Sunday, June 22, 2014

Flagler College and the Ponce de Leon Hotel

Question.  What do the following three structures, one a private residence, now a museum, the next a public library, and the third, once a hotel, now a college dormitory, have in common?

New York Public Library (JWB Photo)
Whitehall, Palm Beach, Florida (JWB Photo)
Flagler College, St. Augustine, Florida (JWB Photo)
Answer.  All three were designed by the New York firm of John Merven Carrére and Thomas Hastings, a partnership that lasted from 1885 until 1911.

I’m always amazed, but never surprised that, no matter where one looks in the field of architecture, there always seems to be a Chicago connection, and there is one here as well even through Carrére and Hastings never designed a building for Chicago.

In 1917 the University of Chicago Press published six lectures, two each by three distinguished architects, delivered at the Art Institute of Chicago as part of the Scammon Lectureship endowed as a bequest of Mrs. Maria Sheldon Scammon upon her death in 1901.

One lecturer was Ralph Adams Cram, the designer of Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church.  Another lecturer was Claude Bragdon, a regional architect in New York who was among the first generation of “prairie school” designers.  The third was Thomas Hastings.

In his lecture Modern Architecture, Mr. Hastings said:

If there be beauty in the plans of our cities and in the buildings which adorn our public squares and highways, its influence will make itself felt upon every passer-by.  Beauty in our buildings is an open book of involuntary education and refinement, and it uplifts and ennobles human character.  It is a song and a sermon without words.  It inculcates in a people a true sense of dignity, a sense of reverence and respect for tradition, and it makes an atmosphere in its environment which breeds the proper kind of contentment, that kind of contentment which stimulates true ambition. [Six Lectures on Architecture.  University of Chicago Press, 1917]

On our way back home in May Jill and I stopped in St. Augustine, the oldest town in the United States and the home of Flagler College.  Today the college’s dormitory building is a prime example of Thomas Hasting’s assertion that beauty in a place’s buildings is a force that does uplift and ennoble.

Originally, this grand building was the Ponce de Leon Hotel, designed for Henry Flagler, the railroad magnate who lent the money to John D. Rockefeller to start the Standard Oil Company.  Built between 1885 and 1887, it was designed in the Spanish Revival style (think Wrigley Building in Chicago) and was one of the first commissions to be executed by Carrére and Hastings, who had left the prolific New York City firm of McKim, Mead and White.

Henry Flagler (JWB Photo)
Wired for electricity from the start and constructed entirely of poured concrete, the hotel had graceful twin towers, each of which originally contained 8,000 gallon water tanks that provided running water for guests.  Louis Comfort Tiffany supervised the creation of the stained glass, mosaics, and terra cotta ornamentation on the walls and ceiling. [National Park Service, Department of the Interior]

In the first of his lectures at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1815, Architectural Composition, Thomas Hastings said . . .

The most difficult thing in composition (and I believe this to be true of all art) is to know how to be simple, but to be simple without being stupid and colorless; to be firm and strong without being hard and angular; to have good detail, which, on the one hand, does not assert itself to the injury of the ensemble, and, on the other hand, is not timid for fear of a want of refreshment.  When a man has acquired a certain knowledge of his art, timidity is almost as bad as vulgarity and weakness as unpardonable as coarseness.

There is nothing timid, vulgar or weak in this design.  It lives up to the assertion of Thomas Hastings, perhaps the most important ingredient in design – it is simple without being hard or angular and its detail does not detract from the unity of the whole.

Wonder what Mr. Hastings would think today of the new signage at 401 North Wabash . . .

The Dome at Flagler College (JWB Photo)
Mosaic Detail at Entrance of Flagler College (JWB Photo)
Fountain Turtle in Courtyard (JWB Photo)
One of the Towers, formerly containing an 8,000 gallon water tank (JWB Photo)
Fountain Frog (JWB Photo)
Nameplate with Date of Completion (JWB Photo)

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