Henry Hope Reed Legacy Symposium in Philadelphia

Philly, more than New York City, perhaps as much as Washington, DC, may come as close as any American city to Henry Reed's vision of classical civitas.
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Philly, more than New York City, perhaps as much as Washington, DC, may come as close as any American city to Henry Reed's vision of classical civitas.

By David Brussat

After attending the Henry Hope Reed Legacy Symposium, "The Future of the Golden City," sponsored by the Philadelphia chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (ICAA), I stepped out into the City of Brotherly Love. Philly, more than New York City, perhaps as much as Washington, DC, may come as close as any American city to Henry Reed's vision of classical civitas. I walked from City Hall all the way to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Strolling through the former, designed by John MacArthur Jr. and built between 1871 and 1901, then through the new and execrable Love Park – it's for children (bless their hearts), not lovers – and down Benjamin Franklin Parkway to the art museum, one is literally surrounded by buildings, including the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, the Free Library, the Family Court Building, the Franklin Institute, the Rodin Museum and other Classical monuments, with enough statuary groupings to gratify a dozen Henry Reeds.

Not that one needn't blink away much of what passes for architecture along the way. Still, in its buildings, in their relation as an ensemble, in the grandeur of their symmetry and its closure by the Museum of Art, this promenade has the bones of Reed's paradise, as outlined in The Golden City (1959), which is one of my bibles. I hope others at the symposium were able to walk this walk. And the day was as beautiful as could be.

In fact, the day was as beautiful as the life of Henry Reed, which ended in 2013 at the age of 97. Reed may be said to have been the founder of the Classical revival in America, and it was he who led the formation of Classical America, the forefather of the ICAA.

But let's step back to City Hall. It was overtaken as the world's tallest building during its long construction, first by the Washington Monument and then by the Eiffel Tower. It is the largest municipal building in the country. It has been the tallest masonry building in the world since 1953. But that's Wikipedia talking. What would Henry Reed say about its French Second Empire design?

He comments on it in a passage from The Golden City, which also cites one of my favorite buildings, the "old State, War-Navy Building" in Washington, DC, (now called the Eisenhower Building): "[I]n both, order is piled on order, ascending to a high mansard roof." You'd think he was praising it. Well, order piled upon order is all well and good in Reed's view, but the mansard roof thing has got to go. French Second Empire, along with Gothic, Romanesque and other mixtures of Classical with other styles, all watered down the perfectionist Reed's idea of the Classical.

And if Classical was indeed a prime example of earthly perfection, any building that retreated from the purity of Classicism undermined the possibility of building the Golden City, the city of grandeur, conceived as a laying on of architecture, rising from modest classical background buildings with little grandiosity, devoted to trade and habitation, to academic halls, institutional buildings and churches on up to civic buildings featuring the highest level of nobility in massing and ornamentation, groupings that Reed wanted to see placed at the conclusion of grand boulevards, viewed through triumphal arches entering the apotheosis of classical civitas.

The attitude of looking down one's nose at, say, the Gothic, from the exalted reaches of the Classical might once have been defensible. The American Renaissance and the City Beautiful movement, sparked by the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 stretched basically from 1880 to 1930. Most of the great Classical temples of Philadelphia were erected toward the end of this fecund period, especially along Franklin Parkway. I'm sure Reed must have strolled here, goggle-eyed, long before most of the mishmash Modernism perched along the route today, pecking at its grandeur, had come home to roost.

The attitude is no longer defensible. Before the "era" of Modernism (which according to the modernists we are destined to inhabit forever), the hatred felt by, say, the mystery writer H.P. Lovecraft for the post-colonial styles that were eroding his beloved Yankee patrimony in Providence, RI, was at least plausible. Today, with "the Modern" having carried out a successful revolution against tradition itself, such antagonism is downright absurd if not perverse. The Classical remains under house arrest, with the Modernists still trying to lose the keys. If traditional styles don't hang together, they will hang separately.

The critic Catesby Leigh, in remarks at the Reed symposium, imagined the young Henry in Rome "ogling the Venuses." But today, facing the need to combat what the erudite Leigh described as the "many-headed Hydra of Modernism," Reed would, I think, feel a greater need to shed some of the weight of his perfectionism. Leigh and others at the symposium may debate this notion, but as was pointed out often from the speakers' dais, conversation among classicists is inevitable, and conversation is good.

Speakers and members of the audience disagreed over many things, from the validity of our hero's negative attitude toward supposedly sub-Classical traditions, to the definition of beauty, to the need for a definition of beauty, to whether Henry Reed's Golden City will arise more through a vigorous battle of styles or a vigorous education of the young about Classicism, or (perish the thought!) a compromise with Modernism, which could be hard to distinguish from a surrender to it. But all agreed that the Classical revival has advanced on many fronts – in the knowledge and production of Classical and traditional art and architecture - and that this progress would not have occurred had not the ramparts been manned, from the start and virtually up to this very day, by Henry Hope Reed.

David Brussat won the ICAA's 2002 Arthur Ross Award for his architecture criticism in The Providence Journal.


Noted art and architecture critic Catesby Leigh has expressed concern about a quote in David Brussat’s column about the Henry Hope Reed Legacy Symposium. Catesby notes that he didn’t imagine the young Henry “ogling the Venuses” in Rome, and that the attributed quotation may have given the wrong impression. Those of us who knew Henry and his dignified demeanor certainly agree that it’s doubtful Henry was ever guilty of “ogling” anything. – Clem Labine

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