American Architectural Metalwork, 1890–1930
The use of metal for architectural embellishment, which can be traced back to ancient times, enjoyed a great flowering in the United States between about 1890 and 1930, when it was often an important component of all sorts of buildings. Exhibited here are a few examples of this golden age of American architectural metalwork, which, because they were meant to blend with the buildings for which they were designed, also serve to illustrate some of the major styles of the period.
The three pieces made in Chicago, for example, represent the Prairie School, an indigenous American style that originated in the Midwest as a conscious reaction to the perceived exuberant floridity of the European Art Nouveau and the staid neoclassicism of Beaux Arts. The grille by Samuel Yellin reflects his personal synthesis of the Renaissance Revival and Arts and Crafts styles, while Thomas Lamb’s ventilation cover, from a famous 1930s movie palace, is rendered in the Art Moderne (or Art Deco) style, which originated in France in the 1920s. Two of the Chicago-made pieces are from elaborate elevators made for early skyscrapers, a building form invented by the Chicago architects Louis H. Sullivan, Denkmar Adler, and William Le Baron Jenney. Unlike contemporary skyscrapers, in which the mechanical elements of elevators are hidden and elevator doors blend seamlessly with the building’s interior, the first tall buildings featured elevators with an exposed mechanical structure and ornate metal doors and cages designed to celebrate the skyscraper’s novelty.
By 1940 the use of elaborate metal architectural decoration in America had declined sharply. Both the austerity of the Great Depression and government restrictions on the use of all types of metal due to the military demands of World War II sounded the final death knell.