Romanesque Revival Architecture - The American Way

Built Between 1880 and 1900, These Grand Masonry Homes Have Roman Arches

Large Romesque Revival home with red rusticated stone, turrets, gables, and arches
Samuel Cupples House at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri. Photo by Raymond Boyd / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images (cropped)

During the 1870s, Louisiana-born Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886) captured the American imagination with rugged, forceful buildings. After studying at Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Richardson took on the American northeast, influencing the architectural styles in major cities, like in Pittsburgh with the Allegheny County Courthouse and in Boston with the iconic Trinity Church. These buildings were called "Romanesque" because they had wide, rounded arches like buildings in ancient Rome.

H. H. Richardson became so famous for his Romanesque designs that the style is often called Richardsonian Romanesque instead of Romanesque Revival, an architecture that flourished in America from 1880 until 1900.

Why Romanesque Revival?

Buildings of the 19th century are often mistakenly called simply Romanesque. This is inaccurate. Romanesque architecture describes a type of building from the early Medieval period, the era from about 800 to 1200 AD. The rounded arches and the massive walls—influences from the Roman Empire—are characteristic of the Romanesque architecture of that period. They are also characteristic of architecture built in the late 1800s. When architectural details of the past are used by a future generation, it's said that the style has become revived. In the late 1800s, the Romanesque style of architecture was being imitated or revived, which is why it's called Romanesque Revival.

  Architect H.H. Richardson led the way, and his style ideas were often imitated.

Romanesque Revival Features:

  • Constructed of rough-faced (rusticated), square stones
  • Round towers with cone-shaped roofs
  • Columns and pilasters with spirals and leaf designs
  • Low, broad "Roman" arches over arcades and doorways
  • Patterned masonry arches over windows
  • Multiple stories and complicated roofing systems
  • Medieval details such as stained glass, characteristic of Gothic architecture

Why in Post-Civil War America?

After the 1857 Depression and after the 1865 surrender at Appomattox Court House,  the United States entered a period of great economic growth and industrial invention. Architectural historian Leland M. Roth calls this era the Age of Enterprise. "What distinguishes the period from 1865 to 1885 in particular is the boundless energy that pervaded all aspects of American culture," writes Roth. "The general enthusiasm and the attitude that change was possible, desirable, and imminent were genuinely invigorating."

The heavy Romanesque Revival style was especially suited for grand public buildings. Most people could not afford to build private houses with Roman arches and massive stone walls. However, during the 1880s, a few wealthy industrialists embraced the Romanesque Revival to build elaborate and often fanciful Gilded Age mansions.

During this time, elaborate Queen Anne architecture was at the height of fashion. Also, the rambling Shingle Style became a popular choice for vacation homes, especially along the northeast coast of the USA.

Not surprisingly, Romanesque Revival homes often have Queen Anne and Shingle Style details.

About the Cupples House, 1890:

Pennsylvania-born Samuel Cupples (1831-1921) started out selling wooden utensils, but he made his fortune in warehousing. Settling in St. Louis, Missouri, Cupples expanded his own woodenware business, and then formed a partnership to build distribution centers near the Mississippi River and the railroad crossroads. By the time his own home was finished in 1890, Cupples had amassed millions of dollars. 

St. Louis architect Thomas B. Annan (1839-1904) designed the three story home with 42 rooms and 22 fireplaces. Cupples sent Annan to England to get a firsthand look at the Arts and Crafts movement, especially the detailings of William Morris, which are incorporated throughout the mansion.

Cupples himself is said to have chosen the Romanesque Revival architectural style, the era's popular expression of a man's wealth and stature in an increasingly capitalistic United States—and before the codification of the federal income tax laws.

Sources: A Concise History of American Architecture by Leland M. Roth, 1979, p. 126; A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia and Lee McAlester, 1984; American Shelter: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Home by Lester Walker, 1998; American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, AIA, Norton, 1994; "Urban castles for Gilded-Age Barons," Old-House Journal at www.oldhousejournal.com/magazine/2002/november/roman_revival.shtml [accessed September 21, 2011]; About Samuel Cupples, About Thomas B. Annan, and Cupples House Architecture and Design from Saint Louis University website [accessed November 21, 2016]

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