Skyscraper Gothic | February–May 2022

Curated by Kevin Murphy
Andrew W. Mellon Chair in the Humanities
Professor and Chair of the Dept. of History of Art and Architecture

Skyscraper Gothic presents an interdisciplinary interpretation of an important—but overlooked—phase in the stylistic development of the tall office building. Among the most beloved examples of American architecture, skyscrapers such as the Woolworth (1913), Chicago Tribune (1925), Radiator (1924) and Empire State (1931) buildings sparked a wave of objects and images that exploited their forms to announce the advent of a modern American style in the early twentieth century.

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However, modernist critics looked askance at those skyscrapers that adopted the vocabulary of medieval architecture, the most prominent of them being the Woolworth Building (Cass Gilbert, architect) and the Chicago Tribune Building (Howells and Hood, architects). The use of historicist ornament on steel frame buildings was considered out of step with modernism, and yet the work of medieval masons and modern engineers was believed to be conceptually linked. After Gothic skyscrapers were built in number in the 1920s and 1930s in New York, Chicago, and Detroit, the style was used in smaller American cities—such as Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Winston-Salem, and Asheville—in order to advertise themselves as modern. Skyscraper Gothic explores how these buildings, sometimes dismissed for their Gothic or Art Deco elements, were originally embraced as emblems of modern American life.

Through numerous objects from the Fine Arts Gallery—including original drawings by architect Cass Gilbert of the Woolworth building, conserved for this occasion—this exhibition will trace the development and pervasiveness of skyscraper Gothic in architectural design on writers, painters, printmakers, designers, filmmakers, and more. Organized in four sections—introduction, construction, buildings, and replication—the exhibition will contain prints, drawings, photographs, paintings, sculptures, furniture, textiles, toys, models, illustrations, and examples of decorative arts.

 

In August 2021, The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia will open an expanded presentation of Skyscraper Gothic. The exhibition will complement new scholarship put forth in the book by the same name edited by Professors Reilly and Murphy and published by the University of Virginia Press.

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