Pillar to post at the Hall

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Capital of column inside Cranston’s William Hall Free Library. (photo by author)

Looking over two photographs of columns at the William Hall Free Library, in Cranston, R.I., where I will be speaking at 3 p.m. tomorrow (Saturday), I noticed that each has the same style of column capital, but there are notable differences in their personalities. The apparently happier interior columns, pictured above, have Corinthian capitals while the more subdued exterior columns, pictured below, have Ionic capitals.

Really? Well, perhaps.

Frankly, I can’t figure out what kind of capitals these are. The interior capitals seem more Corinthian because their acanthus leaves are not as subsidiary to their volutes – the features that look like scrolls – as in the true Ionic. On the capitals of the exterior, the volutes are more dominant, but not as dominant or as large as is customary in an Ionic capital. And there are no little baby volutes at play among the acanthus. The whole matter is further obscured by the existence of a style called Composite – a mixture of Ionic and Corinthian – and these may actually be Composites of differing emphasis.

The architect, George Frederick Hall (no relation to William Hall, the library’s namesake), is not with us to clear up the confusion.

Note, too, that both the interior and exterior columns are smooth, without the long vertical indentations known as fluting, supposedly characteristic of the Ionic, Corinthian and Composite orders. Only the Tuscan and Doric of the main five orders are without fluting, and neither the interior nor the exterior capitals of the Hall Free Library are Tuscan or Doric.

The more reserved of the two capitals is the exterior version upholding the portico of the library. On the exterior, which is pictured below, there are no minor volutes (the scroll-like features) between the major volutes at each “corner” of the capital. I put corner in quotes because these columns are round and round doesn’t do corners, does it? Furthermore, the acanthus leaves outside are more orderly. On the interior, they are more relaxed. The exterior capitals seem to reflect a desire to stand up straight with no silly business, whereas the interior capitals seem to do a better job of reflecting the fact that they are in a library, where people still get to enjoy books.

Maybe at night the interior columns get down and cavort among the books. The exterior columns can’t really do that, so they seem to be pouting behind their cloak of superior dignity. On the other hand, is it possible to detect a hint of Art Deco in the composition? Perhaps at night these columns hop down on the lawn to Jitterbug. After all, the library was completed in 1927, at the height of the Roaring ’20s, the Jazz Age. Well, just a thought.

So it seems that there is a lot of disobedience (civil, of course) in the classical orders. Under these conditions, it would be interesting to hear an expert in classical architecture describe the difference between error and invention in the orders. Don’t ask me! My claim to expertise is highly dubious, but if you show up at the Hall tomorrow and ask, I will try my best to answer.

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Capital of column outside the Hall Free Library. (photo by author)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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4 Responses to Pillar to post at the Hall

  1. Eric Daum says:

    David, In looking through my copy of Normand’s Parallel of the Orders, the exterior capitals bear a passing resemblance to the Corinthian Capitals to those at the Choragic Monument to Lysicrates in Athens, though to my eye they appear to have a later Italian Renaissance flavor. I feel like I have seen their precedent somewhere, but I cannot recall it immediately. Someone with better knowledge than I will surely chime in. I think you will find in reviewing images of Corinthian variants, that all include a small quartet of volutes. Unfluted Corinthian columns are not uncommon and the Doric order is in fact often fluted. I think you will find that the Tuscan is the only order, without fluting as it is described by Vitruvius as suitable for only stables and barracks.

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    • Eric, I’m sure both you and Steve are correct. I feel like a chump trying to leap into some sort of analysis of order, column and capital styles. It’s like leaping into Jane Austen and mucking around the text with a Derrida attitude. Still, it is fun.

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  2. steve bass says:

    David –
    The interior caps are orthodox Corinthian while the exterior are a variant of Corinthian – perhaps someone with greater knowledge of historical precedents than mine can make the specific reference. And yes, there is much variance within the Orders – something detractors of the classical often fail to understand. But there is no fine line between invention and error – only knowledge and experience.

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    • Thanks very much, Steve. I’m not sure that brings total clarity to the issue, but I appreciate your thoughts. I’m still baffled by the inclusion of both volutes and acanthus leaves in both exterior and interior capitals. Why would they both not be Composite capitals? I suppose all capital decoration includes some variant of acanthus leaves, but I thought volutes were a creature of the Ionic, and the Composite when so combined. But the more I looked at pictures of Corinthian capitals, the more I saw volutes there, too. Color me confused!

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