New York City’s Pivotal Role in the Colonial Revival Movement

by Andrew Berrien Jones

A seminal exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, “The American Style: Colonial Revival and the Modern Metropolis” (through October 30, 2011), is an eye opener. The exhibition, according to the museum’s director, SusanHenshaw Jones, explores “New York City’s contributions to a national ground-swell, a movement that sought to celebrate and revive America’s storied past.”  Designed by Peter Pennoyer, architect, author and Chairman of the Institute of Classical Art and Architecture & Classical America, this comprehensive overview traces the colonial revival movement in architecture and the decorative arts in New York City from the last quarter of the nineteenth century to the present day and features rarely seen objects and photographs from the collections of the museum and other institutions. The hardcover catalogue, The American Style—Colonial Revival and the Modern Metropolis (City of New York and the Monacelli Press) includes essays by the co-curators of the exhibition, Donald Albrecht, the Museum’s curator of architecture and design,  and Thomas Mellins, an architectural historian.


Old New York Exhibition organized by the Museum of the City of New York, 1926  Museum of the City ofNew York, Institutional Records


The colonial revival, a movement encompassing aesthetic and political expression, had roots in the nineteenth century, accelerated with the centennial of the American Revolution, flourished in the first half of the twentieth century and remains with us today. Broadly defined in aesthetic terms, colonial revival encompasses the period from the seventeenth century to Greek Revival classicism.  In its heyday, colonial revival relied on the eighteenth-century American interpretation of Georgian architecture and the Federal period’s interpretation of the Adam style and the English Regency. 

The Colonial revival, sometimes called “American Style,” defines a national aesthetic identity, not only for the erudite but also for popular culture. As the curators explain, one reason the style became so pervasive in our culture is that department stores, commercial establishments and magazines all played a large part in disseminating it. From a socio-political viewpoint, colonial revival was a unifying force across the American cultural landscape. The curators note: “For those with long family histories inAmerica, the Colonial revival style expresses a sense of authority and pride; it has also been used as a tool for inculcating more recent arrivals withAmericatastes and a sense of belonging.”

While many of its proponents were from historical American families, such as the architect Stanford White, even recent immigrants identified with the style, such as the furniture maker Ernest Hagen fromGermanyand the antiques dealer Israel Sack fromLithuania. Perhaps the style served to define their new identity as Americans or, at a minimum, gave them an enthusiastic public for their wares.

The fervor for the colonial revival style coincided with a wakening national awareness ofAmerica’s own rich legacy. For the centennial in 1876, Union Porcelain Works inBrooklyncreated a commemorative vase, designed by Karl Muller, featuring the profile of George Washington and historic scenes. In 1909, the Hudson-Fulton Celebration commemorated the tercentennial of Henry Hudson’s discovery of the Hudson River and the centennial of Robert Fulton’s launching of the first steamboat, theClaremont. The celebration included the first major public exhibition of American antique furniture, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For the bicentennial of the birth of George Washington in 1932,New Yorkdepartment stores such as Altman’s offered Colonial-style for the celebration ball at the Waldorf. For the same bicentennial, Sears, Roebuck and Company fabricated full-scale replicas of Federal Hall andMount Vernonfor Bryant Park andProspectPark. Even the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, with its focus on the “world of tomorrow,” served a dual purpose as the sesquicentennial of George Washington’s inauguration at Federal Hall, for which Wedgewood produced commemorative plates featuring scenes of old New York.


Delano and Aldrich, Knickerbocker Club, Fifth Avenue and East 62nd Street, New York City, 1913, Photography by Wurts Brothers Company, Museum of the City of New York


As the museum notes in its press release, the colonial revival is in part “an exercise in nostalgia,” but it also “seeks to express an American identity through architecture and design.”  While clearly based on its European predecessors, colonial artifacts interpreted their influences in a concise and direct, no-nonsense manner that is distinctly American.  While some critics argue that the early American aesthetic was derivative, the artisans who settled and immigrated toAmericacould not be mere copyists. By definition, they were the artisans who had created similar works before they arrived here. They continued the traditional aesthetic and gradually developed a new style that built on, but was different from what they brought with them. For the colonial revival movement, what made the American style was distinct sense of conciseness. In the examples praised by the movement, architecture and decorative arts expressed the essential elements of design without distraction. For example, the American chair, as the movement perceived it, whether Chippendale or classical, is straightforward in design. It has the ornament necessary to articulate and express the form, but it does not waste attention on the inconsequential or allow distracting ornament.

As the curators explain, the American style creates an “overall sense of elegance derived from economy and restraint.” Because of its emphasis on proportion and design, colonial revival serves as a springboard for endless re-interpretation. As such, it is a style that is truly “classic,” not because it traces some of its inspiration to the Greeks and Romans, but rather because it is a style that feels human and permanent, capable of reincarnation.

The colonial revival movement was the summation of the efforts of many scholars, publishers, museums, collectors and tastemakers over a substantial period of time. Longings for the colonial spirit surfaced as early as the first half of the nineteenth century, as New Yorkers felt the shock of the rapidly changing times of the industrial age. The new machine-oriented culture had already permeated the world of architecture and decorative arts.  By the 1830s, power saws were helping cabinetmakers like Joseph Meeks mass produce pillar-and-scroll late classical furniture.  By the 1850s, James Bogardus was constructing pre-fabricated cast-iron component-part buildings, and John Henry Belter had patented his laminated bent wood technique for manufacturing rosewood furniture. Fires had destroyed much of old Dutch New Amsterdam, and the pace of industrial progress accelerated relentlessly with the destruction of old residential districts in lower Manhattan for the construction of factories, dry goods stores and tenements.  As the curators note, as early as 1831, the New-York Mirror lamented the demolition of a Dutch colonial house downtown as “irreverence for antiquity which so grievously afflicts people of this city.”

Faced with loss of the relatively recent past, New York’s great minds began to react.  The city already had its first institution for preserving its history in the New-York Historical Society, established in 1804. In the ensuing decades, Washington Irving immortalized the old Dutch heritage in books such as Rip van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. In his History of New York, he created the fictional writer Diedrich Knickerbocker, a mysterious old New York historian, whose name later became synonymous with New Yorkers.  In 1835, he established with his friends the Saint Nicholas Society, a social organization of descendants of settlers of the early colony. 

Artisans also began to look to the more recent past, with many abandoning the inspiration of distant periods, such as the Egyptian Greek, Roman and Gothic, in favor of a revival of more recent seventeenth- and eighteenth-century styles, such as the Rococo.  Yet their efforts resulted in the so-called confusion of styles, rather than a coherent new style. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that tastemakers began to formulate the concept of an “American” style.

One of the greatest aspects of the exhibition is the attention it pays to the emergence, in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, of scholarly interest in and recognition of what makes the American colonial style unique. The exhibition pays special attention to the pioneering contribution of the firm McKim, Meade and White, not just for their outstanding architectural contributions but also for their scholarship of the colonial heritage. Long before the founding of the firm in 1879, these architects had documented, sketched and measured historic colonial houses inNewport,Rhode Island, andNewburyport,MarbleheadandSaleminMassachusetts, as well asPortsmouth,New Hampshire. After finishing their groundbreaking colonial revival Taylor summer “cottage” for H.A.C. in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1886, they designed country homes and townhouses in New York in the new style. They also added to this portfolio private clubs, including the Harvard Club and the Colony Club.

Also given credit is Ernest Hagan, who emigrated fromGermanyin 1844 to work inNew Yorkas a cabinetmaker. He took a great interest in the oldNew Yorkfurniture his clients asked him to repair and started collecting information, compiling a scrapbook now at the Museum of the City ofNew York. Hageninitiated the study of the furniture of Duncan Phyfe, the renowned nineteenth-centuryNew Yorkcabinetmaker, and acquired some of Phyfe’s templates and tools. By the turn of the century, he was producing copies that are faithful to Phyfe’s originals.

The curators also highlight Wallace Nutting as one of the pioneers in the study of antique furniture and colonial architecture. In 1904, he opened the Wallace Nutting Art Prints Studio in New York, where he sold tinted photographic images of the American countryside and interiors of early homes with period furniture and models dressed in historic costumes. By 1917, he was producing reproductions, and in 1928 he published his Furniture Treasury, with 5,000 photographs of antique American furniture.

Scholarship of the colonial period sowed the seeds of the historic preservation movement. In 1897,New York Cityopened the Van Cortlandt house (1748) as its first house museum. In the early twentieth century,New Yorkmuseum houses included Fraunces Tavern (1719), theMorris-JumelMansion(1765), the Dyckman House (1783) and the Poe Cottage (1812).

The promotion of the movement reached its heyday in the early twentieth century. As scholarship of American furniture progressed, the museum world began to participate. In his Colonial Furniture in America (Scribner’s, 1901),  Luke Vincent Lockwood covered nearly three centuries of American furniture. He subsequently advised on the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1909, coinciding with the Hudson-Fulton celebration. This show, under the auspices of museum president Robert W. DeForest and curator R.T.  Haines Hanley, was the first major museum show of American antiques.Hagen assisted Lockwood on period rooms in the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Museum of the City ofNew York. In 1924, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened it American Wing, relocating and installing the entire façade of the Bank of United States from Wall Street as the wing’s south façade. The museum featured period rooms in chronological order from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries.

The Museum of the City ofNew Yorkalso was a key proponent of the movement. 1n 1926, the museum held its “Old New York Exhibition” in the Fine Arts Building on West 57th Street, featuring heirlooms of old New York families. The museum’s permanent home onFifth Avenueand104th Street, which opened in 1932, designed by Joseph H. Freedlander, is itself an outstanding example of the colonial revival movement, with its portico echoing Pierre L’Enfant’s 1788 façade for Federal Hall on Wall Street.

During the Depression, the United Statesgovernment reached out to unemployed artists and architects through programs that contributed to the advancement of the style. In 1933, the architect William Lawrence Bottomley published Great Georgian Houses of America, a product of the Architect’s Emergency Committee, a project to help unemployed architects. In 1936, New York’s Museum of Modern Art presented works from the Federal Art Project, a program which produced the Index of American Design, with over 18,000 renderings of early American objects. The magazine world also promoted the movement. In 1936, The Magazine Antiques moved toNew York fromBoston and provided both scholarly articles and advertisements of antiques for sale.  Antiques dealers, such as Ginsburg & Levy and Israel Sack, who had opened their businesses in 1901 and 1927, respectively, were frequent advertisers.

The exhibition covers architects from the famous, like McKim, Meade & White, to the lesser known. Photographs show buildings ranging from the elegant homes and clubs to middle-class suburban dwellings and restaurant chains. The curators offer the Knickerbocker Club (1913) onEast 62nd Streetas an example of the colonial revival style in architecture. Although the club was for New Yorkers, the architects, William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich, importedBoston’s Federal style, as practiced by Charles Bulfinch, the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century architect who interpreted the Adam period of the English Georgian style. In particular, the club recalls Bulfinch’s third Harrison Gray Otis House onBeacon Street, built in 1806. The tall multipane sash windows, the location of the parlors on the upper floors, the delicate iron balconettes, the stone coursings and window lintels, and the use of red brick typify the Boston Federal Style.

Another fascinating example is Fraunces Tavern, built in 1719 and reworked in 1907, seen in the exhibition’s before-and-after postcards.  The Sons of the Revolution acquired this downtownManhattanbuilding onPearl Street, whereWashingtondelivered his farewell address to the Continental Army. Although prior owners had added stories to the building and converted it into a warehouse, the architect William Mersereau removed the upper stories and added a pitched roof with dormers. While no evidence of the building’s original appearance existed, the newly renovated building conveyed a colonialism suitable for its new purpose as the Sons’ headquarters. Less well-known examples include architect Mott B. Schmidt’s three colonial revival houses (1920), which helped makeSutton Placea stylish enclave. He continued to practice the style in the midst of the international modern movement and, in 1966, designed the Federal-style addition to Gracie Mansion, the late-eighteenth-century farmhouse that later served as the Museum of the City of New York’s first home and which serves as the Mayor’s residence today.

The style was equally adaptable to the modern vernacular. Suburbs soon featured modest colonial-inspired dwellings, and local banks, town halls and even commercial establishments like Howard Johnson’s adopted an interpretation of the style. Architects are still enjoying the style today.  With the leadership of theInstituteofClassical Artand Architecture, architects continuing the colonial revival legacy include Robert A. M. Stern, Peter Pennoyer, Gil Schafer and Fairfax & Sammons. 

The colonial revival style in furniture includes a range of sources and manifests itself in various interpretations, from faithful copies to creative and artistic works informed by the past. Many revivalists reproduced antiques faithfully, including Wallace Nutting, Ernest Hagen, the Margolis brothers and Eleanor Roosevelt, who founded and managed Val Kill Industries, a firm that copied colonial furniture and decorative arts. Other makers, such as Sypher and its competitor R.J. Horner, wereNew Yorkfirms that instead freely mixed colonial and other styles in the same object. Later makers, such Warren McArthur, used modern materials to echo colonial forms. 

In the heyday of the colonial revival, there was an almost hysterical passion for reviving the early work of Duncan Phyfe, one ofNew York’s most famous cabinetmakers in the first half of the nineteenth century.  While Ernest Hagen pioneered the renewed admiration of Phyfe, by the early twentieth century, other craftsmen were following his example. In theNew York Cityborough ofQueens, a factory called the Company of Master Craftsmen produced Phyfe-style furniture for their sponsor, the W. & J. Sloane department store. A 1920s recreation by the Company of Master Craftsmen of a Duncan Phyfe settee (c. 1815), featured in the exhibition, displays the clean lines and pure design that typify the best of the American style. Its elegant and curvilinear arms appear almost modern in their simplicity yet classic in their elegance. Parallel lines, called “reeding,” emphasize the sculptural quality of the mahogany. The concentric circle boss that terminates the arm punctuates the form in an aesthetically satisfying manner. The form is neither too long nor too short, but simply correct.

Teapot manufactured by Tiffany & Co., silver and ivory, 1907–25  Collection of the New-York Historical Society

Silvermakers had experimented with a colonial revival style as early as the 1840s, but the heyday saw fine examples by firms including Tiffany & Co., Gorham and Black, Starr & Frost. A Tiffany silver teapot of 1920 is a reproduction of a (c. 1790)New Yorkteapot in the late Federal style. Teapots of the Federal period range from being elaborately engraved to completely unadorned. What makes this teapot such a great example of the American style is that Tiffany chose neither the most elaborate nor the plainest example, but rather one with the elegance and restraint sought by the colonial revival movement. The teapot expresses its form with the minimum ornamentation necessary to succeed aesthetically. The form is subtle but powerful, with the teapot’s concave upper surfaces intersecting the undulating vertical planes of its body. On one side is the straight tapered spout; on the other is a graceful handle, which receives an ornamental leaf motif that gives the handle a distinctive presence, allowing it to balance yet contrast to the spout’s severe geometry.

By exploring multiple facets of the colonial revival style, the curators prove this is an important aesthetic movement.

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