A brief history of the Romanesque Revival style in St. Louis architecture
One of the most influential architectural styles in St. Louis is probably the one least understood by the general public. The Romanesque style has given us some of the most beautiful churches and mansions of the Gilded Age, but its name is deceptive. While the style’s name includes the word Roman, no one from this ancient civilization ever built in the original Romanesque, let alone in its later revival. While the Romanesque revival supposedly brought back to life a long dead period of European architecture, in the final decades of the 19th century, in reality, some of the most inventive creations were shown during this rebirth of the past.
The original Romanesque style appeared in Europe in the 11th century and remained popular until the Gothic style began to develop in the 12th century. Of course, the development was gradual, and many churches in which the Romanesque style dominated were completed in the Gothic style. One of the most unfortunate aspects of art historians’ view of the Romanesque is that it is an “imperfect” or “inadequate” style whose structural problems have been “fixed” by the Gothic.
But the Romanesque was far from imperfect; it arose from increasing prosperity and trade in the late Middle Ages of European history. As monasteries and some towns grew in importance, they needed larger churches to cope with the growing crowds. Romanesque architecture attempted to recreate the engineering feats of the ancient Roman world by mimicking important structural aspects of the latter. Medieval architects lacked the knowledge of their ancient Roman architects, however, and hence Romanesque buildings have a certain formidable, massive quality instead of the often floating, weightless feel that classical engineering, particularly the lack of Roman concrete in medieval Europe, achieves. As a result, Romanesque vaults were narrower, windows were smaller, and buildings were generally smaller.
However, in the first decades of the 19th century, with the rise of nationalism and romanticism in Europe, the fate of the Romanesque architectural style saw a rebirth. The style, which was no longer viewed as backward or inferior, especially in Northern Europe, was considered particularly German and was reminiscent of a time of political and cultural strength during the reign of the Hohenstaufen Holy Roman Emperors such as Friedrich Barbarossa. As tensions increased between France and Prussia, the dominant power in northern Germany, the Gothic style was now ironically viewed as alien and inferior. German gender concepts also played a role: France was seen as feminine and weak, including Gothic. Germany was seen as masculine and strong, so the Romanesque was viewed accordingly. But there are also nuances; The great German Gothic Cathedral of Cologne was finally completed after remaining incomplete for 500 years during this period of Germanic nationalism.
German nationalism certainly played a role in the way St. Louis industrialists viewed their homeland. The Romanesque came to the Gateway City via a unique German import, the round arch style, which translates as “round arch style”. The round arch style was not just a Romanesque revival but a synthesis of various European styles, all of which used the Roman round arch, so elements of the Renaissance also fused with Northern European influences. Perhaps the best examples of the arched style can be found in the breweries of Edmund von Jungsfeld, who created many of the earliest buildings for Anheuser-Busch. His successors in Widmann, Walsh and Boisselier continued the tradition of merging the Romanesque with the Renaissance. The third brewhouse on the grounds of the Anheuser-Busch brewery, parts of which have been preserved as a research pilot brewery, is an example of the arched style, in which architects adapt elements of the Romanesque style to modern building types.
But certainly the Romanesque revival was used for church services, and interestingly, the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches tended to shy away from the style in St. Louis, favoring the neoclassical revival first and then the Gothic revival. But Presbyterian, Congregational, Methodist, and other denominations built impressive examples around St. Louis, especially in Midtown. Often the churches were built asymmetrically to achieve a picturesque appearance, with a massive tower offset to one side. Technology now made large spaces possible and broke with its archetype. Romanesque Revival churches often have huge, monumental stained glass windows to illuminate the nave.
The Romanesque resurgence proved popular with the wealthy and provided the style for the Samuel Cupples House, perhaps one of the best examples here in St. Louis. The city was also adorned with three native designs by the most influential architect of the style, Henry Hobson Richardson, whose Trinity Church in Boston heralded the beginning of the Romanesque revival in America. Richardson’s Romanesque was even known as his personal imprint of the style. The John Lionberger House, which stood at 27 Vandeventer Place, gives a great impression of the style. a large arched front portal, relatively small windows, rusty masonry and an overall enormous mass. His son’s house, Isaac H. Lionberger House, which may have been designed by assistants in Richardson’s company under the supervision of their employer, shows the beauty in the simplicity and clean lines of the red brick. The Henry Potter, the third of his designs, was a wooden frame and clapboard suburban house in the West End on a large wooded lot.
The fate of the Romanesque revival and its injustice could not be better illustrated than in the estate of Ernest J. Russell, the famous architect who founded the Mauran, Russell and Garden company. In his will, Russell bequeathed his house, the Henry Potter House, to the city of St. Louis in order to demolish it for a park in 1960. This came from the architect who had publicly warned of the dangers of the “ultra-modernists”. Apparently Russell felt that his own home was too disgraced to be worth saving. The other Richardson design in Vandeventer Place would also be demolished, leaving only one in Grandel Square. It would be a few more decades before Americans rediscovered the beauty of the Romance revival.