The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia
A Revival of Polychrome: Architecture and Sculpture
C.L. Borie, Jr., Horace Trumbauer and C.C. Zantzinger, Associate Architects
John Gregory and Paul Jennewein, Sculptors -- Leon V. Solon, Polychromist
The City of Philadelphia has undertaken the first serious attempt to break the Renaissance tradition of monochrome architecture, by the polychrome treatment of the Fairmount Park Museum. When we refer to this building as the first of its kind we do so in full cognizance of many others in which color has been furtively used; but as polychrome is more a science than a skittish impulse, we feel unable to take such experiments seriously, through their complete lack of evidence that the function of color in architectonic effect was comprehended. In the spirit of barvardage we record a few intimate facts concerning the origin and progress of this polychrome building.
The idea of reviving the practice of polychrome in the new museum building germinated in the fertile imagination of Charles L. Borie, of the firm of Borie, Zantzinger and Medary, of Philadelphia. At first his project failed absolutely in exciting response or enthusiasm; in fact those to whom it was imparted regarded it as indicative of a frivolous attitude towards a type of structure invariably identified with an academic formula in design. It must be admitted in extenuation of this frigid reception that polychromy was an indeterminate quantity in effect, under justifiable suspicion of a capacity for spectacular vulgarity. Even today, only a small minority of the profession realize that polychromatic decoration was inseparably connected with Greek architectural design, from the earliest period of structural evolution to the time of full maturity--not as an occasional and minor embellishment, but as a dominant factor in a exterior effect.
As Borie's enthusiasm and imagination are fortified with a tenacious temperament, he went quietly to work attempting to locate reliable information concerning the technique and practice of polychromy. Those who, like the writer, have undertaken this discouraging quest, know the complete barrenness of architectural literature on this subject. His investigation included an exhaustive examination of the files of architectural magazines, with the result that only one very sketchy article by the writer was found. This dealt with fundamental principles based upon Greek practice as evidenced in excavations and archaeological restorations. Borie wrote to Magonigle for information concerning the author, who placed us in communication in 1921. A meeting was arranged which, but for Borie's equable disposition, might have been the only one; as in describing his general concept of a polychrome facade, some of the most spectacular features were taken exception to as lacking precedent. He was frank in stating his condition of isolation and the meager prospect of carrying the project through, owing to the number of skeptics who would have to be converted and convinced. I gathered that the fate of polychromy was in the hands of the Chairman of the Park Commission's Committee on the Museum, Mr. Eli K. Price. At that time I had not met the latter, but recall feeling greatly reassured on learning that he was an accomplished classical scholar, for with his background of Greek literature, it seemed logical to assume that the revival of so important a practice would recommended itself.
With habitual thoroughness, the chairman studied a number of archaeological works dealing with those Greek buildings upon which sufficient color had survived to permit a reconstruction of the original effect. About that time a series of articles appeared in this magazine dealing with the application of Greek practice to modern design. When Mr. Price grasped the extent of polychromatic practice in Greece, and the feasibility of producing an equivalent effect to the prototype in the museum building, he became an enthusiastic supporter of the Borie project, giving it his full endorsement. The knowledge which he thus acquired of color precedent and technique, combined with a keen critical faculty, rendered him an invaluable collaborator throughout all subsequent developments.
In view of the importance of the building, and the responsibility involved in reviving a lost art on so large a scale, he and Borie decided that every conceivable precaution should be taken to assure satisfactory results. The first step was to order an eighth scale model of one of the smaller pavilions, upon which all color decoration could be developed. The services of the writer were retained as polychromist to collaborate with the architects and sculptors: Horace Trumbauer was already an associate with Borie and Zantzinger.
Polychromy was not the only revival which Borie contemplated. He communicated with the late Professor Goodyear in order that those refinements which the latter had recorder in connection with the Parthenon and other famous Greek structures might be applied to the new building. Blueprints were sent to the Professor who made calculations upon the Greek basis, indicating curves in retaining walls and other modifications of normal practice. The scale model was made in conformity with Professor Goodyear's refinements. When Borie and the writer visited the modeller to inspect the unassembled parts of the model, both experienced a pronounced sinking sensation due to curvatures on walls which seemed seriously distortious. The model was sent to Philadelphia for assembly in one of the old park buildings; when put together, these curves were only appreciable when sought, and a beauty and vitality imparted to the model which possessed a rare structural quality.
The next stage was to commence the polychrome decoration in accordance with Greek practice. All strongly carved sculptural detail was modelled, and those moldings which were intended for low relief were left in profile only. A small section of the entablature and a column cap were supplied to the writer for development of ornamental detail and color arrangement. When an apparently satisfactory result was realized, the detail was drawn in pen outline, reproduced, and printed upon thin paper so that it might be stuck upon the moldings and colored; the modelled detail being colored upon the plaster. The great value of the scale model at once became apparent, and many alterations and improvements were made, both in the choice of decorations, and in general arrangement of color upon detail.
By that time it was definitely decided that the pediment groups would be decorated with color after the Greek manner. Sculptors had to found whose work was of such formal character that it would lend itself to color decoration. In addition to professional capacity, the question of willingness to collaborate had to be considered, as sculptural treatment and composition must necessarily be subject to the requirements of color effect which are somewhat uncompromising; the willingness of the sculptor to subject many established prejudices to the attainment of an unknown objective was a vital qualification. A distinctive species of sculptural technique would have to be evolved, and the composition of figures and accessories so contrived that the polychromatic decoration might be rhythmically distributed, making the triangular area a uniform quantity in the effect of the facade. After weighing the selection of sculptors very thoroughly, Borie made the fortunate selection of John Gregory and Paul Jennewein, both of the American Academy in Rome. The uncertainty as to what might happen to their work when colored undoubtedly caused both serious misgivings, and there is little doubt that a decision to exempt sculpture from color at that time would have been very welcome. Being thoroughly good sportsmen they entered into the spirit of adventure, making every modification in composition and treatment that might assist color composition. As the work progressed they became enthusiastic polychromists, developing new and rare qualities in composition and treatment which will add considerably to their reputations.
A similar experimental process was adopted with the pediment groups that had proven so valuable with the polychrome ornamentation. Small groups, made to the scale of the model, were roughly decorated with color and placed in the colored pediment. The first groups were abandoned as the sculptors evolved a more suitable subject; this was again worked out in the model scale, colored, and accepted for development in a third of full size. In the first groups, the ornamental scale of decorations on the figures of the Aegina pediment was used for polychrome decoration of the groups; but, curiously enough, it was found much too small for effectiveness from the viewpoint at which the museum building would presumably be examined: This is one more instance of the requirement for upward revision of scale in stylistic examples that are to serve in this country. The scale of ornamentation on draperies, etc., was revised and considerably increased, with much more satisfying results.
The sculptors finding that the polychrome setting of the pediment moldings had a strong influence upon composition and the ultimate result, had wooden pediments made at a third full size in which to model their third scale groups: these were fully polychromed with stencil patterns before the models were started. When each group had finally reached a state of development which appeared to leave no detail in doubt, they were cast in plaster and shellaced ready for coloring. Then commenced the most fascinating and bewildering problem which the writer has ever undertaken. The groups became as sensitive as a musical instrument, and color was in actuality a dynamic force which could link together or completely separate features in composition. Brilliant colors were used, such alone being adaptable to conditions of visibility at long range. These had to be so inter-related from one figure to another, and so spaced throughout the whole group that, in certain instances, it was necessary to revise sculptural detail to facilitate color distribution. It may be readily comprehended, that the position of polychromist might have been unenviable had not Gregory and Jennewein entered into the association with so admirable a spirit of collaboration. The satisfaction which they both expressed at the final result was the most gratifying experience in an undertaking which has been uniformly delightful.
Paul Jennewein is responsible for the modelling of all the architectural detail, which is without equal in any building yet erected in this country; it was an arduous task in which he displayed an unbelievable amount of patience and good-will. All models were made to terra-cotta scale, cast in plaster and treated with color and gold; then taken out of doors and hoisted about fifty feet. In most cases ornamental scale which appeared quite satisfactory in the studio underwent radical change when hoisted to that height, as colors of a certain character maintained their actual area of effect, while others of another character appeared to shrink in area; this necessitated remodelling, recoloring, and a number of new calculation.
The ornamentations were to be produced in polychrome terra-cotta, and as the tendency of that craft is in the direction of ultra-conservatism, colors were predetermined; the matching of established hues was a pre-requisite for the consideration of bidders. The Atlantic Terra-Cotta Company qualified, and after considerable experimentation produced very excellent material, with colors and gilding of unequal quality. They entered into the contract with enthusiasm realizing the importance of the project, and the opportunity for advancing the status of their industry in the estimation of the architectural profession. Special kilns were built, and revisions made in normal procedures which had hitherto been systematically avoided in that industry. They are to reproduce the pediment figures, and as the central figures in the smaller pediments measure over eleven feet in height, they will have an opportunity for further achievement. The roof tiles are also of terra-cotta, measuring approximately three feet square; there are of a grayish blue glaze on the face, with a dark blue edge, so that as the building is approached, the coloring of the roof deepens with the foreshortening of the tiles; this principle is found in Greek roofs, but other colors are used.
In a polychrome building the color of the structural material is naturally a vital consideration, and an exhaustive inspection of all available materials was made by the architects. This resulted in the adoption of "Kato" stone, which is of a golden orange hue, clouded with silver gray; this forms an ideal combination with the brilliant colors of decorative features.
Many will probably be surprised to find the relatively small amount of color that is permissible in a polychrome exterior of the classic type. The Greek principle was absolutely adhered to; this consists in restricting color to decorative features and developing color elaboration in inverse relation to structural significance. In detail many deviations were made from Greek practice which effected color composition upon individual members and the mutual relation of members; the main aim was to produce a distinctive color quality upon each member or feature, to prevent unrelated items associating in effect through similarity of coloring.
The conditions under which the building is being produced are exceptional, and could not be followed in commercial structures in which a date for completion must be rigidly adhered to. In the dominant importance attached to experimental stages it recalls the practice of by-gone ages, in which all embellishment was done on the spot, or on features actually in place. Though this method is not feasible in our day, we believe that the process followed in this case is the nearest equivalent to ancient methods. In questions affecting ornamental visibility, which are so frequently disregarded, the hoisting of full-sized models to their actual place is invaluable. Color is a terrific force when introduced into an architectural combination, and is capable of producing an effect upon the observer equaled only by the fascination which firearms possess for small boys.
Leon V. Solon, "A Revival of Polychrome: Architecture and Sculpture" in The Architectural Record (August 1926).