Examining Inspiration Of George Howe

Posted: November 10, 1991

Just as The Philadelphia Story is actually a suburban one, so the first group of architects to be labeled a "Philadelphia school" were the designers of picturesque, early 20th-century suburban houses.

These were the creators of the houses that defined the urbanized arcadias of Chestnut Hill and the Main Line. More farmlike than palatial, the most important pretense of these homes is that they are nonpretentious. These were houses built of native stone and usually European inspiration, made possible by railroads, automobiles and the money generated from the industries downwind of the idyllic retreats.

George Howe, as a partner in the firm of Mellor, Meigs & Howe, helped bring this approach to what was probably its greatest artistic peak. The houses he designed combined an immemorial rural romanticism with a spatial excitement and functional and structural coherence not found in other examples of the type. Then, famously, he decided that work in what he termed the "Wall Street pastoral" style was meaningless.

The result of this conversion, and to a large extent its cause, was the PSFS Building at 12th and Market Streets, the first skyscraper in the world built in a modernist style, and still one of the best. He designed it in partnership with the Swiss architect William Lescaze, who was largely responsible for its streamlined base and some of its graphic elements, but the basic configuration of the building was Howe's.

Howe is the subject of a small, very good retrospective exhibition, ''George Howe: The Architect's Progress," which has been mounted by the Chestnut Hill Historical Society at its headquarters, at 8708 Germantown Ave. It contains many period photographs of such major Mellor, Meigs & Howe works as the Newbold Estate in Laverock - the ultimate gentleman's farm - along with drawings, letters and even a home movie. The exhibit is intended as a companion to the large retrospective on Louis I. Kahn, now on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; Julia Moore Converse, who heads the University of Pennsylvania's Architectural Archives and was involved in organizing the Kahn exhibition, also had a hand in this one. Peter S. Reed was guest curator.

Howe's connection with Kahn was close. They were partners in an architectural firm for several years. Later, when Kahn was teaching at Yale, he helped get Howe appointed as chairman of architecture there, and Howe, in turn, got Kahn the commission to design the Yale Art Gallery, a commission that would prove to be the younger architect's breakthrough.

In a recent lecture at Penn, the Yale architectural historian Vincent J. Scully suggested that Howe's frequent use of cylindrical shapes, often pierced with deep geometric openings, in his suburban houses might have inspired Kahn's starker, more abstract uses of the same device in such buildings as his capital complex in Dhaka. From Chestnut Hill to Bangladesh in one generation.

Still, the point of looking at the work of George Howe is not to better appreciate Kahn but to understand an architect whose career responded more closely than any other to the tensions of 20th-century America. Besides, he produced some buildings that were just about perfect. These include his own house, High Hollow, the greatest of Chestnut Hill mansions, as well as PSFS.

Howe was a very privileged young man, whose mother, a wealthy widow, decided he was to become an architect. Throughout his childhood, she dragged him around Europe, aggressively exposing him to inspiration. He had an excellent education, at Harvard and the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, married when he was supposed to, and adapted a project he had designed as a student into High Hollow.


Much of the time he was passive. He is remembered by many as someone who could have been even more important if he had not been a bit lazy. Still, his role in designing PSFS, his financial support of such important architectural journals as Shelter and Perspecta, and his leadership in the wartime housing bureaucracy and at Yale make him a significant force in 20th-century architecture.

For 60 years, people have speculated about how Philadelphia, with its legendary conservatism, produced such a revolutionary building as PSFS. But the mystery is not really so deep. The building was newfangled, but Howe's integrity was old-fashioned and highly respected. At a key moment of the process, the bank's president demanded an antique promise: that Howe give his word "as a gentleman" that this new architecture was seriously intended and not simply a stunt to get attention. When Howe gave that pledge, it seems to have been enough.


If you look at his work stylistically, you'll find that Howe was a transitional figure. The picturesque houses of his early career never lapse into mere scenery. They are seldom literal in their historical recall. They have large windows and great openness. Often, one enters the center of a multistory space, and the form of the house can be grasped at once, even though its varied delights remain to be explored. Each house offers a series of distinctive indoor and outdoor rooms that respond to both function and mood. Knowing now that he became an American modernist pioneer, we can detect evidence of such tendencies even in the most fantastic creations.

His career as a modernist after PSFS was less prolific, and Howe more often served as an administrator than a designer during the last 25 years of his life before his death in 1955. Still, in the PSFS and after, you can detect a feeling for craftsmanship, fine materials, spatial variety and creature comforts also found in his earlier picturesque work but less evident in the work of other modernists.

He even produced a large suburban mansion in the modernist style, the William Stix Wasserman house, known as Square Shadows, in Blue Bell. This survives, in much-altered and somewhat neglected form, as part of Gloria Dei Church on Butler Pike, east of Stenton Avenue. It turns out to be more rambling and less rational than some of his more eclectic work.

Thus, despite his midcareer stylistic conversion, Howe's skills were equally applicable to creating domestic patches of green utopia or embodying the life of the 20th-century city at 12th and Market Streets.


In the mid-1970s, when the architect Robert A.M. Stern's book George Howe: Toward a Modern American Architecture appeared, Howe provided a powerful example for those following the course that became known as postmodern. Howe showed that a rigorous, thoughtful, practical architecture could be fused with the delights and satisfactions of traditional forms to produce memorable buildings.

While Howe once offered architects trained in modernist principles a path back to a larger and more delightful set of possibilities, his importance is different now. It lies in his integrity, his desire to somehow address the realities of his own times and a society larger than the one he met at clubs and parties. Now that we are at the end of another era in which enormous amounts of money were invested in empty images and escapism, Howe's search for a meaningful new architecture may be worth emulating.

As the exhibition demonstrates, this change did not happen suddenly, but evolved through the last half of the 1920s in a series of houses and branch banks in and around Philadelphia that began to address city streets and the commercial landscape and forsook the masonry wall for the steel frame. He seems to have floundered a bit, and also to have been easily influenced at times. Still, the effort seems serious and honest, not trendy.

"It was only in 1928 . . . that I had delivered my last Jumbo, Anti- Economy, Romantic Country House package," Howe wrote during the 1950s, ''complete with sheepfolds, duck pond, dovecotes and immemorial elms, transplanted at enormous expense."

By the time he was writing, the Newbold Estate, an icon of the 1920s, was about to be razed and its acreage divided into the building lots of a new kind of mass suburbia. Lewis Mumford, writing in 1925 when the ancient-looking Newbold buildings were brand new, condemned it as an example of "the malady of the unreal." Mumford said Howe and his partners were "employed in creating an environment into which people may escape from a sordid workaday world, whereas the real problem of architecture is to remake the workaday world so that people will not wish to escape from it."

While it's not likely that architects have ever had the kind of power to change society that Mumford implied, it is easy to see why Howe might take such criticism to heart. He was not constrained by economics to produce buildings he did not believe in. He could see that the most elaborate of these rural fantasies were probably not sustainable. He had aspired to be a leading architect, and began to look for ways in which to do so.

It couldn't have been easy for him to keep dealing with people who wanted him to do work as delightful as he had done before. By the time PSFS was built, the fantasy decade of the 1920s was over, and Howe was just in time, stylistically, though the Depression stopped most construction. Howe was 49, and his best buildings were behind him.

There is never as much money in trying to come to terms with things as they are as there is in providing a veneer of reality to people's fantasies. Howe's integrity produced one masterpiece, which is better than most people do.


"George Howe: The Architect's Progress" will be at the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, 8708 Germantown Ave., through Dec. 8. Hours are 9 a.m. to noon Tuesdays and Fridays and noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is free. For information, call 247-0417.

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