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The Neo-Classical

September 15, 2016

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The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 ushered in wave of Classical Revival and Neo-Classical design that recast the U.S. as the new Rome. It’s difficult for us more than a century later to imagine the impact the “White City” had on fair goers: uniformly Neo-Classical buildings (with the exception of Louis Sullivan, of course) of uniform height, all in a formal setting by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. If that weren’t enough, the fair was also the first large-scale application of outdoor night incandescent lighting; all the buildings were edged with strings of lights that must have impressed Midwesterners and influenced their architectural thinking back in small-town America.

One of the consequences for religious buildings was an abandonment — albeit temporary — of the preferred Gothic Revival. British architectural theorist and founder of the 19th century’s Gothic Revival A.W.N. Pugin believed the Gothic was the only legitimate inspiration of Christian nations; that its authentic structural expression stood in stark contrast against the plaster sham of the Classical styles. Christian Science may have been the first denomination to embrace Classicism; it was a new spin on Christianity at a time when ancient Rome became source material. But other denominations leaped on the bandwagon for a twenty-year ride.

American schools of architecture — there weren’t many of them — contributed to the phenomenon by adopting the Beaux Arts system of architectural education with its own antique fascination and rigorous study methods. This was fine for a new generation, but architects already in practice were left to their own devices for understanding the nuances of Greek and Roman orders and the subtleties of 3.14159265359…. Consider this array of churches in the New Classicism throughout the Midwest: which of these speak “faith” to you and which hint at courthouse, auditorium, or other civic use?

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There is a range of skill and understanding represented by these; I certainly have my favorites. The portico at Taylorville seems more yawn than entrance. The imbalance at Oblong [who would name a town “oblong”?] needs attention. And the Carruthersville entrance is downright naive. Newton and David City get high marks, however, for grandeur, if not for spirituality.

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