The Magazine

Classical American

What today's architecture owes to Henry Hope Reed.

Jul 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 40 • By CATESBY LEIGH
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Over half a century ago, Henry Hope Reed, who died in May at age 97, launched a permanent campaign to restore the classical tradition to its rightful primacy in American public art and architecture. The Golden City (1959) provided the polemical and pedagogical foundation for this campaign, presenting incisive photographic comparisons of the nation’s rich heritage of traditional buildings and other public embellishments with their threadbare modernist counterparts. Flagpoles and lampposts were not overlooked.

The book’s title might ring a little sentimental to our irony-saturated ears. It was likely inspired by the Wordsworth sonnet “Composed upon Westminster Bridge”:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples
    
lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smoke-
     less air.

Wordsworth may have been one of his favorite poets, but Reed was no Romantic. He was a rigorous formalist whose aesthetic outlook was shaped by the great works of imperial Rome, the Italian Renaissance, the Paris of the Louis, and the American metropolis of the turn of the last century. He always insisted that “man is a decorating animal.” And he meant by nature, not by temporary historical happenstance. In the midst of an iconoclastic juggernaut, he sought to redeem the art of architecture from a functionalism better suited to the airplane, diesel locomotive, or grain silo. His humanism was anthropologically sound. 

Reed believed that the arts of form should play a formative role in the progress of civilization, shaping an ideal background that would enrich everyday experience. Contemporary endeavors should emulate the great works of the past. Even before the dawn of the 20th century, however, elite opinion had begun to take a very different view: Architecture, especially, was now regarded as the byproduct of particular historical circumstances. It was incumbent on creative “genius” in the guise of a Mies van der Rohe or Le Corbusier to divine the essence or “will” of a given epoch, along with a new vessel of forms to give it expression.

It was also Reed’s countercultural conviction that, as the United States got richer and richer in the postwar period, it was natural to expect the quality of its public architecture—its courthouses, concert halls, museums, office buildings, and hotels—to get better and better. The opposite, in fact, transpired, as “the new world-order of the machine” (as Walter Gropius called it) found expression in starkly abstract and generally repellent architectural forms. Writing in Esquire in 1963, Norman Mailer lamented the advent of a “totalitarian architecture” that “destroys the past,” leaving its victimized public “isolated in the empty landscapes of psychosis.” The United States thus became the first nation in the history of civilization to rise to world preeminence while its public realm deteriorated precipitously—from the Orwellian precincts of our “re-developed” core cities to the meandering postwar suburbs with their modernist bubble-diagram zoning.

A lifelong New Yorker, Reed became fascinated with the nation’s urban environment around the time of his graduation from Harvard in 1938. He took to making road trips to scout out cities and towns with another Harvard man, Wayne Andrews, who would become an architecture historian at Case Western Reserve. Because a hearing impairment rendered him ineligible for military service, Reed found himself working as a reporter in Omaha during World War II. This allowed him to explore the Midwestern cityscape, including many an old river town along the Mississippi or the Missouri. 

After the war, Reed’s vocational itinerary led him to Paris and the École du Louvre, where he studied the decorative arts, and from there to Yale, where an extraordinarily gifted urban planning professor, Christopher Tunnard, took him on as an instructor and research assistant. The Canadian-born Tunnard had enjoyed considerable success as a pathbreaking modernist landscape architect in England before migrating to the United States, where he began to entertain serious doubts about the flat, blank façades and simplistic planning the new orthodoxy was inflicting on American communities.

Reed proceeded to write an anti-modernist broadside, “Monumental Architecture,” that appeared in the Yale School of Architecture journal in 1952. That same year, he and Tunnard were deeply involved with a Yale Art Gallery exhibition, “Ars in Urbe.” This exhibition was devoted to the image of the monumental city in European and American art from the Renaissance onward. The unambiguous message in the catalogue preface was that architects and planners who had “turned their faces away from Rome” needed to reconsider. 

A scenic arch designed by Reed’s close friend John Barrington Bayley was installed at the entrance to the exhibition. A disenchanted alumnus of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where Walter Gropius presided, Bayley had studied at the American Academy in Rome on the GI Bill, and he and Reed had explored the city together. Decades later, Bayley would serve as the principal design architect of a very fine addition to the Frick Collection in Manhattan. 

The most important result of the Tunnard-Reed collaboration was two critical histories of American urbanism, The City of Man (1953) and The American Skyline (1955). Reed served as research assistant on the former, coauthor of the latter. These two volumes provide a superb overview of the artistic, social, economic, and technological forces that shaped the urbanization of this country. Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) focuses more specifically on the complex functional and spatial order our core cities nurtured prior to postwar “urban renewal.” Jacobs gives us the pragmatically ordered modern urbs, that densest of human settlements. Tunnard and Reed give us the urbs transformed into civitas, the civic community whose ideals are embodied in its public architecture, plazas, parks, and memorials. In doing so, they invite us to question Jacobs’s emphatic claim that “the city cannot be a work of art.” 

After three years at Yale, Reed introduced architectural tours of New York City that were notable for the level of background research in social and cultural history they incorporated. Above all, Reed used these tours to explain the indispensability of traditional means of architectural embellishment and civic commemoration. He ardently espoused triumphal arches like the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch in Brooklyn, one of the nation’s foremost Civil War monuments, as civic focal points and “pedestals for sculpture.” 

Reed’s walking tours received ample press coverage and contributed to the explosive growth of the historic preservation movement after the 1963 demolition of Charles Follen McKim’s majestic Pennsylvania Station, whose principal inspiration was the ancient Baths of Caracalla in Rome.

But Reed was much more than a preservationist. He was far more concerned with shaping the future than mothballing the past. The Golden City includes a number of architectural proposals and even urban redevelopment plans, including Bayley’s visionary design for a grand opera house on Manhattan’s Columbus Circle (its exterior modeled on the Colosseum in Rome), as well as a monumental public housing complex in Harlem designed for citizens instead of guinea pigs.

Our cities, in fact, would embody infinitely more in the way of long-term cultural and economic value had the Reed-Tunnard-Bayley path been taken instead of our cultural movers and shakers being dragged along the modernist highway to nowhere. That highway recently led to media huzzahs for California starchitect Thom Mayne’s hideous nine-story academic structure, wrapped in ever-so-cutting-edge perforated stainless steel, at Cooper Union in Manhattan. This expressionistic contraption, whose misshapen main elevation features a weird, jagged cutaway, unquestionably qualifies for one of Mailer’s psychotic landscapes. And its astronomical $177 million price tag—over $1,000 per square foot—has inevitably raised eyebrows, as that heretofore tuition-free academy of art, architecture, and engineering founders in a swamp of financial mismanagement. 

And we’re told classical architecture is too expensive!

In 1968, Reed, Bayley, and nine others—mostly laymen—cofounded Classical America. Classical America introduced a series of valuable texts (both new works and books that had gone out of print) on art and architecture. It also provided instruction in drawing the classical orders, as well as perspective rendering, at the University of Pennsylvania and the National Academy of Design in Manhattan. The organization with which Classical America merged in 2002, now the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, has expanded these programs, and boasts regional chapters from coast to coast. (In Washington, the fledgling National Civic Art Society is waging a remarkably effective campaign against Frank Gehry’s abominable stage-set design for a national memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower and has a longer--term focus on one of Reed’s abiding concerns: reconnecting federal patronage with a classical heritage dating back to Washington and Jefferson.)

In later years, Reed’s labors were concentrated on particular institutional buildings. Hence his last solo effort: the vastly instructive The United States Capitol: Its Architecture and Decoration (2005), published when he was nearly 90. Alas, Reed didn’t live to see any new buildings emulate the grandeur of that great temple of democracy, or Whitney Warren’s Grand Central Terminal, or the nearby New York Central (now Helmsley) office tower—the latter dwarfed for 50 years now by the MetLife skyscraper, a monstrous concrete slab designed by Gropius and others, seemingly with the overriding aim of ruining views up and down Park Avenue.

“It is astonishing,” Reed asserted in a 1997 lecture on the magnificent Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, “how deeply fixed among American intellectual circles is the disdain—or is it fear?—of abundant ornament.” 

Only gradually did Reed come to realize just how heavily invested our cultural elites are in fallacious notions of creativity, and what a formidable barrier they present to aesthetic common sense. American civic art has yet to return to the Roman road the Founders opened; but a civic-art counter-culture has emerged, buttressed by the advent, nearly a quarter-century ago, of a fully classical (and very successful) program in architecture and urban design at Notre Dame. 

The New Urbanism, amply anticipated in the brilliant Tunnard-Reed collaboration, as well as Jane Jacobs’s masterwork, has recovered the historic paradigm of the pedestrian-scale, mixed-use neighborhood along with historic regional architectural styles and admirably artistic site-planning techniques. Traditional buildings are cropping up with increasing frequency on college campuses. And with the rise of a new generation of post-Vatican II bishops in the Roman Catholic church, we can hope for equally significant improvements in sacred architecture.

For this counterculture, Henry Hope Reed’s life work represents a beacon shining far into the future.

Catesby Leigh is a writer and architectural critic in Washington D.C.

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