|Plaster eagle, Monticello|
A Federal Style
Perhaps no other single figure embodied the ideals and values of the new American Republic as that of Thomas Jefferson. A gentleman architect himself, Jefferson would lead the way in establishing a national style of civic architecture for the now federated states of the former British colonies. Jefferson held the works of Palladio in particular high esteem, seeing them as of direct lineage from the Roman Republic. Political connotations were thus to be embedded in Federal architecture. Likewise symbolic meaning was an important component in conveying values and plaster was an excelling medium of expression in architecture. For example, in 1782 the bald eagle was chosen as the preeminent emblem of the new republic. The eagle symbolized qualities such as long life and majesty; however, its ability to soar above conveyed the most treasured value of liberty. Jefferson's own commission of a modeled plaster eagle at Monticello in 1812 featured 18 plaster stars, coinciding with Louisiana's admission as the 18th state.
|"Justice", Old Supreme Court chamber|
One of the greatest civic spaces ever conceived and a national treasure is the Capitol Rotunda. The cupola was designed by architect Thomas U. Walker and completed in 1863. The crowning feature filling the oculus is the "Apotheosis of Washington" added in 1865. This enormous work, 65 feet in diameter, was realized in plaster, painted al fresco by Constantino Brumidi over the course of 11 months. The fresco quite literally represents the deification of George Washington. Ascending with him at either side are the Roman goddesses Victory and Liberty. In turn, he is surrounded by the Roman gods Minerva, Neptune, Mercury, Vulcan and Ceres symbolizing Science, Maritime Power, Commerce, Industry and Agriculture respectively. Of particular interest is the American goddess Columbia, the personification of both Freedom and War.
|Vulcan depicted as a symbol of Industry|
L'École des Beaux-Arts
|The Breakers, Newport RI|
Foreign architects were also active in the US. Beaux Arts trained French architect Ernest Sanson was engaged for two prominent American commissions: the Perry Belmont Mansion in DC and notably the Carolands Chateau south of San Fransisco. The Carolands is immense with an inner volume of over 1 million cubic feet. Both properties introduced to the US the French plaster tradition of Stuc Pierre, an integrated colored and aggregated gypsum lime plaster in emulation of limestone.
Well this concludes my series on Plaster History. Personally, it has been both educational and enjoyable to explore the richness of the trade and all of the beautiful works folks just like us have created. I look forward to writing upcoming articles concerning what is happening in the trade today in both education and practice.
Contributed by Patrick Webb