The Other Romanesque Revival



We can excuse someone with a casual interest in architecture who, upon hearing Romanesque Revival, thinks of Henry Hobson Richardson.  Dignified, muscular structures were conceived by this American genius in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.  They certainly had the most intense impact on architecture in the round arch style in the United States.  However, the Romanesque Revival neither began nor ended with Richardson and his followers.  

Basilica of Sant'Abrogia, Milan, 12th Century Romanesque  Courtesy Mary Ann Sullivan Nazarethkirche, Berlin, Karl Friedrich Schinkel 1831 Romanesque Revival in Germany

The revival of the Romanesque began in Germany and England in the second quarter of the 1800s (virtually concurrent with the Gothic Revival).  The medieval sources were often found in southern Germany or northern Italy (Lombardy).  The impetus for reviving the style was religious, political and artistic and quickly spread to the United States by the 1840s.  The revival made its earliest inroads to Western Pennsylvania in such outposts as St. Marys and Latrobe.  In a recent book (1), Kathleen Curran explores the phenomenon thoroughly and clearly.  She traces the fascinating tale up through the revival’s influence on Richardson and his transformation of it, as demonstrated by Trinity Church Boston.  Even this, at least as far as Pittsburgh is concerned, is only two-thirds of the story.  

Bowdoin College Chapel, Brunswick, ME, Richard Upjohn, 1844, 

Romanesque was associated with its predecessor Early Christian architecture and, therefore, the “primitive” Church.  This appealed to certain nineteenth century Protestant denominations, in the United States starting with the Congregationalists.  Gothic was linked to Roman Catholic and, especially, High Church Anglicans - thereby to a strong hierarchy and strong ritual worship.  Prominent Gothic Revival architects, Richard Upjohn and John Notman among them, were reluctant to offer Gothic to Protestant congregations - and applied their considerable skills to Romanesque churches.  This offered Protestants and Low Church Anglicans something more than the spare meetinghouse, yet stopped short of the “over elaborate” Gothic.  

A series of arches cut into a raised band, known as an "acuated corbel." (2)

The sloping base of a building, called a "battered water table." (2)

Some of the typical features of these "Other Romanesque Revival" structures are the round arch, masonry construction (often brick in Pittsburgh), a triple doorway entrance, windows divided into two smaller round-arch openings, the arcuated corbel, and a rose window on the front facade.  A more-or-less prominent vertical element was usually introduced in the form of a single tower, paired towers, a spire or a belfry.  A favored tower was the campanile, adapted from Italian sources, incorporating a low-pitched hip roof.  Many had a semi-circular apse for the altar or communion table.  Often, these churches were grounded to their sites by a "battered water table" or a projecting base.


Birmingham Methodist, South Side Enlarge

In Pittsburgh's Landmark Architecture (3), Walter Kidney identifies Birmingham Methodist Episcopal Church as an early (1859) local example of Romanesque Revival.  This structure, in the heart of the South Side, is now home of The City Theater.  Without its original belfry, it looks incomplete.  While it clearly has Romanesque features, its pure classification is problematic.  Round arch windows, an arcuated corbel at the roofline and pilasters point to Romanesque (although perhaps not exclusively).  The Classical entrance portico says something different altogether. 

The prominent belt line molding separates the (straight-sided) ground floor from the main (second) floor.  This is typical of Greek Revival structures, where the lower story functions as a pedestal.  Since Pittsburgh was considered a Greek Revival town before its 1845 fire, an eclectic mixing of revival styles would not be too surprising.


St. Michael the Archangel

Up the South Side slopes, we find a much more elaborate yet contemporary church, prototypical of a Pittsburgh pattern:  A Romanesque Revival Roman Catholic church in a predominantly German neighborhood.  Charles Bartberger designed St. Michael the Archangel with a tall spire contrasting with the strong horizontal of the nave and aisles.  Limestone accents the fenestration and buttresses against a field of warm red brick.  The South Side features many similar structures including the related St. Paul of the Cross Monastery by Bartberger.


Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, Lawrenceville, Front Facade Enlarge (l), Apse & Vestry (r)

Across the Monongahela River and over the hill in Lawrenceville, we find a Protestant example in another German neighborhood.  Zion Evangelical Lutheran was founded in 1823, but the present building was put up about a decade after the South Side churches.  This is a simple, dignified brick box.  Here, like Birmingham, the worship space is raised above the street and is terminated by a semi-circular apse with a connecting vestry.


St. Augustine's Roman Catholic Church, Lawrenceville Enlarge

Facing Zion across 37th Street is a manifestation of what Romanesque Revival became after the Richardsonian phase.  St. Augustine's Roman Catholic Church makes full use of the Romanesque’s picturesque adaptability to a steep hillside site.  The entrance follows a German-Italian pattern with flanking towers and triple arch doorways.  The surface ornament on the 1899 church is more elaborate than the early Romanesque Revival structures, making extensive use of terra-cotta instead of stone.

St. Augustine's Doorway with Terra-cotta Trim

Once a dominantly German Parish, St. Augustine's shares a feature with Shadyside Church:  a lantern tower over the crossing.  The architectural firm of record is Rutan & Russell, both of whom worked in Richardson’s office.  The 1899 design, however is attributed to John T. Comes, noted for his many Pittsburgh Catholic churches.  The pattern clearly follows the early Revival rather than the Richardsonian strain.


St. John the Baptist, Lawrenceville (after removal of its campanile tower) Enlarge

Another Italian influenced Romanesque church for a German neighborhood is a few block south and east:  St. John the Baptist, now the Church Brew Works restaurant and micro-brewery.  Comes is the designer again, this time for Beezer Brothers architects, four years after St. Augustine's.


Stewart Avenue Lutheran Church, Carrick Enlarge

Next we return across the Mon River and continue south to Carrick. There, we discover that while Richardson’s Revival spanned little more than two decades, the “Other Romanesque Revival” survived until the onset of the Depression (and beyond).  The 1927 Stewart Avenue Lutheran Church, designed by O. M. Topp, sits impressively above Brownsville Road.  The site required a “side porch” entrance, in what amounts to a truncated campanile.  Triplet windows grace the front facade in place of doorways.

Side Porch Entrance (l) 1958 Addition (r)

Even on the elevated low-pitch roof, the tile covering is visible and imparts a distinctly Mediterranean flavor.  The 1958 addition was made most sympathetically (especially in a era when church additions were often flat-roofed, steel-paneled boxes.)  The polychrome banding on the gable end relates to the original structure, without attempting to hide the addition’s later construction.  Once again, the picturesque quality of Romanesque adapts to hilly Pittsburgh.

Clearly, the Romanesque Revival had a strong start in Pittsburgh by the 1870s, facilitated by churches for German neighborhoods.  The city seemed to sit back and watch the early development of Richardson's architecture before embracing it in his Emmanuel Episcopal Church and Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail in the mid 80s.  East Liberty and McClure Avenue Presbyterian and West End Methodist started a trickle of churches by his disciples.   With the Shadyside Presbyterian commission in 1889, a flood of Richardsonian Protestant churches dominated the the landscape for just over a decade.  All the while, the "Other Romanesque Revival" quietly continued and extended well into the twentieth century.  Their substantial construction and strong faith communities preserve these churches as a vital part of Pittsburgh's architectural fabric.

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(1) Kathleen Curran, The Romanesque Revival: Religion, Politics and Trans-national Exchange, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003.  See also Curran's "The Romanesque Revival, Mural Painting and Protestant Patronage in America" Journal article The Art Bulletin, Vol. 81, 1999

(2) William H. Pierson, "Richardson's Trinity Church and the New England Meetinghouse" in American Public Architecture European Roots and Native Expression, The Pennsylvania State University, 1989   Note: Pierson's characteristic writing style, cogent and concise, make this difficult to find reference worth the search.

(3) Walter Kidney, Pittsburgh's Landmark Architecture:  The Historic Buildings of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, 1997