A superb and overdue book about a great American architect

  The building above is the Merchants Exchange, Philadelphia.

The building above is the Merchants Exchange, Philadelphia.

William Strickland (1787-1854) was one of the most important American architects. His re-interpretation of Greek temples for a modern democracy in such monuments as the Second Bank of the United States and the Merchants’ Exchange, both in Philadelphia, along with the Tennessee State Capitol, in Nashville, are among the noblest landmarks of this country’s civic identity.

  William Strickland, by John Neagle, 1829, with Second Bank of the United States in the background.    -- Courtesy, Yale University Art Gallery.

William Strickland, by John Neagle, 1829, with Second Bank of the United States in the background.

-- Courtesy, Yale University Art Gallery.

 

Although  a pioneering monograph on Strickland was  published in 1950, a serious study of this master has been desperately needed. Now, Robert Russell has written the definitive book, William Strickland and the Creation of an American Architecture (University of Tennessee Press).

Despite his national stature, Strickland designed only one building in New England, the Providence Athenaeum. The building committee of one of the city’s oldest cultural institutions “ascertained that William Strickland of Philadelphia had a reputation second to none in this country and in his profession” and invited the architect to Rhode Island, where he submitted a design. The library opened in the summer of 1838, having cost $18,955.76.

  The Providence Athenaeum (1837-38).

The Providence Athenaeum (1837-38).

 

Professor Russell, who wrote his dissertation at Princeton University on late medieval architecture in Italy, is one of those civilized, non-politicized historians whose interests and abilities range far beyond one narrow field.  He has written a book on the buildings of Memphis and is a noted authority on gravestone restoration. His last academic post was at Salve Regina University, in Newport, where he was the director of the historic-preservation program. He is now breeding goats in the mountains of western North Carolina.

  Robert Russell, in Richmond, R.I., in 2013.

Robert Russell, in Richmond, R.I., in 2013.

 

Architectural histories, like that exemplified by William Strickland, set the standard in the profession before academia was sabotaged by political correctness and infected by pseudo-philosophical posturing. Russell’s writing is clear, eloquent and without the overlay of verbal obfuscation that characterizes so much contemporary writing about buildings. The sort of scholarship that characterizes the Strickland book will undoubtedly be dismissed as old-fashioned, and, since its subject led an upright life with no sex scandals or financial skullduggery, it is unlikely that the book will receive much notice. Yet the Strickland book it is the kind of treatment that so many inadequately documented American architects need, and far too few will receive in our increasingly know-nothing culture.

Architectural historian William Morgan wrote his Columbia University master’s thesis on William Strickland’s contemporary Alexander Parris, and is the author of The Almighty Wall, The Architecture of Henry Vaughan.