American Architecture Series
Richard Upjohn

Biography of American Architect, Gothic Revival Style.

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Trinity Church, New York (1839-46)
Designed by Richard Upjohn.
one of the greatest architects
of the Gothic Revival movement.

Richard Upjohn (1802-78)

Contents

Biography
Early Training and Influences
Trinity Church (Gothic Revival Style)
Rural Architecture
American Institute of Architects

American Architecture Series
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Biography

One of the most influential American architects in the revival of Gothic architecture, the British-born designer Richard Upjohn was a devout Christian, and the architect of choice for the Protestant Episcopal Church in a period of extensive church building. His exemplary professional behaviour, his convictions about the role that design should assume in the life of the nation, and his belief that architecture deserved a place among the professions, were instrumental in the founding in 1857 of the American Institute of Architects, together with the formulation of its intellectual objectives. He was duly elected its first president. An important figure, therefore, in the development of 19th century architecture in America, his work is distinguished by its sturdy integrity, its ingenuity and the way in which he adapted personal preferences in form to the style he was using. Famous above all for his Gothic Revival churches, his masterpiece is undoubtedly Trinity Church, New York (1839-46), one of the most famous monuments of modern Gothic art, which shows a better appreciation of medieval forms than any other American building at that time. Upjohn's design work was also influenced by Romanesque art, and especially by the Italianate style of the Early Renaissance.

 

Early Training and Influences

Born in Shaftesbury, England, he was apprenticed at an early age to a builder and cabinet-maker, Upjohn emigrated to the United States with his family in 1829 and settled in New England, (first New Bedford, Massachusetts, then in 1833 Boston) where he acquired architectural experience in the office of Alexander Parris (1780-1852), a Boston architect associated with the neoclassical architecture practiced by William Thornton (1759-1828), Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844) and others. Upjohn's earliest buildings, modest commissions for houses and St. John's Episcopal Church in Bangor, Maine, illustrate his preoccupation with fundamentals of design and practicality rather than ornament. They also reveal his knowledge of English writers on architecture and its principles, a rich vein of materials on which he would continue to draw. Meantime, in 1836, he became an American citizen, and in 1838 moved to New York.

Trinity Church (Gothic Revival Style)

Upjohn's first major work, and the one for which he is best known, was Trinity Church in New York. From 1839, when he began to consult on its repair or rebuilding, until it was completed in 1846, Upjohn was preoccupied with Trinity. It established him as a leader among American architects and the Gothic Revival as the style best suited to the needs of the Protestant Episcopal Church, a significant client both in the work it proffered and the tastes it encouraged. A sequence of large and small churches by Upjohn followed, among them the Church of the Holy Communion (1844-46), New York, and St. Mary's Church (1846), Burlington, New Jersey.

For details of another American Gothic Revival architect, who was also active in New York at this time, see James Renwick (1818-95), designer of St Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral, New York.

Rural Architecture

Prompted by more requests than he could satisfy for designing small churches, rectories and schoolhouses, Upjohn in 1852 published Rural Architecture, whose patterns were used throughout the United States. He also prepared designs for modest churches remarkable for their sensitive design and the elegant way in which he adjusted the Gothic style to local building materials, craftsmanship and his own preferences - he enjoyed simplicity and avoided applied decoration.

Because he recognized that the Gothic style, although suitable for country settings, was difficult in an urban context, Upjohn began, even while working on Trinity Church, to develop a vocabulary of Romanesque forms, of which the Bowdoin College Chapel and Library (1845-55), Brunswick, Maine, is his masterpiece. (Note: For the foremost exponent of the Romanesque Revival style, see: Henry Hobson Richardson, 1838-86.) After an 1850 European study tour, in which he visited Germany, France, Italy and England, he was convinced that the Italianate, then popular in England, was an alternative to the medieval styles. St. Paul's Church (1854-56), Baltimore, is a masterwork in this style. (For the most versatile exponent of Italianate Beaux-Arts design, see the celebrity East Coast architect Cass Gilbert 1859-1934.)

Upjohn was also a remarkable designer of houses. Mansions in Newport, such as Kingscote (1839), and in the suburbs of New York, and the small but effective houses he proposed in his book, illustrate his talent for adapting style to purpose and the requirements of a new society - a tradition later continued by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).

American Institute of Architects

In February 1857, Upjohn, together with Richard Morris Hunt (1827-95) and twelve other designers, established the American Institute of Architects, based in New York. He was elected president from 1857 to 1876, and was succeeded by Thomas Ustick Walter(1804-87), a follower of the Revival style of Greek architecture popularized by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820). Upjohn died at his home in Putnam County, New York. His work was continued by his son, Richard Michell Upjohn (1828-1903) - another talented architect and partner in the family architectural firm, who was noted for his Gothic design of the Connecticut State Capitol, Hartford (1872-78).

Later American Architects

For details of late-19th century and 20th century architects active in America, see the following biographies.

High Rise Skyscrapers
William Le Baron Jenney (1832-1907)
Chicago School of Architecture (c.1880-1910)
Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (est 1936)
Second Chicago School of Architecture (c.1940-1975)

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