American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader

By Keith L. Eggener | Go to book overview

Part 3
Materialism and mediation in the Gilded Age

During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, the US experienced explosive economic and urban growth. The post-Civil War period was a great age of optimism for much of the country, an age of enterprise and of great appetites. It was also an era of pervasive anxiety over those very appetites, of economic instability and terrible poverty for many, and of widespread efforts—often profound—to reconcile materialism with “high” culture, religion, and traditional values. Architecture in this climate became an important vehicle for legitimizing the new corporate and commercial culture, a means of mediating between base materialism and higher, less tangible goals and values.

The first essay in this section, by material culture historian Kenneth L. Ames, analyzes the domestic space and furnishings of the Victorian-era, middle-class front hall. Alluding to the contemporary field of “impression management,” Ames presents these spaces and artifacts as part of a highly self-conscious effort to structure and manage the increasingly complex and unstable social relations and perceptions emerging in the period. As Ames shows, if hall furnishings displayed the social and economic status of their owners, they also served to stimulate memory and sentiment, and to support social bonding.

Moving from the domestic to the public realm, Daniel Bluestone offers a revisionist reading of the first great wave of Chicago skyscrapers. Undoubtedly, late nineteenthcentury Chicago was—as it is usually described—a brash, raw, aggressively competitive, commercial city; yet it was also a city whose leading citizens harbored significant cultural aspirations. Unlike mid-twentieth-century observers, who emphasized the protomodernist minimalism and structural rationalism of the city’s early skyscrapers, the people who built and first used these structures valued their material comfort and convenience, their luxurious materials and refined, artful ornamentation and interior design. According to Bluestone, these buildings “made a greater effort to transcend commercial utility than to express it symbolically.” They operated to legitimize the new corporations they housed and to ennoble the new forms of white-collar, middle-class work they enabled. Ultimately, “skyscrapers helped to redefine downtown as an acceptable arena for both respectable gentlemen and ladies.”

Cultural geographer Mona Domosh, likewise, studies architecture’s role in legitimizing new forms of commercial activity and social behavior. Domosh examines the evolving culture of shopping, including department store architecture and the larger commercial districts of which they were a part—particularly along New York’s so-called

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