The Romanesque Revival was a popular style among the wealthy. It provided the inspiration for the Samuel Cupples House in St. Louis, one of the finest examples.
The most important style of architecture in St. Louis is the least well-known. Although the Romanesque Revival style has produced some of the most stunning churches and mansions in the Gilded Age’s Gilded Age, its name is misleading. Despite the name containing the word Roman, it is not the Romanesque Revival style. No one from the ancient civilization has ever built anything in the original Romanesque. The Romanesque Revival is said to have brought back a long-dead period in European architecture. However, some of the most innovative creations were made during the rebirth of the past in the late 19th century.
In Europe, the original Romanesque style was created in the 11th century. It remained in fashion until the rise of the Gothic style in the 12th. The evolution of the Gothic style was slow and many churches that had been built in the Romanesque style were completed in it. Art historians view the Romanesque as an imperfect or inadequate style, whose structural problems were “fixed by the Gothic.” This is one of the worst aspects of art history.
The Romanesque was not perfect. It was born out of increased wealth and commerce during the late Medieval period in European history. Monasteries and cities gained in importance. They needed larger churches to handle the increasing number of people. Romanesque architecture attempted to duplicate the engineering feats and important structural elements of the ancient Roman world. Medieval architects didn’t have the same knowledge as their ancient Roman architects. Romanesque buildings are characterized by a hulking, massive appearance, rather than the soaring, weightless feel that classical engineering (especially Medieval Europe’s absence of Roman concrete) can create. Romanesque vaults had narrower windows and buildings on a smaller scale.
The fortunes of Romanesque architecture experienced a revival in the early 20th century due to the rise of nationalism in Europe and the Romantic Era. The style was no longer seen as inferior or backward, especially in Northern Europe. It was seen as German and harkening back at a period of political and cultural power during the reigns of the Hohenstaufen Holy Roman Empires like Frederick Barbarossa. The Gothic style was also seen as inferior and foreign as tensions grew between France and Prussia in northern Germany. German gender concepts also played a part: France was seen as weak and effeminate, so the Gothic was too. Germany was considered masculine and strong. The Romanesque was accordingly viewed. There are other nuances. The great German Gothic cathedral in Cologne, which was left unfinished for 500 years during the Teutonic period of nationalism, was finally completed.
German nationalism played an important role in St. Louis’s perception of their homeland. The Gateway City’s Romanesque was brought to it by a unique German import, the Rundbogenstil. This literally means “Round Arch Style.” It was a combination of many European styles, all of which used the Roman round arch. So elements from the Renaissance were also merged with northern European influences. The best examples of the Rundbogenstil can be found in the Anheuser-Busch breweries that Edmund von Jungenfeld designed. The tradition of mixing the Renaissance and Romanesque was continued by his successors at Widmann, Walsh and Boisselier. The Anheuser-Busch Brewery’s third brewhouse, which remains as part of the Research Pilot Brewery is . This brewhouse is an example of Rundbogenstil where architects adapt stylistic elements from the Romanesque to create modern building types.
The Romanesque Revival was certainly used for worship. However, interestingly, the Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Catholic churches preferred the Neoclassical style to the Gothic Revival. However, there were stunning examples built by Methodist, Congregational and Methodist denominations around St. Louis, especially in Midtown. The churches were often built in asymmetrical fashion to create a beautiful appearance. One tower was offset to the side. Technology has made it possible to create large spaces. Romanesque Revival churches often have enormous stained-glass windows that illuminate the nave.
Ernest J. Russell’s bequest, the famous architect who founded the firm of Mauran Russell and Garden, is a perfect example of the fate of the Romanesque Revival and how it fell out of favor. Russell left his Henry Potter House to the City of St. Louis in his will. It was to be used as a park by the City of St. Louis in 1960. Russell, an architect who had warned of the dangers of “ultramodernists”, made this bequest. Vandeventer Place’s other Richardson design would be demolished as well, leaving Grandel Square alone. The Romanesque Revival’s beauty would be lost on Americans for many more decades.