American Aristocracy – Beethoven In Granite: The Boston Brahmin Aesthetic
I never pass the statue of Unitarian divine William Ellery Channing (the great luminary of “the Boston religion”) which stands opposite the Arlington Street Church in the New England capital, that I don’t wish away the rather pompous inscriptions on this monument and want to see instead what to my mind would best give the measure of Channing’s influence in his time – one sentence it would be: “One of Beethoven’s last requests, when he was dying, was to see the full report of Channing’s address of December 12, 1826, of which he had read [only] . . . an abstract.”
Biographers both of the composer (A. W. Thayer) and of the American divine (D. K. Edgell) attest to this desire on Beethoven’s part, documenting Van Wyck Brooks’s report. To which I might add Brooks’s and Nicholas Tawa’s footnote – when describing Charles Callaghan Perkin’s gift to Boston in 1856 of Crawford’s statue of Beethoven, the first in the US – that “the Beethoven cult dated from the [eighteen] forties, when the young Brook Farmers had walked into Boston to listen to the ‘Emerson of music’ ” – young men in “parties of three or four, deliciously thrilled by the darkness of the road and the chance of meeting a foot pad.”
Nor were Channing’s writings the only American ideas Beethoven took on board, so to speak. Far from it. He was a revolutionary himself; the culminating “Ode to Joy” of his Ninth Symphony, a poem by Frederick Schiller, was chosen by the composer, scholars believe, because it was inspired by the American Revolution. (It was originally entitled “Ode to Freedom”). Certainly Schiller is known to have had an engraving on his living room wall of the Battle of Bunker Hill.
That engagement, the first great battle of the Revolution, is commemorated in Boston by a huge obelisk. Its cornerstone laid by LaFayette, its dedication attended by the President of the United States and his entire Cabinet, this obelisk has also the distinction of being surely the most stupendous landmark of the early 19th-century Boston Granite Style of architecture. And in a very real sense, more than Crawford’s statue of the composer, when I look at the Bunker Hill Monument I recall to mind, yes, the battle, but the composer as well – each revolutionary moment answers powerfully to the other – Beethoven in granite.
Beethoven as granite suggested the idea of this essay. Thomas May, for instance, the well known musicologist – author of Decoding Wagner – has written of “Beethoven’s uncanny ability to build vast structures from his granitic and primal thematic material.” Just the other day a random search on Amazon to see how widespread was this sort of thing produced a review of Otto Klemperer’s interpretations of Beethoven’s symphonies which turned on a discussion of the “granite-like sonority of the opening of the Seventh.”
Beethoven as granite, however, is not quite Beethoven in granite, wherever, and why, by the way, Boston? The short answer – the long one follows – is that, much more than brick, pop culture notwithstanding, as Bacon’s Handbook of Boston put it in the 19th-century, “granite is a peculiarly Boston stone,” and I will argue here, so is the Boston Granite Style, the city’s signature architectural style.
Think Lewis Wharf, in some ways a better example than the Bunker Hill Monument because that wharf has been called “the finest granite work in the world except for Machu-Pichu.” Say what? It was the well-known post-World War Two modernist achitect Karl Koch who hazarded this comparison with the ancient Inca temple in Peru, one of the wonders of the planet, which the wharf building seems at first glance hardly in the same league with.
Look again. I did. And learned by consulting a book I was not familiar enough with, William H. Bunting’s Portrait of a Port, that Koch had a better eye than most of us. Designed by the well-known Boston architect, Richard Bond (the designer as well of Gore Hall library at Harvard), Lewis Wharf was remodeled by Koch in 1971, which was when he shared his opinion with poet Elizabeth Bishop, who bought one of his condominiums. “Lewis,” Bunting writes, “was perhaps the finest of all the great wharf buildings, having been constructed of Quincy granite in the most extravagantly substantial manner during the booming 30s”.
Boston Landmarks Commissions records, furthermore, back Bunting up. Home base for many China trade and East India traders and later for shipping lines in the era of the California Gold Rush, BLC accounts document that for the Lewis Wharf Corporation the “solid granite warehouses which were produced far surpassed all the other wharves and docks in Boston.” Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell, with unaccustomed exuberance in a 1979 column, pronounced Lewis Wharf a “masterpiece.” Bishop, who had lived almost everywhere else in the world but Boston, “fell in love” with Lewis Wharf according to her biographer, and not the first poet either to be won over by Boston’s granite architecture. In a sense its real discoverer (because so famous a discoverer) was another famous non-Bostonian – a New Yorker this time – Walt Whitman.
As much as Koch, Whitman seemed almost taken aback: “Probably one of the finest pieces of com[mercial] architecture in the world,” the poet wrote in his notebook of one of these massive waterfront buildings, which he first saw during one of the many long and rambling walks he depended upon to clear his head during his long stay in Boston in 1860 while seeing through to publication the third (and seminal) edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman’s effort to describe the building was brief – he wrote only it was of “rough granite.” Yet his attempt to characterize the architecture, even briefer, was sure enough: one word – “noble.”
Seemingly from time immemorial, “building materials have traditionally been classified as as being either noble or base. The noble materials,” William Baker recounts in Architectural Excellence in a Diverse World Culture, are “marble, granite, limestone and bronze. The base materials [are] wood, brick, concrete, clay and fiber.” Certainly New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable in 1958 in Progressive Architecture quoted “contemporary observers” in the early 19th century who admired “the noble proportions” of G. F. J Bryant’s Mercantile Wharf. Moreover, some historians – Walter Kilham, for example, in Boston after Bulfinch – referred to “granite, called the noblest of all building stones.” (One cannot, for example, imagine the eight great columns of Hadrian’s Pantheon in Rome of two millenia ago as anything but granite. Today steel would be considered noble; also the sort of concrete I. M. Pei insisted upon; glass base).
On the one hand, Fate. . . an active enemy. On the other, Man, drawing on his deepest resources to rise victorious . . . If the chroniclers have not lied, Beethoven conceived the rhythmic motto as symbolic of ‘Fate knocking on the door,’ . . . Even without this clue, a study of Beethoven’s temperament and high ethical purposes, together with a normal aesthetic reaction to the music itself, would suffice to establish the drama as an epic struggle on a moral plane.
Da-da-da-dum. Da-da-da-dum. It is the most famous motif in Western music; famously noble.
Eliot’s purposes were clear. “Members of the predominantly Unitarian upper class . . . shifted attention, particularly through the Boston Academy of Music, from sacred vocal music to secular instrumental music,” F. O. Salomons wrote, while others “transformed the early Puritan emphasis on edification,” all this without in any sense diminishing what Biancolli called the “epic struggle on a moral plane.” Because of the ‘nobility’ of Beethoven’s genius, even though his music was more secular than religious, his music seemed to heighten that struggle, not diminish it.
Otto Kinkoldy in his Beginnings of Beethoven in America documents Eliot’s achievement: “the Boston Academy of Music developed an orchestra which within a few years became the first genuine exponent in America of Beethoven the symphonist.” The result, Michael Broyles agreed, was a “seismic shift in the musical landscape from 1831 to 1840.” Broyles also observes of the Academy’s historic 1841 concert series, the first in which Beethoven’s symphonies were heard in Boston, that “repeated performances of Beethoven’s symphonies had an emotional impact on Boston audiences like nothing before, not just in Boston, but throughout America.”
New Yorkers too responded in this decade with enthusiasm to the symphonies of the German master. The Brahmin aesthetic was hardly the only one Beethoven inspired. “New York was developing a type of culture . . . that was cosmopolitan in a way shared by no other American center: Boston scholarship was deeper, sounder and in a sense more separate from European currents,” Talbot Hamlin wrote, and thus New York was “perhaps superficial according to Boston lights … [But] New York’s culture was the result of a collision of influences from all parts of America and from most of the countries of Europe . . . essentially vital.” New Yorkers even then had as good an ear and eye as Bostonians. But what is also true is that Boston, just because of its Brahmin legacy, expects more; too much more sometimes, but always more. Thus Allan Kozin, in a review of Broyle’s book which appeared in The New York Times in 2011, notes that while “the first 28 programs by the Philharmonic Society, a predecessor of the NY Philharmonic, founded in 1842, included 17 performances of [Beethoven's] symphonies,” the fact was “Boston became even more of a Beethovian hotbed.” The reason, of course, was Transcendentalism.
Now the often confusing nature of this movement surely explains why University of North Carolina literary historian Philip F. Gura in his recent book, American Transcendentalism, chose as one of the books five epigraphs this blunt observation: “The new Boston schools of philosophy [hold] no very precise doctrines . . . They comprise an independency of opinion. They unite to differ.” But under Emerson’s presidency. And the reason those Brook Farmers elected Beethoven “the Emerson of music” was that they saw the same “epic struggle on a moral plane” in the ideas of each.
How architecture participated in this arena was one matter. How commercial architecture did – anything commercial – was another. And yet on philistine State Street itself, no Emersonian enclave, its first citizen by universal consent, financier Henry Lee Higginson, had long been a member of a group of Civil War officers (including Charles Russell Lowell) who read Emerson. Higginson, who would be, of course, in 1881 the founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, kept a portrait of the seer of Concord over his desk all his life. Famously, when a controversial interpretation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony by the BSO under Arthur Nikisch “ignited a firestorm of debate” in Boston, Higginson, for whom Emerson and Beethoven were more or less everything, did not renew the conductor’s contract.
Even the New York-centric musicologist Joseph Horowitz, admitted “that the interpretation of Beethoven’s Fifth should have become a matter of urgent civic importance, bearing on a city’s cultural pedigree, could only have occurred in Boston.” Drolly, Horowitz concludes, and I agree, “this New York was quick to concede.”
He also titled the first part of his Classical Music in America “Boston and the Cult of Beethoven.”
Even today one can feel like a close participant in this history by just taking a book out of the Boston Public Library, just as I did when I recently read J. Bunch’s I fell like a bird when the sun is ecclipsed: Beethoven for the Concord Transcendentalists. It is known that Emerson fortuitously came across a translation of Christian Sturms’ Reflections on the Works of God in Nature, borrowing it from the Boston Public Library,” Bunch wrote, adding “the work was a favorite read of Beethoven, who owned a heavily annotated copy.” And here I am reading it. Clearly, Channing was not the only Bostonian of like mind to Beethoven. Bunch goes on to compare a passage from Emerson’s “Nature,” notable for the “sympathies that it exposes between its author and the Kant-Beethoven German Idealist concept of Nature” with a passage from Sturm’s book (one Beethoven carefully copied out into his diary) as more evidence of the affinities between Emerson and Beethoven, who died when Emerson was only 23.
Why this is important Michael Broyles is in no doubt: “[I]f Transcendentalism had an ur-statement it would be Emerson’s 1836 essay “Nature” . . . .[which] is about more than nature. It is about man’s place in the cosmos, about God, the soul, reason, language, beauty, and nationalism. It is a metaphysical, religious and aesthetic statement.” To all this, running through the mind, walking home from the BPL, one might add – if more literary types talked to more artistic types and vice versa – that it was more then appropriate that the first performance in America of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony – the “Pastoral” Symphony, please note – should have taken place in Boston on January 15, 1842 under the auspices of the Boston Academy of Music.
Emerson’s devoted co-editor of the Transcendentalist Dial, Margaret Fuller, attended those concerts, and thus we must fuse to music and architecture and philosophy the newer field of womens studies to close the first circle, as it were, of our study. The importance of the Sixth Symphony notwithstanding, as we noticed was true of Samuel Eliot’s campaign for Beethoven in the first place, it is always one symphony particularly that is the spearhead. Listen carefully to the themes in Charles Ives’s Second Piano Concerto (subtitled “Concord, Mass. 1840-1860”) in which the composer depicts Emerson and Hawthorne, Alcott and Thoreau. The important one is from the Fifth Symphony.
The first American feminist was there for that premiere too, and as Michael Broyles may have been the first to notice in this connection, feeling very much “trapped in her gender. Beethoven was her liberator” (emphasis mine). It was after the first Boston Academy of Music performance of the Fifth in 1841, that she wrote William Ellery Channing – significant choice – “Oh William, what majesty, what depth”. . . When I heard this symphony, I said ‘I will triumph.’” And after she heard the Seventh Symphony in 1843, she wrote, not this time to Channing, but to Beethoven! That the composer had been dead more than a decade mattered not at all. The letter remained in her journal, never published. Notes Broyles, when a year later she wrote about the premiere for The Dial, none of her feelings had “dissipated.” Beethoven, she insisted, was Colossal.”
Colossal equally describes the effect of the Greek Revival style in architecture, as much as music (as many scholars have seen it) part and parcel of the same “epic struggle on a moral plane.”
“The Greek Revival appeared first in the great humanistic renaissance in the Boston of the 1820’s . . . Then it swept over the mountains into the egalitarian West of Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln,” James Marston Fitch recounted, deliberately scanting the South for reasons that are not hard to see in the legendary Columbia University scholar’s attempt to put it all in a national context:
Everywhere – in Philadelphia, in the Hudson River Valley, in Providence . . . – Greek structures were abuilding . . . Boston was the hub of the movement, its spokes radiated to every center in the Northeast . . . More important then its ubiquity was the fact that the Greek Revival was the idiom of the most progressive forces in American life. The chief proponents of the Greek were the very men and women . . . who were bringing new libraries, art galleries, museums, and orchestras to America [and] women’s rights. . . When Mr and Mrs Charles Dickens came to America, it was Boston’s institutions for wayward girls, orphans and the blind which most interested. Finally – the nodal point of the nineteenth century – it was the Boston intelligensia who furnished the avant-garde in the struggle against human slavery.
Fitch admitted the New England capital too had “her Tories and her appeasers . . . the great merchants who were broken to King Cotton” and that “these lived [too] in Greek houses. . . . But it was not to the Tories that the great Boston of the period belonged.”
Even in an international context, and even in the work of an historian like David Watkin, very much a (British) Tory and a modern Classicist to boot, it registers that it was because “Athenian democracy of the fifth century represented an ideal of civic order and severity with which Americans were quick to identify . . . that the dominance of the Greek Revival was more complete in America than in any European country” – where, indeed, a piece of architecture could be, in Watkins words in his History of Western Architecture, “a tangible expression in the modern world of the ennobling moral force of ancient Greek culture.”
In this period Washington particularly was at least as important as Boston. Although Fitch is probably right that Bulfinch had made Boston the country’s most beautiful city (including a residential crescent such as not even London could boast of, as Watkin admits), Benjamin Latrobe, the designer whose brilliant work at the US Capital still astonishes, was probably the greater architect. But Latrobe’s students, William Strickland and Robert Mills, were not more gifted than Alexander Parris or Solomon Willard, Bulfinch’s followers, nor Boston’s other star designer of the time, Isaiah Rogers, in whose work Watkin sees the inspiration of Frederick Schinkel, the great Berlin neo-classicist.
Just the physical reality of the Greek Revival signaled overwhelming change in Boston, where the effect, increasingly, of “the Boston Granite Style, the local variation on the Greek Revival, itself a subset of international late neo-classicism” in James O’Gorman’s words, is hard to exaggerate. Certainly I am not the man to do so. Only a few landmarks of this era survive today, but granite was a cause Boston’s Brahmins constantly urged; Thomas Handasyd Perkins, for instance, who, however apt he was to confuse moral with aesthetic leadership, more than satisfied in the later department. Perkins was determined that as it had once been transformed from wood to brick, so in the early 19th century “Boston would be changed from Brick to Stone.” Another first chapter title, this time from Roger Reed’s Building Victorian Boston, comes to mind: “Granite Bred in the Bone.”
In 1853 Leipsig’s Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik published an open letter (later reprinted in translation in Dwight’s Journal of Music) by Richard Pohl praising the “truly astonishing” way orchestral music was thriving in America. The German critic was particularly thrilled that just a little over a decade after they had first been heard in America all Beethoven’s symphonies had been performed in Boston many times in the 1852-53 season, particularly that the Ninth Symphony had been offered twice by the Germania Musical Society and the Handel and Hayden Society. “By this one fact, ” Pohl insisted, “Boston raises herself to a musical rank which neither old England nor many celebrated German capitals will dispute with her.”
We know of this review because of Nancy Newman’s article on the Germania in the Institute for Studies in American Music and we know why the Old World had such good reason to exult over the musical achievements of the New because of another musicologist, O. F. Saloman, whose Beethoven’s Symphonies and J. S. Dwight: The Birth of American Music Criticism is the sort of book not enough people read. New York-centric scholars like Joseph Horowitz, thoughtlessly anti-Brahmin to my mind (he being in no danger apparently of probing Perry Miller’s studies of a speaking aristocracy to a listening democracy!) dwell on the late and arch-conservative Dwight, ignoring the earlier period, with much protest about a “priestly class of tastemakers” and “unresolved tensions between democratic principles and elitist instincts” and so on.
Salomon, however, emphasizes the other side of Dwight, the earlier Dwight, calling him “one of the younger American Unitarian intellectual radicals of the 1830s,” unusual among Transcendentalists in choosing “a musical emphasis.” Salomon praises the Bostonian’s “search for and development of a higher criticism of music was unprecedented in the US . . . as distinct from the journalistic chronicling of performances.” Repeatedly, Salomon cites Dwight’s “progressive championship of Beethoven’s music,” his “key role in introducing the symphonic genre to the American public,” and “the pioneering nature of his initial Beethoven criticism.” Priestly castes do have their uses.
A graduate not only of Harvard College and Harvard Divinity School, Dwight was a Unitarian minister as well as an ardent Emersonian and a socialist too – he was, for example, a leader of the utopian community of Brook Farm before he established his journal, America’s foremost, and established himself as the country’s first native-born music critic. His Unitarianism was crucial to his criticism. “Dwight was certain,” Broyles writes, “of a connection between Beethoven’s reception [in America] and Transcendentalism, noting that Beethoven and Emerson “came in, it may be said, together.”
“Thanks especially to John S. Dwight,” Michael Broyles has written, “a Beethoven performance in nineteenth-century America became more than a musical event, but a sacralized, uplifting experience, a moment not only of transcendence but of communion with the Almighty himself. Beyond sacralization the only step left for Beethoven was deification, and by the early twentieth-century Beethoven was viewed in both Europe and America as, if not a god, at least a pure moral being.” Still today Beethoven is the one and the only name on the proscenium arch of Boston’s Symphony Hall.
Even more Bostonian was the fact that another and also complementary achievement of Dwight’s journal was that one of his writers, Alexander Wheellock Thayer, a Bostonian whose research skills were honed as a Harvard librarian, produced the biography of Beethoven that (updated last by musicologist Eliot Forbes) is still definitive 150 years later.
Admittedly, it could all get pretty silly. One hopes it was meant as a joke, Van Wyck Brooks’s account of Edward Everett Hale’s report of poet James Russell Lowell, who while dancing, discussed with his partner ‘the significance of the 5th Symphony of Beethoven in comparison with the 2nd and the 7th,” meanwhile leaving it to “another partner in the quadrille [to] reconcile for him the conflict of free will and foreknowledge.”
On the other hand Brooks’s description of Thayer’s Beethoven project was positively reverent and showed the other side of Boston:
The work was a characteristic product of the Yankee mind [when] hero-worship flourished in Boston … Thayer conceived his passion for Beethoven while still at Harvard. All the existing accounts of the composer were a tissue of romantic tales and errors and Thayer resolved at once to write the great biography. He went abroad in 1849 . . . and this was the beginning of forty years of labor and poverty [somewhat financed by sending articles home for the Atlantic Monthly and The Boston Courier . . . The appearance of the first volume roused many other students, for he had opened up lines of research . . . [B]efore he died, in 1897, Thayer had finished three volumes . . .Thayer’s life of Beethoven had long been a German classic when it first appeared in America in 1920 . . . [W]ith his calm and logical mind, scrupulous, magnanimous and spacious . . .[he] had set out to describe for posterity the great man as he was . . . with all his warts; and his patient realism and all but inexhaustible industry had created an irreplaceable and masterly portrait.
Even more creative than Beethoven studies was a Beethoven commission! As Nicholas Tawa recounts in From Psalm to Symphony:
An extraordinary event took place in 1823 that demonstrated how forward looking [Boston's Handel and Hayden] Society’s leadership was Samuel Richardson . . . and every other Boston gentlemen sent a request from a banker in Boston to one in Vienna, Herr Geymuller, to ask Ludwig von Beethoven if the Society might commission an oratorio from him. Beethoven was delighted with the commission because it signified his far-flung fame but died before he could compose anything for Boston. On On 5 November 1823 the Morganblatt fur gebildete Leser gave notice of the commission. A notebook of Beethoven’s confirms the composer was contemplating before his death . . . ‘ein Biblisches oratorium ihm duch den Amerikanisches.
Otto Kinkeldey also notes that the composer mentioned the Boston commission in a letter of December 22, 1822 to his friend and pupil, Ferdinand Reis: “if God will only restore my health,” Beethoven wrote. But the world would never hear his Boston oratorio.
There was more than a little Beethoven in Charles Bulfinch,though pop culture is forever reducing the architect to the father of “Hallmark Card Boston,”, invariably red-brick and a candle in every window. Oddly enough, Bulfinch’s stone Maine State House – built in 1829 after Maine was erected into a separate state out of Massachusetts – s in many ways better than the brick Massachusetts original. Although a reduced version of the Boston State House, the effect of Maine’s capital, Bulfinch scholar Harold Kirker writes, is much stronger and reflects the architect’s superb feeling for granite.” The emphasis is mine. It was a feeling that, prior to the opening of the Middlesex Canal, was not going to be given much of a chance in Boston, where from the start of his career, “[Bulfinch] had to wait almost twenty years before he could build in granite in Boston,” Kirker laments. Bulfinch’s first such work in Boston was the Suffolk County Courthouse of 1810.
So stone-oriented was Bulfinch – anti-Brick in fact – that Kirker notes his preference for painted brick, as at his celebrated Tontine Crescent of 1793, where “the brick exterior walls were painted gray to simulate masonry.” So was Bulfinch’s own town house. Indeed, there is good evidence so was the State House itself, which also at some point was painted yellow, the reason the Victorian extension behind it is of yellow brick. As Roger Reed has affirmed in his Building Victorian Boston, “today [Bulfinch] work is popularly associated with surviving brick buildings . . . The role [he] played in making granite . . . building[s] . . . has not been given adequate attention.”
Probably, ‘quaint’ red brick, so ‘picturesque’ will always trump more regal granite, so widely disliked, in popular taste and probably for the same reason Post-Modernism, not a style that has bequeathed us much of value, was always more popular than the 1960s Heroic Concrete Style – misnamed Brutalism – which in contrast to Pomo has left Bostonians particularly a great deal of splendid architecture including Kallman, McKinnel’s Boston City Hall and I.M. Pei’s magnificent Christian Science Plaza.
However, in the burgeoning capital of the 1820s (in which decade Boston became a city) and in the ensuing decades, civic grandeur was very much the order of the day. Neo-classicism, notably grand and urbane, was the sophisticated architectural choice, and because of Bulfinch’s legacy both of design and followers no other city was better placed to pursue.
The granite grandees still standing in Boston, none of which disappoint, include the Charles Street Jail in the West End (now the Liberty Hotel), St John’s Church on Beacon Hill, the Ropewalk in Charlestown and a half dozen more landmarks. There is the more than 500-foot-long Quincy Market hall with its parallel warehouses; the 1300 plus long Ropewalk at the Boston Navy Yard in Charlestown, and the Boston Custom House. 65 oxen were needed to drag to the site the 24 monolithic columns, each 32 feet high and weighing 42 tons, that surround the building. Equally colossal, the 221 feet high Bunker Hill Monument boasts stones as large as seven feet by three feet, each weighing five tons. Finally, recourse to Silent City on a Hill: Picturesque Landscapes of Memory and Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery documents the fact that the topmost cornice of Mt. Auburn’s splendid Egyptian Gatehouse, 22 feet long, was “the largest piece of sculptured granite placed in an American structure to that date” One stone in the granite retaining wall of the Old Granary Burying Ground, however, is 32 feet long.
There is to be sure an obvious duality in the Boston granite tradition. Reed refers to the 1830s as the decade of “change” between the finished (mostly lighter Chelmsford granite) of neo-classicist Paris and to the second period work which led to “an aesthetic for rock-faced granite [a grayer, darker Quincy granite, which] historians later praised as the Boston Granite Style.” However, although O’Gorman refers as well to the Boston Custom House begun in 1837 as marking the end of “the neo-classical phase of the Boston Granite Style which was just then beginning to wane,” in Three American Achitects, he makes clear that he sees a continuum and a whole: “the Boston Granite Style . . . evolved from the cool Greek Revival of early in the century to the richer looking buildings of mid-century,” he wrote, enlarging on his views in this manner:
The urban branch of this pattern of stone building emerges from the granite Greek Revival work of Alexander Parris . . . By midcentury there was an identifiable ‘Boston Granite Style’ of commercial building exemplified, for example, by the portside warehouses of G. J. F. Bryant . . . In these four square buildings, the prismatic granite block formed the module of the design . . . [and] . . . the granite unit generated a reductive, monumental, monochromatic architecture . . . [T]his stringent, lithic style was not confined to commercial building alone . . . Hammatt and Joseph Billings fronted their Boston Museum . . . with a granite palazzo facade.
Where the Greek Revival ends and the Boston Granite style begins is a very blurred line. John Bryan goes so far as to assert that Bulfinch and Cottings’ granite work in the 1810s “established . . . that the Boston Granite Style antedates the Greek Revival in Boston,” Zimmerman, in another Boston University doctoral thesis on Boston granite work, notes that while Alexander Parris owed much to Charles Bulfinch, he owed at least as much if not more to Benjamin Latrobe, and that to call Parris – whose Sears House of 1816 could be claimed as the first full-fledged Boston Granite Style work – a Greek Revival architect is really not correct.
Three things. First, in Boston granite always trumped Greek. “[Solomon] Willard’s almost fanatical belief, as recorded by Wheildon’s of the architect in his own time, that material affected style importantly” equally caught New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable’s attention in our own time. So did it Talbot Hamlin’s, who notes that “when Chelmsford quarries were started they offered the first generation supply of the material that was eventually to revolutionize Boston architecture” – granite. Furthermore, Willard’s “feeling for . . . granite, which he loved so much . . . was eloquent of a definite search for the most functional architectural forms,” Hamlen writes, “a search that lay beneath much of the best work of the Greek Revival.” And which emerged most forcefully one may say, only in the second period.
Second, if granite always trumped Greek in Boston, so did scale always trump style – in fact ‘granite scale’ created style in a very real sense and from the beginning. The”large scale” in the case of Parris’ granite at the Sears House of 1816, for example, mattered as much to Zimmerman as its “taut[ness]” on the facade. Walter Kilham in Boston After Bulfinch particularly noticed “the increased scale of the masonry” as the use of granite spread. The rule was, “to use as few and as large single pieces of granite,” in Hamlen’s words, “as possible.” Huxtable nailed it when she observed that the use of “bigger and better blocks of stone,” was such that “the result was a new kind of design [my emphasis] based on the functional use of monolithic structural elements.”
Third, as there was granite and as there was scale, so was there a style, a style decidedly from our perspective today we can only call proto-modern.
These commercial structures [Huxtable wrote in June of 1958 in Progressive Architecture] warehouses, wharf buildings, store blocks – were the pride of 19th century Boston. Built in great numbers from the 1820s to the 1860s, the effect of their massed gray granite must have been one of remarkable power. Many employed a unique type of stone-slab design in which huge structural blocks were used with almost 20th-century directness and unprecedented functional severity . . . [M]onumental in scale, they have an arrestingly proto-modern look.
Proto-modern and also global. More than seemly is the only element of granite sculpture incorporated into the pediment of the State Street Block: a large granite globe, fitting ornament for Boston’s distinctive neo-classicism, admired far and wide as it turns out. “[Boston's] leading architectural style spread,” David Williams recounts in his Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology,” custom houses in Savannah, Georgia; San Francisco; and Portland, Maine, used Quincy Granite. In 1836 Willard provided stone for the New York Merchants Exchange, designed by a former student, Boston’s own Isaiah Rogers.
Actually, the chief work in New York City, also by Rogers, was the Astor Hotel of 1836 modeled after the greatest triumph of Rogers’s career, Boston’s Tremont House, the first American grand hotel; indeed, the first with indoor plumbing! (Long gone, but Rogers’s granite gateway to the Old Granary Burying Ground next door to the site of the Tremont House, and 20-3- Bromfield Street nearby, still stand, however, superb examples of the Boston Granite Style surviving in downtown Boston. The gateway is almost cyclopean; Bryan goes so far as to refer to its “super-human scale,” an aspect the Egyptian Revival allowed.
How many noticed these landmarks as the port of Boston declined, however, along with the whole core city in the Curley years, it is hard to say. A search of the Boston Globe archives shows only one article – “First Boston Granite Fronts on Brattle Street,” which appeared in 1907 – from the 1870s through the 1930s, by when the highly regarded and representative Massachusetts volume of the American Guide Series, issued in 1937, documents my point. Although the anonymous author clearly kept up with the scholarship as it then stood, citing the fact that Louis Sullivan was “the link between two great masters, Richardson and Wright,” the attitude towards Boston Granite is negative in the extreme. Its landmarks are described as having “travestied that classic style rather than copied it. It became common practice for the designers of commercial buildings to make imitations of Greek porticoes and entries and to attach them without discrimination to the facade of banks and markets [including presumably, Quincy Market, otherwise dismissed in three non-committal lines]. Allied to little in the Massachusetts tradition, the Greek Revival inevitably disintegrated.”
Nor was the Brahmin-led historic preservation movement much interested in granite or in warehouses, however grand. Patriotism and ethnocentrism more than aesthetics drove William Summer Appleton and the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. Saving Boston’s grand, granite, global architecture does not figure at all in Michael Holloran’s Boston’s Changeful Times. In fact, it was a small cohort of modernists who in the 1930s could hardly believe what they saw – as in Whitman’s and Bishop’s cases, mostly not Bostonians – particularly the foreigners – who came to the rescue of Boston’s neglected granite glories.
Siegfried Gideon, for example, the Swiss architectural historian and critic, who came to Boston in the late 1930s to teach at Harvard, noticed at once the “rugged stone walls” of these buildings along the waterfront, and in his milestone book of 1941, Space, Time and Architecture, reported that “in a seminar which I conducted during the summer of 1938 on Boston office buildings,” he wrote, “we endeavored to learn more about this work.” I hope he knew architect Walter Kilham, who in 1946 pronounced the masterpiece of the Boston Granite Style the State Street Block, “the best architecture in the city,” dubbing it with his best accolade as “Plain American.”
Most important of all was Henry-Russell Hitchcock, the pre-eminent American architectural historian of the first half of the 20th century, who somewhat took matters into his own hands and began to sort out the situation James O’Gorman would ultimately clarify in the next generation. In 1936 Hitchcock had already highlighted Boston granite when in his Architecture of H. H. Richardson and his Times, in reviewing the architecture of Boston as Richardson found it. Doubtless to the amazement and chagrin of many, he declared that the “sturdy buildings of smooth or rock-faced granite,” located “along lower State Street and Commercial Street, and Commercial Street, or on the wharv[es]” were of such extraordinary beauty and presence that they “made of Boston’s waterfront and commercial district one of the most impressive in the world.”
Excuse me! Surely even more provoking to many was Hitchcock’s Boston architectural guide of 1954 – the first to the city so far as I know – where the New Yorker went much further. I well remember my own shock when as a young scholar in the 1970s I read America’s leading architectural historian lauding, not Beacon Hill, nor the Back Bay, and paying not nearly the attention to the State House and the Old North and such as one might have expected, but – suddenly – there were these granite ranges of warehouses along Boston’s waterfront – “hardly equaled anywhere in the world.” Douglass to all-knowing self: Where did he say they were?
And what about H. H. Richardson? Eventually someone had to ask: was the great American architect of Victorian America, the first whose work enjoyed a wide vogue around the world, was he too a Boston Granite School architect? Hitchcock, in his 1936 Richardson book, had speculated about the influence of the granite tradition of Richardson; so had Gideon in 1941. Both left the question hanging, so to speak, and it was not until James O’Gorman’s work that the there was proffered confidently a very definite answer. Key to same was a newly-discovered (by Cynthia Zaitzevsly) Richardson building, Boston’s Hayden Building, Richardson’s design of which was announced in the May 1873 issue of The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. O’Gorman it was who would later emphasize that the topmost story of the building, begun in 1875, was a direct quotation from the post and lintel motif that dominated the Boston Granite Style.
That Boston’s granite tradition had indeed found its Beethoven was increasingly clear in the work of O’Gorman, who also argued Richardson cannot but have known a Boston granite architect Paul Schultz, and, most importantly, traced Richardson’s own experience of granite to his native region.
In the first place, O’Gorman refers to “the Boston Granite Style, as it was called even in its own day,” a reference he does not enlarge upon but which perhaps refers to John Bryan’s documentation in his thesis to the use of the term the “Boston Style of Building” in the August 12, 1826 Boston News-Letter and City Record, a citation I have followed up and which turns out to deal with Isaiah Roger’s New York Merchants Exchange. Indeed, the title of the article itself says much: “Stone Pillars: The Boston Style of Building is Adopted in New York.” So does its first appearance in The New York Gazette.
The adoption, furthermore, was not only in New York. O’Gorman goes on: “in its early form it [the Boston Granite Style] evolved . . . spread[ing]well beyond Boston [becoming particularly influential in] New Orleans, where there was erected a good deal of the . . granite block construction characteristic of the Boston buildings.” Then, in his Living Architecture, O’Gorman goes into the New Orleans environment in excruciating detail, noting that Richardson was born in a red-brick town house that “owed its refined neo-classical appearance to London’s Robert Adam or Boston’s Charles Bulfinch,” that his family were Unitarians, and their minister a Massachusetts native. He notes too that “New Orleans in this period was lining its streets with commercial and civic monuments partly of granite, all influenced by Boston . . . Many . . . local examples had a first floor of granite post and lintel construction . . . in fact the granite was imported from New England . . . The upper floors of [Boston's] Hayden Building . . . recall the stonework of the Granite Style Richardson knew in New Orleans as a child and in Boston as an undergraduate.”
Although primarily a Richardsonian scholar, the leading one of his generation, O’Gorman emerged as well as the laureate of Boston granite, writing with real eloquence of the “prismatic granite block” of this style, and was very explicit about “the chain of stringent, lithic designs in Boston that culminated [my emphasis] in H. H. Richardson’s mature work.” Furthermore, O’Gorman added, Richardson himself “expressed his admiration for these buildings to the critic Montgomery Schuyler.” (“There was a lot more character in the plain and solid warehouses,” Richardson said, “then the florid . . . edifices by which they were replaced.” Beethoven indeed.
Finally, though, Siegfried Gideon may have probed furthest and earliest too when he asked in respect of Richardson’s Marshal Field Warehouse in Chicago, “what is this building? Romanesque? Florentine Renaissance? Need we go so far back? Would it not be simpler to look for its origin in the rugged stone walls which gave Richardson his first architectural expressions?” The Marshal Field warehouse, of course, as Gideon points out, was “a strong incitement to the work of the Chicago School, for Louis Sullivan, and for Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Only Frank Lloyd Wright, as it turned out, knew what John S. Dwight meant when the music critic likened Beethoven’s symphonies to “grand piles of architecture.” Influences from one field to another always fascinate, but when David Denis wrote in the Cambridge Companion to Beethoven that it is “in the structure of his lines, long and expansive, pressing themes conceived on a grand scale that one senses the most telling indicators of Beethoven’s influence on [Walt] Whitman’s art'” one could not help but notice that while poetic “grand scale” was something of an echo of Margaret Fuller’s musical “colossal,’ never mind Dwight’s architectural “grand piles,” that hardly detailed very convincingly in respect to Beethoven.
More interesting was the Wrightian response. Andrew Budke sets up a very different vector in “The Influence of Beethoven upon the Life and Works of Frank Lloyd Wright”, where Budke emphasized shared qualities to be found “at the intersection of architecture and music, qualities that Beethoven had mastered and Wright could learn.” The four of Beethoven’s qualities Wright himself focused on in his autobiography (yes, Wright, like Whitman, also admired Beetoven) Budke puts in italics in his own conclusions: “If any of Wright’s projects could be said to strive for entity, maintain oneness in diversity, contain depth in design and preserve repose in the final expression of the whole, Then they exhibit the influence of Beethoven.”
It was one thing for Wright to put a bust of Beethoven in the living room of his Chicago home. But when Wright wrote that “when Beethoven made music I am sure he sometimes saw buildings like mine in character, whatever form they may have taken then”, that was just Wright’s ego filling in Dwight’s blank. Right? Wrong, It was more complicated, for it was something else again when in the same breath Wright – never quick to admit anybody’s influence – affirmed of Beethoven’s music that “when I build I often hear his music.” That was an historic admission, whatever the details of it, and grist for our mill here.
He may not have been the first architect of like mind. One for Dwight.
In the historic exhibition mounted by in 2011 by the pinkcomma gallery in Boston, in which the Heroic Concrete Style of the 1960s – was reintroduced to skeptical Bostonians by Mark Pasnik, Chris Grimley and Michael Kubo, it quickly emerged how influential the Boston Granite Style had remained in more than one corner of 20th century Modernism. Critic Donlyn Lyndon, for example, cited both the Christian Science Plaza in Boston’s Back Bay (its “masses of concrete . . . cast in sections carefully stacked one upon each other in a manner reminiscent of the severe granite work slab buildings of [Boston's early 19th-century] waterfront”) and Frederick “Tad” Stahl’s 70 Federal Street office building in Boston’s Financial District (“a Brahmin in tailored stevedore’s clothes.”)
A half century later, however, Henry-Russel Hitchcock still holds the palm for his analysis of Boston’s Boston Granite Style, probably because Hitchcock was a member of that cosmopolitan cohort Oliver Wendel Holmes identified and so sang the praises of: those holding dual citizenship in two different cities, the only people to my mind that are to be trusted to pronounce on civic matters.
Hitchcock was equally a Bostonian and a New Yorker, a subject the reader will perhaps have noticed that has emerged in this essay, where the relationship between the intellectual and academic and the economic and media capitals is unusually pertinent. I am always reluctant to let this happen , as I find it brings out the worst in both Bostonians and New Yorkers and invariably lends itself to more nonsense than anything else. Yes, Joseph Horowitz’s somewhat parochial New York-centric perspective on American music is annoying. But so is Nicholas Tawa’s self-congratulatory New England perspective. Boston and New York do stand for rather different values in many respects and often for very different points of view. But as I have opined more than once, the two capitals are more complementary than contradictory, historically. More often than not, Boston and New York have been partners rather than rivals – perhaps better partners because sometimes rivals – in leading this country culturally. The rest of it is just hype. Conflict sells.
A graduate of Middlesex School and Harvard College and graduate school, a professor for years at Smith and Richardson’s re-discoverer, Hitchcock’s Boston credentials were as impeccable as his New York credentials, he having helped curate the MOMA show that christened the International Style and gone on to teach at New York University. He moved with equal confidence in both cities, in both arenas of discourse. It is thus supremely interesting to see how he characterized Boston granite architecture in the history of Western architecture in his monumental Architecture: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.
In the first place he positions the Boston work better than anyone else, placing Alexander Parris, Boston’s leading granite style architect in the context of London’s Sir John Soane and Berlin’s Frederick von Schinkel.:
[Alexander] Parris’s Stone Temple of 1828, the Unitarian ‘Church of the Presidents’ – the two Adams presidents – in Quincy, Mass., is not at all a temple in form, but more comparable to the Grecian churches built in England in this decade. The Stone Temple outranks most of them in dignity, however, because of the superbly appropriate local material of which it is built. It was from this town that the Quincy granite came that was employed for the best Boston buildings of the next 30 years or more, and this church was a relatively early instance of its monumental use. . . . Granite imposed rigid restrictions on detailing. But the new generation knew how to make of those restrictions an opportunity for developing a highly original sort of basic classicism such as even the most determined European rationalists rarely approached.
There is quite an accolade: to pronounce the Boston Granite Style “a highly original sort of basic classicism”and to claim it is superior to most European neo-classical work of the era of Soane and Schinkel, and to do so in the context of all Western architecture over two centuries – was something only the dean of American architectural historians could do.
Hitchcock went on to single out “the geometrical severity of [Parris's] Sears House [of 1816] with its great bow on the front and its superbly placed scroll panel,” and the “granite skeleton construction (so to call it)” used with “great delicacy of proportion and elegance of finish – note the Soanish incised detail of the wooden window frames – for the commercial buildings which Parris designed . . . that flank the [Quincy] Market House.”
However, what stands out above all in Hitchcock’s analysis is the way he dealt with Bulfinch’s Massachusetts General Hospital.
No one who takes the Boston Granite tradition seriously doubts that Charles Bulfinch was, if not its father, then certainly its grandfather. Bulfinch scholar Harold Kirker argues that the Boston Granite Style was prefigured by Bulfinch’s Suffolk County Courthouse, which prompted Kirker, you’ll recall, to remark on Bulfinch’s “superb feeling for granite.” John M. Bryan, on the other hand, in his Robert Mills: America’s First Architect, reaches a different conclusion, urging another of Bulfinch’s works in that role: the Massachusetts State Prison in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Byran points out that it was “the first American project to use large blocks of cut granite,” and that it much influenced particularly the younger architect. “Mills,” wrote Bryan, who would design the Washington Monument and several grand classical piles there, “would later use what came to be called ‘the Boston Granite Style’.”
Although Bryan asserts that Uriah Cotting designing the old Boston Custom House was most seminal in launching the Boston Granite Style,he accepts that Bulfinch’s Massachusetts Fire and Marine Insurance Company Building on State Street, was also important, it being an instance in which Bulfinch used monolithic granite posts at street level.
O’Gorman fixed instead on the Massachusetts General Hospital, writing, “Bulfinch left behind in his design for the MGH the seeds of the Boston Granite Style.” I suspect he was much influenced by Hitchcock’s own view, a view I find electrifying – “The Massachusetts General Hospital was” Hitchcock wrote, “designed by [Bulfinch] in 1816-17, just before he left for Washington . . . [A]s executed by Alexander Parris, it is certainly a mature Romantic Classical [or neo-classical] edifice if not a typically Grecian one [which in its] three ranges of unframed windows display[s] the fine granite ashlar of Boston in all its cold pride.”
Ouch! That is what dual citizenship does for you, and that is to hit the Brahmin nail right on the head with a New York hammer, never mind in the face of the “icy, off shore wind” – to return to Elizabeth Bishop at Lewis Wharf – from off Boston Harbor that she wrote about so movingly in “The End of March.” One can almost hear John Quincy Adams: “I am a man of reserve, cold, austere, and forbidding manners.”
“The fine granite ashlar of Boston in all its cold pride.” There is the grandeur and the pity of it in eleven words. And there too, to return to Wright’s four marks of Beethoven’s influence on him is all four: entity, oneness, repose and, above all, depth of design. And I cannot help feeling the genius if not the appeal of the Boston Granite Style is that it imposes upon the architect the sparest design possible that best expresses feeling, which is to say with dignity, not sentimentality.
Why do I think Ernest Hemingway’s much-quoted phrase, “grace under pressure”? What he meant by it is problematic. In a New Yorker interview with Dorothy Parker, Hemingway cast the phrase as a definition of “guts.” Three years earlier, however, in a private letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway was sure he “was not referring to guts but to something else: grace under pressure.” John F Kennedy famously defined it as “courage.”
That “something else” of Hemingway may be, not to suppress feeling, as great a risk as to indulge it, but to show feeling without apparent anxiety, to show feeling, but coolly, with dignity. That is very Brahmin. No composer is colder than Beethoven; no one more unforgiving. But no one is more passionate, no one warmer in communicating it. As Thomas Jefferson once said of John Adams, certainly difficult, “once you get past the difficulty, he is warm.” John Adams, of course, was, is, the quintessential Boston Brahmin.
Teacher and architect Donlyn Lyndon has more recently also been sparked to unusually penetrating architectural criticism by Bulfinch’s Massachusetts General Hospital, “the special splendor” of which, Lyndon feels, “owes something” to the unique combination of the “clarity and grace of conception” of Bulfinch’s design and the “intensely rational building sense” of Alexander Parris’ execution. Indeed he urges the visitor to the MGH building to “stay with it for awhile . . . Attend to its fine proportions, to the sizes of the windows and the way the granite is placed,” something John Bryan also noticed when he referred to “the severe window treatment.” In this connection he writes something rather curious and even mysterious but very Bostonian
Meaning “the hopefulness of Science, child of the Age of Reason,” and in the light of two attributes of the building sometimes but not always thought praiseworthy in architecture or people – that “the whole is so confident, the parts so refined and rational,” – Lyndon concludes, “whatever you do, don’t miss [the Massachusetts General Bulfinch Building] . . . This more than most others is a building that evokes belief.”
The whole, the parts an – the evocation: the Boston Brahmin aesthetic. Da-da-da-dum. Da-da-da-dum.
Douglass Shand-Tucci is an historian of American art and architecture and Boston/New England studies. His most recent book is the second volume of his study of the architecture of Ralph Adams Cram (Univ.of Massachusetts Press, 2005) and he also teaches at the Boston Architectural College in the Masters degree program in Historic Preservation. He is the founder of the innovative new history site, Back Bay Historical | Boston CentricGlobal Studies, where his monthly longform blogs have become his principal publishing outlet.