Packard-Designed School Building Stands Out in Olde Towne East
One of the most influential architects of the post-Civil War era was Henry Hobson Richardson. Columbus lacks any buildings by Richardson, but does have a few that were inspired by his designs. The Fair Avenue School is one such building.
Located at 1395 Fair Avenue, just south of Broad Street, it now houses the A+ Arts Academy.
The school was designed in 1890 by Columbus-based architect Frank L. Packard. The total cost was $32,692.
The style designed by H.H.Richardson came to be known as Richardsonian Romanesque. Romanesque was a style of architecture that developed after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It applied the Roman arch to church construction and until the development of the Gothic arch Romanesque was the dominant style of ecclesiastical architecture in Western Europe.
Richardson revived this old style and adapted it to modern use. His wasn’t the first revival of this style, but his interpretation of this style became very popular. He died in 1886, before the Fair Avenue School was constructed. There are a great many Richardsonian Romanesque buildings across the country and most were constructed after his death. It is a testament to his influence, and, tragically, to his dying fairly young.
The dominant architectural element of the Fair Avenue School is the tower. Including a tower in a school seems strange to modern eyes. It is a frill. No functional need requires a tower. Yet here it is. Nor was this school alone in having a tower. A great many did. I suspect the primary purpose was pride. A community that was going places and wanted to show the world put money in its public buildings in a way that could be seen. Nothing stands out quite like a tower.
Richardson was fond of towers and they are included in a good many of his public buildings. He commonly placed round buttresses at the corners of square towers topping them with their own rounded roofs, which is what we see here.
At the top of the tower is what is known as a Loire dormer, named for the region in France where these dormers were popular. The dormer is fronted by a stone or brick facade. Richardson employed this same device on many of his buildings. The Fair Avenue dormers differ only in that they are simplified, lacking elaborate carvings generally associated with this type of window.
Flanking the tower we have two half-round turrets. Richardson used similar paired half-round towers on Sever Hall at Harvard, and individually on numerous other buildings. Here Packard uses them to good effect to frame the tower and the entrance arch.
The entrance arch is formed of wide, thin granite blocks, and lacks a keystone. It rests on a base of granite blocks wider than the arch. The effect is heavy, but strong. There is no uncertainty with this arch. This arch will hold.
Richardson used this type of arch almost as a motif or a signature. Placed on the ground floor, beneath the tall tower, it anchors the tower. Richardsonian buildings always seemed well-anchored. They were balanced, but bottom-heavy.
The beautiful carvings that tie the arch to its base is typical of Romanesque buildings, as is the pattern used on the capitals atop the short columns. The short columns themselves are stout enough to bear a lot of weight, but with the width of the arch, most of the weight is carried by massive blocks behind the columns. This same technique of fronting a load bearing pillar with a mostly decorative column was used by Richardson in his Brattle Street Church in Boston, and echoes its earlier use in Romanesque churches.
Heavy arches were part of what made his buildings anchored, but he also used rough-cut stone on the foundation walls. These give the impression of being stouter and stronger than smooth-faced stone. This was by no means Richardson’s innovation. It goes back many ages.
Where the building was itself faced in a rough-surfaced stone, as was often the case with Richardson’s buildings, the lower floor was usually formed from much larger stones to create the same effect.
The Fair Avenue School has this same type of rough-cut stone foundation. It projects out just a few inches from the walls above it to amplify the visual weight of the foundation.
Where Packard strikes off on his own is with the treatment of the wings. The face of each wing is divided vertically with a slight bump-out that carries on up to a wide dormer. Here is where all the windows are concentrated. The vertical is further emphasized with oriel turrets that guard the projection.
Richardson’s designs always emphasized the horizontal. Even where there were strong vertical elements such as towers and turrets and tall-thin windows, there were equally powerful horizontal elements that created strong lines. You see just a little of this in Fair Avenue with the horizontal line at the top of the foundation stone and with the dentil molding at the eaves, but the windows are all massed vertically. Missing are the long bands of windows that Richardson relies on to stretch out our vision horizontally.
This is not to deride the school. What Frank Yost created is a beautiful building. As a rule architecture is derivative, but architects bring themselves into what they are creating. They may take someone else’s ideas, but they incorporate it into their own creative aesthetic.
What Yost offers instead of Richarsonian horizontal banding is a pleasing symmetrical grouping of vertical structures that stand apart from the school itself. The two window groupings on the wings and the center tower belong together. That is our eye notices that there are similarities with each other. They are all three pointed up, and the windows give the three a common texture. The basic building becomes a blank canvas upon which the vertical structures are displayed. Using gestalt terminology the building becomes the background while these dominant structures become the object. Frank Yost knew what he was doing, and the result is a very pleasing effect, which is why 130 years later it still catches our attention.
The Fair Avenue School is a good representation of Richardsonian Romanesque as interpreted by another architect. It is also a reminder that schools do not have to be solely utilitarian. If part of the purpose of a school is to train young minds in what is beautiful, what is just, and what is good, then beauty should an important consideration when designing schools.
Let us hope that architects and school boards rediscover this idea so that future generations can look at at the schools that we will have created with awe and respect.
A transplant to Ohio, Joffre Essley has taken a strong liking to the architecture of Columbus and the surrounding area. He writes about house styles of the past at his website www.house-design-coffee.com. When not blogging he tweets as @homesower and sneaks a few entries onto his Facebook page.