- Historic Sites
October 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 5
Overrated The architectural historian Fiske Kimball and the critic Lewis Mumford, starting in the 1910s and 1920s, helped inflate the reputation of our only architect-President, but Thomas Jefferson is perhaps the most overrated American practitioner of the building art. Although Jefferson’s beloved Monticello is a fascinating case history of the house as autobiography, it is both formally and spatially awkward, its many “ingenious” contraptions are ultimately tedious, it took him forever to complete, and it cost so much that he died nearly destitute. His inappropriate practice of adapting the forms of ancient Roman temples for the functions of modern American public buildings—the Maison Carrée for the Virginia State Capitol and the Pantheon for the University of Virginia—burdened those institutions with imposing but inflexible structures that resisted expansion. And his anonymous entry in the 1792 competition for the President’s House in Washington, an ill-proportioned version of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda, makes one feel lucky that James Hoban’s graceful and modest scheme was chosen instead.
Architects of Jefferson’s time standardly took ideas from buildings of the past, but his literalmindedness makes him infinitely less interesting than the two greatest reinterpreters of the classical tradition in his lifetime, Sir John Soane and Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Jefferson’s most successful design, the Lawn at the University of Virginia and the rows of pavilions flanking it, demonstrate an admirable human scale, but those celebrated small houses are in fact no more inventive than innumerable rural lodges of the period scattered throughout England and Ireland.
Underrated Among twentieth-century architects, Rudolph M. Schindler, a seminal creator of California modernism, has been scandalously underrated, as evidenced by his superb 2001 museum retrospective and two fine new books on his work that received far too little attention. Less clever about garnering publicity than his fellow Viennese émigré and L.A. rival Richard Neutra, Schindler never got the big commissions he should have and is now known mainly to a young generation of cult followers inspired by his ecologically responsive and emotionally powerful domestic designs.
But the most underrated of American architects is surely Frank Furness, the post—Civil War Philadelphian whose project was nothing less than to transform the prim Quaker City into a suitably heroic setting for the patriots who enabled America’s new birth of freedom. Furness’s vigorous hybrid of Gothic, Moorish, and Egyptian forms, epitomized by his Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts of 187176, was defiantly anticlassical and, despite its exotic sources, thoroughly American in its selfconfidence, generosity, and experimental audacity. Though he enjoyed strong patronage in his hometown for two decades, the new taste for Beaux-Arts classicism, spurred by the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, made his spiky, richly colored, asymmetrical designs seem suddenly unfashionable, and his career plummeted. He wound up ghosting the working drawings for the Girard Trust Company Building, a white marble Pantheon knockoff by McKim, Mead Sf. White, undoubtedly the most overrated of all American architectural firms.