This article is a part of a series from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s excellent field guide on the architectural styles found in Pennsylvania. In it, they’ve assigned key periods of development – from the Colonial period in the 18th Century to the Modern Movements of the 29th Century. This article focuses on an overview of the Traditional/Vernacular style in Pennsylvania from 1638 through 1950
PA Architecture Romanesque Revival Style 1840 – 1900
1. Masonry construction
2. Round arches at entrance windows
3. Heavy and massive appearance
4. Polychromatic stonework on details
5. Round tower
6. Squat columns
7. Decorative plaques
The Romanesque Revival style was introduced in the United States in the mid 19th century, as architectural ideas from Europe, based on the buildings of ancient Rome, were imported here. Only a few public buildings were built in this style until the talented and influential American architect Henry Hobson Richardson embraced the style in the 1870s and 1880s. Richardson, a graduate of the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, developed a more dramatic version of this style with bolder, wider arches and strong sculptural forms. The Richardsonian Romanesque version of the style continued to be used for public buildings but also became popular for residential mansions. Interest in this style continued to grow after Richardson’s death in 1886 with the publishing of a book on his work and later pattern books and builders’ guides. Buildings of Romanesque Revival style are most easily identified by their pronounced round arches and heavy, massive stone or brick construction. Most have round towers, squat columns and decorative plaques with intricate or interlacing patterns. Since masonry buildings were more expensive to build than wooden ones, Romanesque Revival structures are less common than some of the other Victorian era styles executed in wood. With its strong sense of gravity and permanence, the Romanesque Revival style was especially suited to churches, university buildings, prisons and other public buildings.
One of the best known buildings of the Romanesque Revival style in Pennsylvania is the 1884 Allegheny Courthouse and Jail in Pittsburgh, one of the last designs of Henry Hobson Richardson. Other excellent examples of this style can be found throughout the state, especially in church and school buildings. Many surviving train stations and courthouses are executed in this style as well.
The Romanesque Revival style is seen most often in urban and suburban areas, and rowhouses were a particularly common building type constructed in this style. The areas surrounding Pittsburgh contain a number of buildings inspired by Richardson’s Allegheny Courthouse and Jail. This building influenced construction around southwestern Pennsylvania for over a decade, from public buildings to residential detached homes and rowhouses. It is seen less often in Philadelphia, as Richardson did not have architectural commisions there.