Know much about George Howe's Square Shadows? I didn't either. (And no, it's not a Johnny Depp movie). Find out more on claass HAUS today.
Depending on your interest, you may know George Howe as the architect of the PSFS Building, arguably the earliest American skyscraper built in the International Style OR maybe you know him as the architect of High Hollow, the impressive Old World estate in Chestnut Hill. Either way, George Howe is a fascinating figure of early twentieth-century architecture. Educated at the École des Beaux-Arts, Howe started his career designing traditional country homes for the leisure class before becoming a devoted Modernist.
The dramatic shift in Howe's career is due in large part to his partnership with the young Swiss architect, William Lescaze. With first hand knowledge of European Modernism, Lescaze provoked a dramatic change in Howe's design philosophy, and the two partners generated a number of buildings more modern in tone and volume. Their most famous commission, the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (PSFS) Building, a gleaming, utilitarian skyscraper that abandoned tradition for a forward-looking aesthetic, remains one of the most important tall buildings in American history.
The partnership between Howe and Lescaze didn't last long, and by 1932, Howe began experimenting with his own modern doctrine. Square Shadows (the William Wasserman House), the first project he completed after his partnership with Lescaze ended, was a chance for the architect to combine the formalism of his Beaux-Arts training with the clean geometry of the International Style.
Completed in 1934, Square Shadows, now the Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, marks a pivotal moment in George Howe's architectural career, embodying his transition from a Beaux-Arts background to the more progressive language of Modernism. Although the plan owes some debt to Lescaze, who not only shaped Howe's modern aesthetic but also drafted an early plan for the house, Square Shadows demonstrates Howe's attempts to blend his newfound modern philosophy with his classical training.
In many ways, Howe's execution of the Lescaze-influenced design seems a bit clumsy in its embrace of simple geometry (it's certainly not as confident as some of the other modern residences of the period, think of Richard Neutra's Lovell House, completed in 1929), but it does represent a critical turning point in American architecture. Managing to combine the classical and the modern in a singular structure, Howe's design utilized simple, geometric planes, clean lines, and banded windows on the exterior while the interior remained rooted in the traditional arrangement of space. Never truly embracing the sterility of the Machine Style, Square Shadows is an expression of material possibility, a version of Modernism tempered by Howe's more humanistic (and maybe American?) approach to contemporary living.
Today, Square Shadows stands as an important piece of transitional architecture, a symbol of the broader shifts in mainstream design theory during the first half of the twentieth century. Eager to incorporate the elements of the International Style, Howe designed the residence using a modern vocabulary within the traditional parameters of Beaux-Arts formality. One of the most significant structures associated with George Howe's turn to Modernism, the often-overlooked Square Shadows represents a distinctively American response to the changing tides of architecture.
Unfortunately, due to changes in ownership, Square Shadows has undergone a number of additions, and it stands today a much different building than the original one designed by Howe.
You can read more about George Howe here.
All photographs are part of the Historic American Buildings Survey, available here.
Historic American Buildings Survey. Square Shadows, 6024 Butler Pike, Whitemarsh, Montgomery County, PA. Documentation Compiled After 1933. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, pa2978.
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