Of Courses


The Richardsonian phase of the Romanesque Revival was nearly always executed in a textured masonry - that is, rough dressed stone or brick.  There are a number of Romanesque-inspired structures executed in the twentieth century which used smooth-faced stone.  For stone buildings, Richardson and his followers favored quarry-faced ashlar:  blocks that are dressed on four sides to ease laying them up into wall surfaces with uniform thickness mortar.  In addition to rough-cut exposed faces, the masons often allowed some blocks to project more than others.  The view of Shadyside Church on the left shows the heightened textural effect this technique produces when raked by the sun's rays from a high angle.  Contrast this with the evening view on the right, where more directly impinging light "flattens" the wall expanses.

Shadyside's walls are laid in random courses as opposed to uniform courses, as seen on Richardson's Allegheny County Courthouse.  There, the three stories above the sloped water table reveal stones arranged in uniform rows of two alternating thicknesses.  During the Gothic Revival, English architect A. W. G. Pugin stated that such a uniform pattern distracts from other features of the wall, recommending a random pattern to emphasize carved detail and ornament.

Comparison of Small Random Stonework and Large Regular Courses 

from A.W.N. Pugin's True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1)

A building not far from Shadyside shows the use of smooth dressed faces on masonry walls.  On Janssen & Abbot's Masonic Temple (below) the walls exhibit no texture, acting to define the volume and as a canvas on which the detail is displayed.  


By contrast, on the heroic walls of the Allegheny County Jail, Richardson used quarry-faced ashlar of uniform thickness within each row.  Belt courses use heavier blocks, and in some cases, consistent width to distinguish them from the balance of the wall.  In the upper expanses, variable  block width avoids the pattern which would form with the alignment of vertical grout lines.


An often overlooked building in Oakland, Frederick Osterling's 1891 Manse for the now-defunct Bellefield Presbyterian Church (the present congregation using that name was formerly First United Presbyterian).  He demonstrates a thoughtful approach to the arrangement of masonry courses, even if it is a bit pretentious for such a small building.  The foundation projects above street level in a sloped water table of massive blocks (suitable, perhaps for a much larger structure).  The first story is laid up in much small ashlar in a random pattern, acting as a field for the arches and windows. Above a belt course, the upper stories alternate thick and thin rows and aligned grout lines.  This produces the texture-pattern, perhaps to account for the simpler, rectangular fenestration.  (An interesting aside:  Hugh Thomson Kerr was pastor of this church before moving to Chicago, whence he was called to his three-decade Shadyside pastorate)

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(1)  As published in Lewis, Michael J,  The Gothic Revival, Thames & Hudson Inc., New York