Salvaging Parts of the Greek Revival

First Congregational Unitarian Church, Northeast corner of 10th and Locust Street. Photograph by Frederick DeBourg Richards, April 1, 1859. (PhillyHistory.org/The Library Company of Philadelphia.)

By the time architect William Strickland envisioned a set of columns for the portico of his Unitarian Church at 10th and Locust Streets, fortune had turned his way. A set of Doric columns was newly available, salvaged from Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s Pump House at Center Square. That building wasn’t even 30 years old, but the city had fast outgrown it. And now, in the late 1820s, Latrobe was gone and Strickland had come into his own as the city’s most imaginative and talented architect. He put Latrobe’s columns to good use.

Strickland had met Latrobe as a boy—Strickland’s father a, bricklayer and carpenter, had worked on Latrobe’s crews. Latrobe noted the young Strickland’s skills, “the quickness of his eye and the facility of his pencil” and put the 14-year-old to work. But what began as the “joyous and grateful temperament” soon gave way to distraction and quibbling. Strickland’s talent, according to architectural historian Talbot Hamlin, was undeniable, but he soon “appeared to Latrobe as a scatterbrained person, a boy upon whom he wasted much affection…” Now, it seemed, Strickland was “too independent minded, to light-hearted and curious, to endure patiently the regular draftsman’s routine.” This “whirligig temperament” had no place in architecture. Latrobe finally fired Strickland, now 17, and the two parted ways.

United States Mint, Northwest corner of Chestnut and Juniper Sts. Photograph by James E. McClees, 1855. (PhillyHistory.org/The Library Company of Philadelphia.)

Now, two decades later, and eight years after Latrobe’s death from yellow fever in New Orleans, Strickland was rising into the role that Latrobe himself had strived for, the architect who would transform red-brick Philadelphia with white marble. And Strickland was doing it by continuing Latrobe’s legacy—his commitment to the Greek Revival in America.

After splitting from Latrobe’s in 1805, Strickland worked as an artist and a draftsman until 1808, when he was landed his first major architectural commission—the Masonic Hall on Chestnut Street. This was an example, Hamlin later wrote, of Strickland “trying to leap out of the bounds of fashion.” And when the place burned in 1819, he imagined it was “no great loss.” Strickland most likely felt that way. After completing the Masonic Hall, he left the profession to travel and then settle in New York, where he eked a living painting and designing scenery for Park Theatre. Ten years later, when Strickland returned to Philadelphia to try his hand at architecture a second time, his appetite for experimentation still dominated. “Hardly a fashion or an impulse arises,” wrote Hamlin, that Strickland didn’t try to give “architectural expression; Gothic, Egyptian, Oriental, Greek, Italianate…” But Strickland’s stunning success in 1818, winning the competition for the Second Bank—outperforming even his former mentor—overshadowed his other “temporary aesthetic enthusiasms.” By the late 1820s, Hamlin wrote, it was in the general frame of the Greek Revival that Strickland found his most congenial and most accomplished expression.” And having found it, he stuck with it.

In 1828 at 10th and Locust Streets, Strickland found the opportunity to further solidify his expression of the Greek Revival while paying homage to his late master. He salvaged Latrobe’s Doric columns that had been unceremoniously pulled down in the Pump House demolition and resurrected them at the First Congressional Unitarian Church. It turned out to be an ephemeral gesture.

Just as Latrobe had every reason to believe his Pump House would stand the test of time, so did Strickland for his church. But it, too, was doomed to an early demolition, remaining up until only 1885. After that, Latrobe’s columns, which had two shots at standing for the ages, presumably became so much landfill.

Strickland’s columns are installed for the third time, April 2013. (Einstein Medical Center.)

In the second half of the 1820s, Strickland’s projects became a showcase for his newly evolved “touch” for the Greek Revival. His Unitarian Church, the United States Naval Asylum and the new United States Mint displayed a confidence in speaking Greek. Hamlin noted Strickland’s maturity at the Mint in his “wide spacing of the colonnade, in the stress of broad horizontals, and in the quiet wall treatment.”

But this building, too, was short lived. The Mint’s demise in 1902, wrote Hamlin a few decades later, “is but one of the many similar tragedies which have characterized the history and growth of Philadelphia as well as that of many other American cities. Architectural excellence has been the last thing considered (if it is considered at all) in judging whether or not economically obsolete buildings should be preserved.”

When the building came down, its columns were given to the Jewish Hospital, now Einstein Medical Center on Broad Street and Tabor Road. Nearly a century passed with the columns in place, framing the hospital entrance. Then, in 2000, they were in the way of road construction. One by one, the six, 24-foot columns, each weighing 28,000 pounds, were lifted by riggers and moved to storage. In the Spring of 2013, Strickland’s columns were returned to North Broad and set upright for a third time.

But who’s counting.

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