be equally unintelligible. Comparison is not the same thing as finding out where you are.

Building Scale
Buildings can appear related to each other only by virtue of their parts being obviously related to one another, or obviously different in a similar way. Westfall explains this as the “pattern of the assembly of the components” and gives the examples of basic compositional types: temples look like temples, houses look like houses, etc. because they are made of the same parts. Those parts, however, are never assimilated in the same way. Buildings also relate to one another according to the physical character of these components i.e., materials, ornament, size and level of finish. These scales operate by increasing in their level of realization as they reach higher importance in the public realm. The capitol or royal palace is the most fully ornamented and finished building in a state, the city hall the best dressed of all the parts of a republican city and so forth down to the most diluted branch post office or library. Within individual buildings many different activities can take place, however, every building, according to Westfall, is in some way a dwelling, whether it be of a god, a king or a pleb, and that specific purpose of the building is what drives its overall treatment. Different floors, wings, and rooms are realized according to their individual purpose, but on a subordinate scale within the context of the building.

Urban Scale
The urban scale works in exactly the same way. In a city the urban scale is almost always the most important. Occasionally, the territorial scale may override it (as in the Palazzo del Capitaniato in Vicenza, or the Virginia State Capitol), but they each require varying levels of a related treatment. More important streets such as those linking significant nodes in the city or territory are represented as such by their relative width, or because the buildings on their “pertinent strip” are collectively on a grander scale. The level of finish or ornament of a street is the degree to which it is treated in a related or unified way. Perhaps it is lined with arches, or the buildings facing it share the same cornice, etc. The most important public places, traditionally public squares, receive the highest levels of ornament and most thorough treatment in terms of their realization as single bodies made up of different parts. Traditional squares are often wrapped with arcades or colonnades that are made up of related components, the most important receiving the most unified treatment. The distinctness with which the various purposes of the buildings surrounding the street or square are represented is proportionate to their relative importance in the life of the city. The cathedral may remain entirely distinct in even the most formal European squares because of its complete dominance in the public life of the city. Conversely, commercial or industrial activities serving the private realm will almost always be entirely invisible.

These traits are common to almost every city in the Greco-Roman tradition to some level or another. Often, as in the case of S. Petronio in Bologna, an element of the city will remain unfinished. To say that the building is better as it is today is debatable, but to argue that the intention of the architect was to leave it half-finished is preposterous.

So too with the urban scale. The charm of Italian piazzas is often attributed to the informal character in which Goethe encountered them in the 19th century. This is the beauty of the relationship between contingent reality and an ideal. Perhaps a piazza embodies more of a city’s order through its un-realization. I certainly find them beautiful, livable places. Perhaps they are more beautiful in ruins or incompletion, but we would never have had even the failed attempt had someone not once striven for an “inevitable” solution, in the words of Professor David Mayernik.

I personally find the intentional design of picturesque urban forms and elements today known as “New Urbanism” to be at best arbitrary and at worst contrived. There will never, ever be a shortage of reasons that the most ideally visualized urban form or building will in the end have to submit its rigor to the contingencies of reality. Perhaps, repetition or uniformity may be repellent to individual taste. I, however, am attempting (how successfully remains to be seen) to form an argument based on reason, not taste. Such a hierarchy would, I feel, expand the possibility for true variety, not limit it. An alternate feeling that uniform urban or architectural forms are the product of autocratic forms of government falls into the same fallacy as the argument that ancient Greek architecture is the architecture of democracy.

To design a piazza that looks like an ancient agglomeration is to imitate symptoms of successful urbanism, but to miss the actual operative principle that makes it an enduring place. That operative principle, I am arguing, is the concept of urban scales of building which explicitly represent the order of the city according to a dilution of the unity of the whole.

Sincerly Yours,
Richard Worsham

Saturday, June 25, 2011

An American Search for Urban Unity: Alexandria Louisiana- Part One

Several years ago we were fortunate to have had an opportunity to study the fascinating inland city of Alexandria. What follows is the first of two original posts on the community's remarkable history of architecture and urbanism. The city's documentation in the form of tinted postcards relates directly to the article's theme by its consistency in tone and color. The postcards are published online by the Alexandria Retrospective at http://www.alexandria-louisiana.com/.


The urban form of city of Alexandria, Louisiana results from a series of interventions, summarizing in their complexity much of the history of American planning. The city began with a grid laid out around basic public elements placed on two central public squares. As time passed and public functions multiplied, the various public functions, including town hall, public market, court house, academy, and jail were dispersed onto additional public land around the city, representing civic interests at both both the local and parish scales and employing a common architectural grammar based in European-derived architectural traditions allied with a bookish classicism. Religious structures were monumental in scale as befits basic institutions serving communal purposes, but employed mostly Gothic forms and details. This clear differentiation of sacred structures appears to have resulted in part from a recognition of their essentially private character during the Antebellum era.

The city faced nearly complete destruction of its fabric at the end of the American Civil War. The two decades of poverty that followed were eventually reversed by boom times. Under the influence of a successful commercial elite, the city was redesigned after the turn of the century using sophisticated planning, consistent architectural motifs, and details borrowed from and inspired by the self-confident American Renaissance. Design at the urban scale adopted monumental patterns emphasizing the importance of civic life. City buildings, serving both civic and religious purposes, adopted a universalizing architectural grammar, as will be seen. Classical details and similar materials were shared at every level of civic significance, including the architectural vocabulary of domestic architecture. This interrelation of the private and public realms indicate the aspiration of Alexandria to the good life. As a result of the legacy of slavery, however, this extension of the public good was restricted by the limited access permitted to some members of the community to the full benefits of civic life.

Loss of commerce in the mid-twentieth century derailed the economic growth. Social conflict and loss of faith in traditional American architectural and urban goals led to an impoverishment of the central part of the city at the same time.


Alexandria lies at the center of Louisiana, on the right bank of the Red River. The central Louisiana region was settled in the early years of the eighteenth century. The Natchitoches Indians lived along the Red River. A trading post was established there in 1714 by Louis Jachereau de St. Denis, a French soldier and explorer. In 1723, The French colonial government established a garrison at a portage around a series of rapids on the Red River to protect trade. The tiny settlement across from the site of Alexandria was known as Post du Rapides.

In the 1760s, when the Spaniards received control of the region, the village contained no more than fifty inhabitants. Two merchants from Pennsylvania, Alexander Fulton and William Miller, arrived in the early 1790s and were given exclusive trading rights with the Indians. They opened a store on the right bank of the river just below Bayou Rapides. Shortly before the Louisiana Purchase they bought approximately forty thousand neighboring acres from the Indians. They had the tract surveyed for sale to settlers, who they expected would flood the area. Miller sold out and moved away, but Fulton, well-connected with the leader of the new Louisiana Territory, stayed and developed his property as the U. S. took possession in 1803.

Central Louisiana 1839. Detail, David H. Burr. The American Atlas (London, J. Arrowsmith, 1839), Library of Congress. http://www.usgwarchives.org/maps/louisiana/statemap/la1839n.jpg
As settlers arrived, Fulton, with the help of his brother-in-law, surveyor Samuel Wells, laid out a town along the river near his store, with the intention of providing a mercantile center for the immediate region and a port on the Red River. When the legislature established Rapides Parish several years later, it was chosen as the courthouse town as well. It was first incorporated as a town in 1818 and received a city charter in 1882. The name “Alexandria” may derive from Fulton’s name or that of his daughter. At any rate, the ultimate reference, understood by most educated Americans at the time, was to the great Hellenistic center of learning and commerce on the Nile, site of the greatest library of classical times.

Alexandria in 1872.Original city is at the center. http://usgwarchives.org/maps/louisiana/citymap/alexandria1872.jpg
Surveyor Wells laid out the town carefully in 1805 using the basic uninflected grid employed for most new towns across the US for many years. The central grid plan was symmetrical and mostly uninflected towards the river at the start. The original platting of the town divided it into approximately eighty one-acre squares with eight streets running back from the river. The central street running perpendicular to the river was called Washington Street. A series of ten numbered streets ran parallel to the river (what would have been First Street lined the river bank and was called Front Street. Two squares at the center were reserved for public use.

One public square, located away from the busy commercial area along the river, was designated to be “solely for the advancement of learning and culture,” probably indicating a school or academy. The other, labelled "Market Square" in 1872, was the principal public provision at the urban scale, demonstrating the centrality of the public life. Markets and town government have been associated from Renaissance times for a variety of reasons (see the City Market article). A market square was needed so that the important laws regulating commerce might be applied to a specific piece of ground. While the form of any special building erected on the square is not know to us, the form of market house/ town hall is one used across the country from Colonial times onward. Later, as we will see, that square became the site of the classically-designed city hall, seen in the postcard illustration above.

Detail of Map of the Town of Alexandria, Louisiana, 1872 showing the market square now the site of the City Hall
Each square was divided into four quarter-acre lots. The streets were to all be fifty-three feet across, except for those on the periphery, which were to be one hundred feet wide. While the town did not fill the grid provided for it for some years afterward, it gradually lived up to and exceeded the promise of the first urban design. There were two courthouses in succession. The courthouses were sited on a county square at the center of Front Street along the river, since county and town government typically required separate public accommodation at the urban scale. A literary society was chartered by the leading citizens in 1824 and a theatrical society in the 1830s. The town’s small scale is shown by the provision of a single church (Catholic). There were two banks, two hotels, and a growing roster of lawyers and doctors.

Most American towns in the earliest periods existed to provide lots to house the commercial and mechanical trades who served the surrounding countryside and the parish's (or county's) non-farming professionals (lawyers, doctors, and officials), whose activities were best served by a central urban location. As industry grew in scale and scope, many of these activities were also housed on peripheral tracts associated with the town. Most of the commercial buildings were at first located along the river on Front Street. Many of these undoubtedly took the form of the basic building of Federal-period American urbanism, the house/store, in which the owner lived above his shop.

The original quarter-acre lots were subdivided as required into narrow strips as needed to form commercial building sites. John Casson, a local leader, donated a tract of land to the west of town to house an educational institution. The College of Rapides, an academy, was built on that tract and funded, at considerable cost, to provide education to the region’s youth.

The town’s promise was reinforced when, in 1837, the Red River Railroad, the first rail line west of the Mississippi, was extended from Alexandria’s courthouse square to towns and plantations in the rich Bayou Beouf region. By mid-century, the improving economic climate brought new architecture and urban ideas. Alexandria’s population doubled from 1850 to 1860, when it numbered over 1,500. A new courthouse, with iron columns, was built in 1859. A new city hall and a library building were built in the same decade. By this date, there were three hotels, three banks, and three churches (Catholic, Episcopalian, and Methodist).

The city was part of a new national emphasis on the heritage of democracy among the Greeks. The new buildings were part of the confident building of civic buildings utilizing details and forms associated with the Greek Revival movement. During this era concepts of hygiene were emphasized and public lands and streets tended to be more carefully tended and planted than formerly.

Part Two to follow

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Richmond As Provincial Capital

Map of the Prize Lots in William Byrd's Lottery, 1768

When William Byrd III and the trustees responsible for liquidating his debts decided on a lottery to be held in 1768 as the best method to dispose of his land west of Shockoe Creek, they divided the land into plots of about 100 acres each, except for a tract immediately west of the creek which straddled the county road and was labelled "town land."

1768 plat of the Town of Shockoe as found among Jefferson's papers with undifferentiated grid pattern. The  pr-eexisting tenements and lots along Shockoe Creek are shown at the right.   
These 400 acres were also numbered and distributed as part of the lottery. As the Town of Shockoe, this area was incorporated into the town of Richmond by the General Assembly in 1769.  The relentless, undifferentiated, grid pattern of the new section continued the lines of the 1737 plan of Richmond and spread from the lowlands along the river up and over the knobs and ravines of Shockoe Hill. Its boundaries, as well as the boundaries of the many lots to the north and west, set the pattern of development that guided the city's growth from that time forward. Previous holdings, or "tenements," of irregular shape make up the previous settlement  of Shockoe's, the original settlement along the west side of the creek. These account for the irregularities of the street layout in the area between the towns of Richmond and Shockoe. The lots along  Main Street on the west side of Shockoe Creek became a popular location for businesses. While many lots undoubtedly sold on top of the hill, the upper section was slow to develop.

The act of 1779 which relocated the capital from Williamsburg to Richmond included a number of unusual directives. In it, and in the execution of the act that followed, the hand of Jefferson can be discerned planning, compromising, and revising a suitably urbane setting for the purposes of the new state government. In order to facilitate the transformation of the town of Richmond into the new state capital, the General Assembly appointed the Directors of Public Buildings. This board of five (later nine) members included Thomas Jefferson as an active member.

"That six whole squares of ground surrounded each of them by four streets, and containing all the ground within such streets, situate in the said town of Richmond, and on an open and airy part thereof, shall be appropriated to the use and purpose of public buildings. On one of the said squares shall be erected, one house for the use of the general assembly, to be called the capitol, which said capitol shall contain two apartments for the use of the senate and their clerk, two others for the us of the house of delegates and their clerk, and others for the purposes of conferences, committees and a lobby, of such forms and dimensions as shall be adopted to their respective purposes: On one other of the said squares shall be erected, another building to be called the halls of justice, which shall contain two apartments for the use of the court of appeals and its clerk, two others for the use of the high court of chancery and its clerk, two others for the use of the general court and its clerk, two others for the used of the admiralty court and its clerk, and others for the uses of grand and petty juries. . . .; and on the same square last mentioned shall be built a publick jail; one other of the said squares shall be reserved for the purpose of building thereon hereafter, a house for the several executive boards and offices to be held in: Two others with the intervening street, shall be reserved for the use of the governour of this commonwealth for the time being, and the remaining square shall be appropriated to the use of the publick market. The said houses shall be built in a handsome manner with walls of brick or stone, and porticoes where the same may be convenient or ornamental, with pillars and pavements of stone."

The squares referred to were six blocks of the existing or proposed town (amounting to twelve acres). The Directors of Public Building were to select the site, which could be in areas already platted or in a new section of two hundred lots “adjacent to such parts of said town as to them shall seem most convenient” (this refers to a section of lots on the north side of present-day Broad Street adjoining the Shockoe plat of 1768. The double measure of land (four acres) associated with the Governor’s House was required to provide domestic areas and for associated paddocks and gardens. The caveat “for the time being” may refer to the presence of a existing dwelling on the lots intended for the governor’s house, that was to be used as a “palace” until a new dwelling could be substituted, which would not occur until 1813. 

On closer examination, it appears that the series of public buildings, and the porticos of stone were intended to form some sort of architectural unity. Closer reading of the directions shown above suggests that the contiguous squares ("six whole squares of ground surrounded each of them by four streets, and containing all the ground within such streets") were intended to form one great square (forum).  The design likely included some sort of hierarchical relation between the buildings and functions, 

Urban historian John W. Reps points out that this is the first time in an American city that “the three major branches of government were given recognition in the physical plan of the city (Tidewater Towns, 927).” Craig A. Reynolds has observed that it was a radical step to call for a "multi-temple district" involving a "standardization" of public buildings. According to Reynolds, Jefferson was likely thinking, somewhat impractically, of the project for a reconstructed Roman forum shown in Palladio's Book Four. His copy described the forum as a central square or market surrounded by a two-tiered continuous portico giving access to bankers' offices, with a curia (senate ) and basilica (courthouse) on either side. Similarly, Livy described the forum as a central square combining commercial and governmental functions in Book I: he mentions a prison and senate house overlooking the forum and "also spaces round the forum were assigned to private individuals for building on; covered walks and shops were erected" [Craig A. Reynolds, "Jefferson's Temples of Liberty on the James and the Potomac," paper delivered at the Virginia Commonwealth University Architectural History Symposium, 2012]. 

Book III, Plate XV, Leoni Edition of Palladio's Four Books showing the "Squares and Forums or open places and Markets of the Romans." The forum or market is in the center surrounded by the porticos sheltering the
offices of bankers, the basilica (court) is to the left, and the curia (senate house) to the left.

By including a market in the grouping, Jefferson may have been hoping to place the three specialized government buildings, legislative, judicial, and executive, in direct relation to a public market square on a relatively level, but as-yet unselected hilltop site. It may even have been his initial intention to give it a unified form based on the Palladian forum, much as his design for the University of Virginia would to be linked by a colonnade, but here to be lined with the commercial lots of private individuals. 

The Halle au Blé at Paris
That Jefferson had imagined the market as an architecturally distinguished structure is clear from his first thought on viewing the great new glass-lighted dome of the covered courtyard at the Meal Market (Halle au Blé) of Paris in 1786. In a famous letter to Maria Cosway he imagined it as a model for the market in Richmond: 'My visit to Legrand & Molinos had publick utility for it's object. A market is to be built in Richmond. What a commodious plan is that of Legrand & Malinas: especially if we put on it the noble dame of the Halle aux bleds." 

Likely in the summer of 1780. Jefferson sketched a plan for a "Hall of Justice," a two-story rectangular building measuring 70' wide and 90' long that was intended to be one of the three principal state buildings.  Although not shown, a portico at the main entry would have given the building the "cubical" form he often referred to when discussing temple architecture. Entrance was to be through a two-story, square central stair hall inside the door, flanked by offices and smaller rooms. The two principal courtrooms were placed on each side of a passage that extends to the rear pot the building. The second floor had a similar plan. The "hall of justice" appears to have been conceived as a temple form building only a little smaller than the hall for the legislature, suggesting that it was intended to have taken up a flanking position in a symmetrical  tripartite arrangement, on the opposite side from the "State House" for executive boards and committees and representing the three parts of the government.    

As reported by Reps, in 1780 the General Assembly responded to recommendations of the directors by a new act that designated Shockoe Hill as the site of the new “capitol, halls of justice, state house for the executive boards, and house for the governor.” This “open and airy part” of the town had been laid out in lots in 1768 and was already sparsely occupied. A number of old, irregular tenements, mostly on the eastern slope of the hill, and all the streets and squares were to be regularized, unless “by varying the said intervals” (such as is seen today in Governor Street) “more favorable ascents may be procured up the hill.” The location for the public market had been reconsidered and was now to be located below the said hill, on the same side of Shockoe Creek [a block west of where it was built on the opposite, east side of the creek]. In addition, the streets of Shockoe Hill, which were continuations of the undifferentiated Mayo plan of 1737, then all of the same 66-foot width regardless of importance or location, were all to be widened “to a breadth, not less than eighty, or more than one hundred and twenty feet.” Streets were to be laid out “whether straight or curved” to provide access to the tops of the hills from the valley below.

Early 19th-century map (Young, c. 1809)

The uniform street grid was adjusted by the Directors of Public Building in a more subtle way than that mandated by the statute. H Street, the major street on the hill that received the traffic from the old town below by way of the curving County Road, was widened to 120 feet by removing land from the lots on each side. Its unique scale prompted its renaming as Broad Street in later years, Interestingly, H Street was labeled Main Street on a plat of c 1787, indicating its continuity with the principal route through the older sections of the lower town [Richmond City Legislative petition 11 Nov. 1791]. The parallel streets G and I (Grace and Marshall) were to be widened to 100 feet. All the remaining streets, as shown by dotted lines on Jefferson’s drawing of the public squares in 1780, were to be enlarged to 80 feet as directed by the assembly. However, in actuality, Grace and Marshall were not widened as shown.

Jefferson plan of three public squares, 1780, showing
Capitol and Bank streets as laid out at top and bottom.

Jefferson himself traced a proposed plan of the town on Shockoe Hill in 1780. He overlaid the existing undifferentiated grid with the new creation of three squares between Franklin and Grace streets and between 9th and 12th streets. These were appropriated for the public buildings with an addition of several lots to the east along the edge of the hill east of Twelfth Street. A revised plan shows a new approach not unlike what was finally built. Grace and Franklin streets are blocked east of Ninth. These vacated streets are added to the total size of the public land and new streets created out of the inner lots in the blocks to the north and south. The public land is consolidated into “three separate parcels,” probably since the commercial function (public market) had been removed from the plan for a modern version of the forum. This would have permitted the separate control of the three squares crowning the hill by each of the three branches of government.

In spite of the irregular terrain, Jefferson shows and describes in a proposal, three elongated public squares separated by widened segments of Tenth and Eleventh streets. The southern half of each of the parcels consisted, however, of steeply sloping terrain that completely precluded the actual extension of the intervening streets shown by Jefferson, so it was inevitable that the parcels, barely outlined on maps for decades, should be conflated into one large square, neatly edged on the north, south and west, but irregular on the east where the main route, the “county road,” climbed the steep slopes of the hill.

While the three squares are not labeled, the central square, occupying the most dramatic and advanced knoll above the river, was to become the site of the Capitol. It is possible that Jefferson intended an advanced central legislative building to be flanked by the Halls of Justice on the west and an Executive Building (Council Chamber was the name given to this structure among the temporary government buildings). As the costs of building and the limitations of revenue became apparent, Jefferson was forced to consent to the combination of all the branches in a single structure, the Capitol of 1785-88. At the same time the three squares were combined into a single "Capitol Square."

R.B. James, Map of Richmond, Henrico Co., c. 1804, showing area of the Capitol Square and the angled route of the county road around it to the east and north.
While his direct involvement with its urban design had ended with his second term as governor in 1781, the city had not strayed too far from his vision as it grew. 

Capitol Square as laid out by Maximilian Godefroy, from R. Young's Map, ca. 1817.
The Capitol was deliberately placed to be seen in the Virginia landscape. Architect Robert Mills understood its power in the landscape: "I remember the impression it made on my mind when first I came in view of it coming from the South. It gave me an idea of the effect of those Greek temples which are the admiration of the world" [Fiske Kimball, American Architecture, 1928]. Fiske Kimball recognized in 1915 the significant of the Virginia Capitol as a "landmark of the first importance" in the "development of modern classical architecture." 

Charles Brownell, in an overview of the Capitol published in 2002, describes new work by his students at the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University and others who have established provocative connections between the building and its historical context in a number of directions. They established that the temple-form building related to well-known use of temples for senate houses in Imperial Rome. Others have shown that the first study that placed the Capitol in a temple-form building dated to the early- to mid-1770s, well before the actual project was begun for a new capitol. When the Directors sent floor plans to Jefferson for his use in Paris, they showed a rectangular  building with porticos on four sides.

In addition, the placement of the "cubical" temple-form building on a prominent hill above the city was shown to be closely associated with Palladian precepts for the location of temples (and the original Capitol, the most significant place in the city of Rome, a temple to Jupiter that stood above the Roman forum).  Finally, a list of four temples that Jefferson associated with the building during the design process added to the understanding of his goals. He intended the Capitol to serve as a museum of the orders to be used as models by the citizens in improving the architecture of the city and state, and he planned to use the columnar orders on the exterior and interior to make a complete "suite" of orders for that purpose.  The interior of the building, including the rotunda and dome, differs greatly from Jefferson's intentions and appears to be the work of architect/builder Samuel Dobie, who was charged with executing the incomplete sets of drawings [Charles E. Brownell, Introduction to the 2002 Edition, Fiske Kimball, The Capitol of Virginia: A Landmark of American Architecture (Richmond VA: Library of Virginia, 2002) xv-xxxix].    

The public square was, as a result, placed in an anti-nodal position away from commercial activity, although Jefferson's original idea seemed to have intended it for a commercial center by including a market. On the contrary, as built on its "open and airy" site, it occupies a distinctly anti-nodal position, rather like the church of 1742 on the top of the corresponding hill to the east. Maximilian Godefroy, a French-born partner of Latrobe’s, applied French formalism to organize the ravines and eroded gullies of the hillside site. His terraces, tree-lined allees, and curved walks imposed a garden-like imprint of order on what had hitherto been almost a desert.

Capitol Square, c. 1850
The official placement of the market along Shockoe Creek in 1782 recognized the reality of the city's composite form and the inevitable separation of state and city functions. The area around the square grew up to be a quiet place of deliberation and reflection far from the business of commercial Main Street below and the constant traffic of Broad Street to the north.

Appropriately, when the city grew sufficiently large to warrant a specialized government building or courthouse of its own it was strategically placed to mediate between the commercial rough-and-tumble of Broad Street and the cultivated and artificial landscape of the Public Square. Rather than provide a civic square for the new building, as was often done, it was oriented toward the public square that already held the Capitol.  Robert Mills provided the design for the new City Hall, which was begun in 1816 and first occupied in 1818. The carefully placed building took its place at the urban scale. It fronted on Capitol Street on axis with the Capitol and stood between it and Broad Street.