Alan Lessoff, Christof Mauch, eds. Adolf Cluss, Architect: From Germany to America. New York: Berghahn Books, 2005. 180 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-84545-052-6.
Reviewed by Eric Anderson (Department of Art History and Archeology, Columbia University)
Published on H-German (June, 2006)
German Ideas and American Buildings
Adolf Cluss (1825-1905) was many things: 1848 revolutionary, disciple of Marx, immigrant and architect of numerous prominent buildings in Washington, D.C. His life offers an intriguing case study on several fronts. The present book, the first comprehensive study of Cluss's life, engages with political, social and architectural history, both German and American. It is the culmination of a collaborative research project begun in 1996 by the German Historical Institute and the Smithsonian in Washington, Cluss's adopted American home, and the Stadtarchiv in Heilbronn, his German birthplace. It accompanies exhibitions held in both cities, as well as a website, www.adolf-cluss.org , where texts and images can currently be viewed. The nine essays collected within chiefly deal with local history and individual biography. They contribute to the histories of Heilbronn and Washington, while sketching out the life of a previously obscure yet historically significant figure. The book presents a cogent and often engaging narrative, much careful research into a wealth of archival sources and excellent illustrations of a number of important but no longer extant Washington buildings. It introduces a new and compelling face on scholarship into a period of American architectural history that is often neglected precisely for its lack of prolific individual designers. The book, however, takes limited advantage of this newfound source to suggest larger historical patterns. In particular, Cluss's life offers an opportunity for close study of the influence of German politics and architecture in America. Disappointingly, the book stops short of drawing ambitious conclusions about these relationships.
The book is divided into two sections, the first on Cluss's youthful political activity in Germany and the second on his mature architectural work in the United States. Cluss was born in 1825 into a family of successful builders in Heilbronn, a small city on the Neckar River north of Stuttgart. Largely Protestant, politically independent and a prosperous regional center of industry and trade, the city was marked by "a pronounced intellectual openness" (p. 27). Gymnastics and choral clubs, which served as outlets for illicit discussion of liberal politics throughout Germany, were especially popular in Heilbronn. In 1846, the city hosted one of the period's largest gymnastics festivals, at which Cluss was both an organizer and participant. Thus, as Christhard Schrenk and Peter Wanner suggest in the volume's opening essay, the Heilbronn of Cluss's youth was in many ways a microcosm of progressive Vormärz Germany and the womb in which his political inclinations took shape.
The next essay, by Sabine Freitag, outlines Cluss's entry into progressive politics leading up to 1848. After receiving training at a local polytechnic, Cluss moved to Mainz to work as a journeyman draftsman on a new railroad. Regular contact with laborers, along with exposure to communist thought, attracted Cluss to the cause of workers' education. He traveled to Brussels to meet Marx and other political exiles and quickly positioned himself in the thick of radical leftist activity. Still barely into his twenties, he became a leader in the local chapter of the Deutscher Arbeiterverein and began publishing regularly in the progressive journal Der Demokrat.
Frustrated by the ineffectiveness of the Frankfurt Assembly (in which he participated as a representative from Mainz) and eager to build on his precocious political success, Cluss left Germany late in 1848 in the hope that the United States would offer a better climate in which to build a workers' movement. Cluss settled in Washington and spent the next several years there cultivating a network of expatriate German communists. He founded a gymnastics club for workers, contributed money and essays to the nascent New York-based German newspapers Die Revolution and Die Reform and wrote regularly to Marx, who now saw him as "one of our best and most talented men" (p. 8). An essay by Sabina Dugan provides a detailed chronicle of their collaboration and correspondence, as well as some insight into the politics of the German-led communist movement in 1850s America.
These initial essays reveal a powerful political intuition that brought Cluss into contact with influential figures while allowing him to avoid persecution for his radical ideas. They suggest an illustrious political career in the making. At this point, however, the book's narrative shifts to Cluss's social assimilation in the United States and the development of his career as an architect. Just as quickly as he had risen in the ranks of the German communist movement, Cluss established a successful professional career that seems to have lessened his earlier political ambitions. Instead he became a civic leader, first in the smaller world of Washington's German immigrants and then in the larger community. An essay by Kathleen Neils Conzen positions Cluss's trajectory of assimilation within the larger context of the German-American social experience after the Civil War.
Cluss began practicing architecture in 1862 in partnership with fellow immigrant Joseph von Kammerhueber. Although he seems to have had no formal training as a designer, Cluss drew on his technical knowledge as an engineer and surveyor, and apparently on self-directed study of German prototypes, to produce competent and attractive buildings even from his earliest commissions. This work was the start of a long, prolific and often innovative career. Richard Longstreth's essay on Washington architecture argues that Cluss was a "pioneer" in several ways. He began practicing at a time when major commissions went to architects from New York and elsewhere because there was no established architectural profession in the city. Stylistically, he incorporated the popular Second Empire Baroque but diverged from its often ostentatious and somewhat fussy character. His buildings were distinguished instead primarily by a restrained mix of Romanesque and Renaissance historical elements that echoed the contemporary German Rundbogenstil. To this formula he occasionally added stylized geometric motifs that reflected an English Victorian decorative sensibility and experimented with technologically innovative features such as exposed iron shed roofs. His buildings, typically of red brick, often have a pragmatic austerity that suggests his training as an engineer.
The book's overarching theme is the relationship between the German and American phases of Cluss's career. Several essays hint at the extent to which politics influenced his architecture by describing the socially progressive aspects of his buildings. Although he designed several monumental federal buildings, the bulk of his resume was filled with architecture and public works projects that were intended to serve a broad cross-section of the community and to improve daily life. His ten public school buildings, including schools for African Americans and for girls, were celebrated as among the best in the country. An essay by Tanya Edwards Beauchamp details his school architecture and the progressive educational initiatives it was designed to serve. His market halls, described in an essay by Helen Tangires, were the foundation of a city market system that rivaled its counterparts in European capitals. Finally, while serving as Washington's chief engineer during the early 1870s, Cluss oversaw the construction of sewers, roads and green spaces. These public works projects, analyzed in an essay by Alan Lessoff, amounted to an urban modernization as transformative as Vienna's Ringstrasse or Hausmann's work in Paris.
Although there is much of interest here regarding the social history of Washington buildings, readers concerned with historicism in Europe and its influence in America will regret the limited discussion of the connection between Cluss and German architecture. Several essays, particularly Cynthia Field's analysis of Cluss's grandest work, the National Museum Building (1879-81), indicate Cluss's familiarity with the most influential German architectural theorist of the nineteenth century, Gottfried Semper. Unfortunately, Semper is treated too cursorily to offer much concrete insight into the content of his theories or what they might have meant to Cluss. Still, the parallel between Cluss and Semper is a compelling one. Semper too developed strong liberal convictions in the 1840s. He played an active part in the 1848 uprising in Dresden and spent the 1850s in exile in London and Zurich, slowly reestablishing his architectural practice and assembling his grand theoretical treatise, Der Stil in den technishen und tektonischen Künsten (1860-63). The relationship between architecture and liberalism in Semper's work is an excellent reference point for an analysis of Cluss and might well have been pursued further.
More importantly, Cluss's architecture should be understood against the background of the German Rundbogenstil, which, disappointingly, is acknowledged here in only the briefest terms. First conceptualized by Heinrich Hübsch in his 1828 book In welchem Style sollen wir bauen?, the Rundbogenstil reflected not only a preference for the round-arched forms of Romanesque and Renaissance architecture but also a progressive theory of history and a call for architecture to seek a firm foundation in practical concerns such as materials, construction, climate and program. Hübsch questioned the doctrine current among leading German architects, including his teacher Friedrich Weinbrenner, that the supremacy of Greco-Roman classicism was a universal architectural truth. He insisted that although new architecture should draw on the past, the cultural and material conditions of modern German society were distinct from those of other times and places. The practice of architecture was a process of incorporating and improving upon past styles in ways appropriate to the unique demands of the present. Based thus on the notion that history is a process of synthesis and advancement, Hübsch's Rundbogenstil had definite Hegelian undertones that would have appealed to the Marxist Cluss. Furthermore, by the 1840s, the Rundbogenstil was the dominant stylistic current in much of Germany and was particularly prevalent in the region where Cluss lived and worked. Hübsch taught and designed just down the road in Karlsruhe and Mainz was home to one of Germany's greatest Romanesque cathedrals.
In mid-nineteenth-century America, Cluss was by no means the only architect to look to Germany and the Rundbogenstil for inspiration. Recent research has revealed the impressive extent to which American architects, including a number of German immigrants, informed their work with German ideas and forms. The Rundbogenstil attracted American architects with its emphasis on utility and suitability to modern social needs. It was especially popular in the United States during the 1860s and 1870s, when many architects employed it, as Cluss did, for new building types such as public schools, warehouses and railroad stations.
Perhaps partly to blame for the lack of in-depth exploration of the relationships between Cluss's American buildings and his German ideas is the structure of this book, which splits too cleanly between politics and architecture, Germany and America. An additional essay in the first part of the book on architecture in Vormärz Germany would have been especially useful in suggesting Cluss's influences and setting up a richer comparison. By the same token, an essay in the second part of the book on the relationship between German liberalism and the progressive politics of the newly founded Republican party, in which Cluss was active in Washington, might have shed light on the continuing importance of Cluss's early political ideals. Yet in the final assessment, this is a well-researched and compellingly presented portrait of a rich, untapped subject. The book opens up fertile territory for further study, especially for historians of nineteenth-century American architecture and for those concerned with the role of German immigrants in nineteenth-century American culture.
. Kathleen Curran, The Romanesque Revival (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003).
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Eric Anderson. Review of Lessoff, Alan; Mauch, Christof, eds., Adolf Cluss, Architect: From Germany to America.
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Copyright © 2006 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.