Richardsonian Gothic?



During the final decade of the nineteenth century, congregations in nearly every American city or larger town built Richardsonian Romanesque churches.  Many of these (especially Presbyterian and Methodist) were lantern churches.  A lantern is a large central polygonal tower with a pyramidal roof.  The central tower facilitated the auditorium style sanctuary.  The worship emphasis of many such churches was on the sermon, and a stage-like preaching platform surrounded by curved pews permitted superior acoustics and visibility.


Trinity United Presbyterian Church, Uniontown, PA

Presbyterian congregations in Pittsburgh and Uniontown chose lantern churches, culminating similar architectural histories.  But, are they both Romanesque?  Perhaps not.  Uniontown’s Trinity United Presbyterian Church traces its origins (as First Presbyterian) to the late eighteenth century, sixty years before the founding of Shadyside Presbyterian.  First Presbyterian occupied two modest brick buildings and Shadyside a modest frame structure.  Both congregations built Gothic Revival churches (Uniontown in 1860, Shadyside in 1876) during an early period of popularity of the style.  Both churches in this booming industrial region outgrew their buildings, requiring new construction (Uniontown by 1894, Shadyside by 1890).

Lanterns at Trinity Church, Boston & Trinity United Presbyterian

Both churches are a sub-category of lantern churches, those with square towers.  Some lanterns had as many as sixteen sides, approaching circular.  First Presbyterian’s architect, William Kauffman of Pittsburgh, no doubt knew of Shadyside’s design.  But, as an overall tower design, his lantern more closely resembles H. H. Richardson’s Trinity Church , Boston of 1876.  Boston and Uniontown share these similarities:  four round turrets at the lantern corners, one of them topped by a taller octagonal pinnacle; the red tile pyramid roofs have chamfered corners; the roof dormers are lucarne-style, projecting straight up from the walls; the upper tower contains louvers with clerestory windows below.


Comparison of Allegheny Courthouse pavilion & Shadyside Church lantern

The corresponding features at Shadyside are: tower corners are square, with no turrets; the black slate pyramid roof has four planes intersecting in sharp corners; the dormers project from the planes of the roof; the louvers appear in the dormers with only windows in the upper tower.  In this sense, Shadyside more closely resembles the corner pavilions of Richardson’s Allegheny County Courthouse.  The Pittsburgh church’s architects, Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, were the designated successor firm to Richardson.  They oversaw completion of the Courthouse and Jail after their employer died in 1886.


Round Romanesque arch at Shadyside's chapel entrance

So, was Uniontown’s First Presbyterian Church a Richardsonian Romanesque Revival structure, closely patterned on Trinity, Boston?  Perhaps not.  A key signifier of Romanesque architecture is the round arch.  A close inspection of windows, doors and colonnades at Trinity United Presbyterian (created in 1962 by a merger of First & Second churches) reveals that the arches are not quite round.  At the top they form a very subtle point.  Everybody knows pointed arches are Gothic.  In fact, the Uniontown church has been described as French Gothic.  Perhaps not.

Slightly pointed arches on door and window

There are many examples of pointed arches during the Romanesque period – nominally 1000 to 1150 A.D.  Likewise, the round arch was not banned in the Gothic period which followed.  Romanesque builders, however, did not take advantage of the structural qualities of the pointed arch that permitted the soaring verticality and thin, window-dominated walls that characterize Gothic better than the shape of the fenestration. Soaring verticality and thin walls are not features of any of the three churches shown here.

Pointed arch on French Romanesque church (1) (2)

One emphatically Romanesque French church, S. Trophime, Arles, has very slightly pointed arches, not unlike Trinity United Presbyterian.  Built in 1150, just before the early Gothic period, it is in the South of France, close to the regions that had significant influence on Richardson’s conception of Romanesque.


Cushion capitals and Romanesque carving

The nature of decorative carving and columns suggests Romanesque rather than Gothic in Uniontown.  The “plump” cushion capitals, especially, are typical of the earlier architecture.  Column shafts that are short compared to their diameter also are a Romanesque characteristic  So, is this venture into Richardsonian Romanesque Revival with almost round arches unique?  No, as we shall see below.


Picturesque massing and details, typical of Romanesque architecture

Other features of this well-proportioned church are typically picturesque.  Romanesque accommodates asymmetry and organic addition to suit internal function.  Such buildings are well adapted to corner lots.  The exterior is Peninsula blue sandstone, quarried near Cleveland, giving the walls an unusual and pleasing color, while maintaining the quiet monochrome of Richardson's later work.


Tiffany Nativity windows at Trinity United (top) (3) and Shadyside

Shadyside’s third church began life with a single pictorial window.  It was produced by Tiffany Studios, who mentioned it in their brochure for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  Tiffany displayed seven stained glass windows at the Exposition.  A member of the Uniontown congregation. purchased them for installation at the church.  One of those bears a remarkable correspondence to the subject and composition of Shadyside’s nativity window. Trinity United Presbyterian’s Tiffany windows are an unusual treasure.


Tiffany windows at Trinity United Presbyterian Church

While standing at the corner of Fayette and Morgantown Streets to appreciate this handsome church, a look in the opposite direction shows a tower dominating the view. 


The short trip of several blocks reveals the Fayette County Courthouse and Jail.  It bears a notable resemblance to the equivalent buildings in Allegheny County (of 1888), including the “Bridge of Sighs” connecting them. 

Corresponding features of Fayette County and Allegheny County courthouses & jails

Careful attention to the doors and windows of the courthouse in Uniontown show them to be the same unusual “pointed round arches” of the church.  Not surprisingly, William Kauffman was the architect.

Surprisingly the Fayette County Courthouse arches are pointed, while the adjacent jail arch is circular

Completed in 1890, the courthouse preceeds the church, which raises the question whether the church leaders liked the unusual treatment and asked to have it repeated.  Between completion of the courthouse and the church, however, significant changes occurred in the architecture of the jail, finished in 1892.  The stone is a warmer brown sandstone.  More puzzling is the fact that the main entrance arch of the jail is a typically Romanesque, perfectly round form.  Exploration of the reasons would, no doubt, be a fascinating exercise.

Early post card view of Fayette County Jail (4)

The jail as originally constructed was the most picturesque of any our subjects.  The post card view shows roof dormers and an entrance porch of a design that seems almost too romantic or whimsical for a lock-up.  Sadly, these along with the graceful termination of the jail’s tower were less than durable and did not survive a 1963 remodeling.


Fayette County Jail with modifications

A Pittsburgher driving through Uniontown might suspect tremendous influence from his city on the Presbyterian church and civic buildings.  A more leisurely inspection, however, reveals significant and intriguing differences.  Were they chiefly attributable to architect Kauffman?  Did the citizens of Fayette County want to express individualism with their own variations on a theme?  Colonial settlement and prominence came to the southern region earlier than to Pittsburgh. The region had a vibrant industrial economy which was perhaps only one tier lower in importance than it northern neighbor.  Indeed, Pittsburgh needed the resources and products of Fayette County to fuel its own progress.   Whatever the genesis of the architectural differences, both locations reward a visitor with ample quantity and variety of interesting buildings.

For a Pittsburgh example of a pointed Romanesque arch see Fade to Black...and Back

(1) Photo  of S. Trophime There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image. AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike by owner (cropped for use here)

(2) Drawing from Bannister Fletcher, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1954

(3) Many thanks to Linda Chidester, Church Secretary, and Trinity United Presbyterian Church for providing the beautiful photographs of the Tiffany windows and church history.

(4) Postcard from Penny Post Cards from Pennsylvania (cropped for use here)

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