Walter in Europe [under construction & offered for the purposes of discussion to participants in the Art Historical Image in the Digital Age Summer Program (July 2019)]

Five years after Walter won the competition for Girard College in 1833 (with the drawing to the left), the incomplete building stood three stories high with a sole complete column and several significant aspects of the design unresolved. Among them, the much-discussed subject of roofing the main building required a decision once the main building reached the height of the architrave.  The will of the benefactor, Stephen Girard, stipulated that the roof was to be built wholly of masonry and sheathed in marble. Walter had proposed iron as an alternative fireproofing method to this exceptionally heavy solution.  Skeptical of his proposal, without other options and hesitant to begin the costly process of building a marble roof with no precedent in the United States, the building committee preferred that their architect make his plans on basis of proven methods, rather than theoretical musings. Considering the time and money invested in the building, and in the face of mounting public criticism about its lengthy construction, the board authorized Walter’s research into models to support his ideas, or suggest an alternate plan. At a board meeting in April 1838, the Building Committee determined to send their architect to the only place where he could examine structures of appropriate character and scale, and which had benefit of significant age to test durability: Europe.

Although it remained rare for most Americans, foreign travel grew somewhat more common among economic, scientific, political and professional elites—but not architects. Pioneering for his profession, Walter’s travels would follow a path that had already been established by British Grand Tourists: beginning in Great Britain, Walter planned to pass through the main cities of France and Switzerland on the way to Italy, his final destination.  This itinerary (summarized in the StoryMap above) prefigured that of his professional progeny, but not in significant numbers until the second half of the century; the character of his travel was unlike those who would follow.  Later traveling architects like Richard Morris Hunt (a future associate of Walter’s who was just eleven years old at the time) would indulge in lingering contemplations of European beauties as they traveled.  Walter’s was a focused, working trip, with every encouragement from the committee to gather practical information swiftly and return to America quickly.  Any reflection or study of the aesthetic qualities of ancient and modern buildings, streetscapes, or museum collections, was secondary to them—although it would be of formative interest to Walter.

On July 7, Walter set sail from New York.  In spite of the relatively new promise of steam to quickly cross the ocean, he booked passage on a more conventional vessel: a small, light packet ship that would carry goods and passengers across the Atlantic in about three weeks in good wind.  Upon his arrival, he found travel through Great Britain was predictable and swift due to its investment in steam and rail; his continental journey dragged due to reliance on horse-drawn mail coaches and carriages to traverse the difficult terrain. Actual travel absorbed a significant amount of Walter’s time abroad: he spent about fifty-two days in cities and thirty-three days between destinations, exclusive of the crossing.  Not surprisingly, Walter sometimes found travel so “excessively fatiguing [it] almost unfitted me for the performance of my duties.” 

Walter rarely spent more than one or two nights in a city, sometimes stopping for only a few hours while changing means of conveyance.  Yet during the hours that other travelers might spend resting, Walter sped through town, taking in any public building he thought would assist his work.  With this sharp focus he quickly passed through Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh, York, Manchester, Geneva, Milan, and Florence, spending at most a day or two in each. Only three cities merited lengthy stays: Rome (four days), Paris (eleven days), and London (thirteen days).  His only break from architectural inquiry took place on the Sabbath, when Walter sought out English- or French-language Protestant churches.  After dark, with little interest in London theatre, Italian opera, or Parisian cafés, Walter retired early.  

In certain cities, Walter enjoyed extensive access to buildings as part of generous professional hospitality extended to the famous architect of Girard College.  In Paris, architects Jacques-Marie Huvé and Guillaume-Abel Blouet steered him through their current projects.  He met with more than twenty architects in England, including Charles Barry, whose Manchester buildings he particularly admired, and engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who assisted his examination of the Tunnel under the Thames, then under construction.  In London he was welcomed at the Royal Institute of British Architects where he deposited drawings and met John Claudius Loudon, editor of the Architectural Magazine (to which Walter was an occasional contributor). 

Walter directed his daily attentions to address three main points identified by the building committee: structural stability of masonry structures (especially marble), effects of water and weather on these materials, and the interaction of iron and stone in construction. Having already commissioned scientist Alexander Dallas Bache to study educational policy in Europe, their approval of Walter to conduct technical research abroad indicated their trust in him as possessing a unique professional capacity and a “man of science.” 

Outfitted with a few notebooks to record personal and professional impressions and quires of paper for sketching, Walter scoured each city for ancient ruins, medieval churches, Renaissance palaces and modern hospitals that would be relevant to his work at Girard College.  Only occasionally did he shift from construction analysis to design critique, as he did during his visit to the Custom House in Dublin (James Gandon, 1781, left).  Representing the “best architecture in the interior,” he made a sketch of a staircase (link/embed), thinking of the college.   More often, and more directly pursuant to his assignment, Walter focused on the functional and structural aspects of buildings, especially those built of marble, which he already accepted as a superior construction material due to its beauty and soundness.  Walter spent hours clambering across the roofs and domes of St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London, studying their coverings and structure, taking special care to record the manner in which water the structures shed water.  Wren’s gutter detail was of particular interest to warrant its inclusion in his sketchbook. Walter invested little time searching for all-iron buildings, making only slight mention of new train sheds, market halls, passages, garden buildings and bridges, which may indicate his disinterestedness with metallic architecture, which remained prohibitively expensive in the United Sates, or his belief that it had little application for the College, which Girard’s will required to be built of marble and iron.  Walter remained focused on seeking useful precedents for his marble-roofed building, uncertain that this new species of “carpentry” was proven superior to traditional materials, either financially, technically or aesthetically. 

Walter took greater interest in buildings that integrated iron with stone masonry.  He spent several hours drawing the wrought-iron roof of the Théâtre-Français (later the Comédie-Française by Victor Louis, 1786), impressive for its 85-foot span. In London, St. George’s Hospital (William Wilkins, 1827) he studied the cast iron roof tiles and skylight frames.  Although the roof of the hospital was water tight (in spite of being set without cement), showing none of the warping through the material’s natural expansion and contraction, he remained convinced of marble’s superiority as a roofing material, although the hospital’s skylights sparked a new idea in his mind. Walter found his greatest inspiration during a visit to the Panthéon (formerly the church of Sainte-Geneviève, begun in 1755 to the designs of Jacques-Germain Soufflot).  Its exterior colonnade supported an architrave comprising flat arches reinforced by iron.  This efficient system relieved the architraves of superincumbent weight and supported them with vertical iron bars, and was in keeping with the original stipulation of Girard’s will to build in masonry. 

Although the College paid Walter’s expenses to study pragmatic necessities that might apply to their project, as a young architect shaping his professional persona, Walter could hardly help but to be impressed by his surroundings and contemplate the aesthetic qualities of the monuments around him—the subjects that had inspired countless hours during the last decade in the study of books and engravings.  While he diligently attended to his work on behalf of the College, he also ruminated on the buildings as aesthetic objects, especially in their relationship to historical precedent. Walter’s travels not only allowed first-hand experience with famous buildings but also, importantly, time for contemplation that was rare in the midst of normal family and office responsibilities. 

In his journal, Walter sharpened his aesthetic point of view through breezy dismissals of buildings and even whole cities.  Although he admired individual Neo-Classical monuments of Paris, he preferred them isolated in lithographic views as he would have first learned of them, rather than in the tight, meandering medieval fabric of the city (decades before Haussmann’s boulevards). Virtually all of Italy failed to please Walter’s critical eye.  Mantua was “a dirty Italian town without a single good thing to eat or drink or even a tolerable building to look at.”  In Rome, he found little to praise and much to condemn.  The city’s churches—all of them—were “tasteless and even disagreeable to look at;” even St. Peter’s had “little architectural merit.”  

Walter’s harsh judgments grew from consistent aesthetic values based in “Grecian” principles that were intensified by such associations as his aversion to Catholicism, Italian politics, and even the local cuisine, which he found inedible.  But the fact that he did not summarily ignore all the architecture of any one place reveals the reasoning behind his opinions.  At St. Peter’s, he admitted admiration for the immense dome that possessed “a majesty and grandeur that atones for many a fault in the minutia of its design.” In London, St. Paul’s similarly possessed an ungainly “multiplicity of breaks and incongruous forms” in its Roman-inspired ornament, but also beautiful proportions, in keeping with Grecian ideals.  In a curious, but telling, twist of language, Walter named it the best “Roman” building in London because it was the most “Greek.”  Forgiving Wren’s genius for the vulgar period in which he lived, Walter mused that had Wren survived an additional century he would have turned his genius to Grecian design. 

The difference between Greek and Roman principles was especially evident in the Madeleine, which received the greatest scrutiny in Walter’s final report and inspired the most thoughtful commentary in his private notes. As an octastyle Corinthian Roman peripteral temple with a vaulted interior, Walter recognized the Madeleine as “more similar to Girard than any other building, modern or ancient.”  Its current architect, Huvé, guided Walter through the entire building to which he dedicated a total of three full days to study—the greatest amount of time spent in any single building during his travels in Europe.  Like St. Paul’s, it was “truly grand” in its proportions, but lost its Grecian repose and simplicity upon close inspection. The columns and walls were wrought with a heavy hand, a treatment of “ugly and confusing lines” so heinous that it threatened the national character: if the Madeleine was “chisselled smooth and painted white, the Parisians would be a better people.” 

Even so, Paris was the site of a kind of artistic awakening for Walter, in which he expressed full confidence in his architectural and artistic judgment.  His extensive examinations throughout Europe led him to dismiss the inherited wisdom of experts without examination, and emboldened him to pronounce the widely-regarded Madeline sculpture “inglorious.”  He acknowledged that his “bold assertion” was “at variance with the opinions of all the world including perhaps every member of my own profession; but I make it fearlessly.” Likewise, he recognized the pedigree of a column capital in St. Pancras by William Inwood (1819), yet pronounced that they “look very bad although they are à la Grec.”  Although this made them “above criticism,” Walter would never “follow the Greeks in this barbarism.” Walter felt keenly that he had come to understand the beauties of the Greeks so fully that he could step out of common opinion and hold his own. Walter’s epiphany turned on the idea that he had moved from a mere “love of the classics” and reverence for them to a deeper understanding of the means by which the Greeks achieved “pure beauty.”   This mature perspective helped Walter see through the outward appearance to underlying principles: although the Madeline’s sculpture had the appearance of Greek Classicism about it, it failed to achieve the grace of actual Greek sculpture.  Likewise, Wren had designed a huge Roman cathedral whose most important element, its great dome, achieved Grecian standards of beauty.  He also measured Medieval architecture on this Greek basis: the weighty, simple, earlier buildings of Great Britain and Ireland, singling out twelfth- and thirteenth-century examples in Dublin and York as the best Gothic architecture for attaining the greatest consonance with Greek principles. Yet slavish copyist would never do, as Walter recorded:

There are men in the present day as bold, as thoughtful, and as tasteful as ever the greeks were, a man must therefore not be blamed if he thinks for himself.  

In short, Walter’s theory looked to Greece for its absolute principles (ideas of harmony, repose, and unity), but which was not tied absolutely to Greek precedent (specific and reproducible forms, motifs, ornaments). 

Walter spent his last days of travel in Glasgow, where the cut stone houses, grid planning, clean streets and handsome public buildings, inspired him to name it “decidedly the best built city I have yet visited.”  Walter concluded his voyage in a most positive manner, in a place where he knew the language, could stomach the food, enjoyed the architecture and scenery, and worshipped in familiar liturgies, prior to departure from Liverpool.  This ideal conclusion to his travels was countered by a stormy return to America.  Walter’s dreary journal records the trying, month-long voyage:

Oct. 23:  Wind blowing a gale . . . the sea rolling in mountains.

Oct. 25:  Sea broke over the vessel continually; all (but one) deathly sick all the time—turned in at 11 o’clock—thrown out of my birth [sic] in the night; battered and bruised on every side.

Oct. 30:  Strong lightening, very stormy, a terrible dirty day and a fearful night: the officers of the ship all affirm that they have never before encountered so much bad weather in succession on the ocean. 

Nov. 10:  More storm and more laying to; dear me when will it end, I wanted to see a right good storm, but I did not want all storm.

Nov. 18:  Day ended in a gloomy stormy night, the sea looked like livid fire and the whole heavens were charged with electricity.

After landing in New York, Walter quickly returned home, where he began formalizing impressions of his twenty-week journey in a comprehensive report for the college.  Still architect of the most famous project in the country, he now had the additional sheen of European travel to add to his renown.  

Arriving with engravings from London, vases from Paris, and sculpture from Livorno to embellish his Arch Street home, Walter returned to Philadelphia rich with souvenirs and experience and receipts totaling nearly $2,500. The sum was an unthinkable amount for most Americans to spend quickly and in foreign lands, but it was a small investment in the design of the roof of Girard College, originally estimated at $200,000 (construction to that point had already reached over $400,000). Walter returned with practical observations and aesthetic insights recorded in his notebooks and that would guide the final construction seasons of the college. The tour also bolstered his confidence in his design, as he reflected “now am I satisfied that the world has not its equal by infinite odds—but in a twitch of humility crossed out the boast. 

In early April 1839 Walter presented his official findings to the building committee.  Even at 150 pages, it was a severely edited version of the notebooks that he maintained in Europe, written in crisper language, with fewer examples and less aesthetic rumination.  After lengthy descriptions of dozens of buildings, Walter summarized, in the last twenty-five pages of the report, specific elements of his original design that were either confirmed or challenged by his investigations.  His studies affirmed Stephen Girard’s original directive to build in marble, the durability of which had been proven in dozens of monuments, of various age, throughout Europe.  Likewise, Walter’s initial idea to cover the roof with loose-laid tiles, based in his academic study of Greek architecture, was supported by his firsthand examination of St. George’s Hospital in London, which had a similar system that remained weather-tight.  From that newer building he also derived the idea of using cast iron frames in the same dimensions as the marble tiles to serve as the frames for skylights to illuminate the upper level of the building.  From another modern building, the Dublin Custom House, he drew the design of oval skylights to illuminate stairwells adopted into the college.

While Walter’s first-hand studies in Europe confirmed his ideas for covering the roof, which were now “entirely changed.”  He borrowed the arrangement of shallow masonry arches stabilized with iron in the portico from the Madeleine (and recognized its principles in the remains of the Temple of Jupiter Stator in Rome).  Considering the greater problem of roofing the whole structure, Walter discarded the idea of iron trusses and adopted thin brick walls, to span the entire width of the “cell” to support the roof tiles, also inspired by structural systems he had studied in Europe.  These and other smaller changes to the design resulted in an estimated a savings of $175,000, making the cost of his European voyage an exceptionally high-yielding investment for the College trustees.



It’s probably no great surprise that this project began as a conventional paper intended for conventional publication, on paper. With that as background, here are issues I have been turning over in my head, and would be interested in the group addressing:

  • Is it adequate to transfer this typical approach/layout to a website?
  • A huge benefit of using the web is the ease of grabbing images in the attempt to recreate European sites as Walter saw them in this particular time (fraught as this goal is). Is it helpful/distracting/dangerous (due to the likelihood of links breaking) to link to additional images/info?
  • Should we have the same criteria for selecting an image when the image is the subject of our research vs. the image is illustrating our interpretation?
  • What mapping/timeline/other tools (perhaps more sophisticated than the StoryMap at the top) would be more helpful? If they are used, should the text be edited somehow, since more information is communicated graphically/etc.?
  • Is there a danger in adopting too much whiz-bang digital magic that require updated technology to access?
  • Should formal, expert interpretive works like this remain the domain of print and the web be more of a place for raw data (either the images of Walter’s notebooks/reports and/or transcriptions of the same)–curated in a way, but open to interpretation (and thus also making information that is irrelevant to one person available to a person who would find it highly relevant? (Like the things I think of as the minutiae of travel but a different historian would find helpful/interesting) (see the brief blue synopsis of the report above) (cf. the “curated features in the Urban Legacy of Ancient Rome site)
  • Is web publishing ever going to seem as serious & solid as print?
  • These last two bullet points point to the issue of authority/credibility, concerns for judging a site before accepting it as adequate for research needs (vs. books that have passed through an editorial process and thus seem more reliable); also relates to peer-review issues, how scholarship “counts” for promotion & tenure, etc.