My friend and 2019 Bulfinch Award laureate Eric Daum recently revealed in a comment to my blog post “Cranston’s Hall Free Library” that this public library, built in 1927, must have been inspired by architect Albert Kahn’s William Clements Library, at the University of Michigan, built in 1923. They are almost identical. The word inspired is perfectly suitable, whether the two buildings are the exactly the same or merely similar. A crank who knows little of architecture might say, however – and quite understandably – that one architect copied the other’s work.
“Copied the past” is a slur that modernists often use to denigrate the creativity of new traditional architecture whether it actually resembles a particular old building or not. Since the past in this case reached entirely four years back into history, the proper word is inspired. Or used as a precedent. Or maybe, instead of one seeing the other’s design in an architectural journal, such as Pencil Points, both architects might have imagined their libraries independently.
That might be the case because each building is a fundamental trope of classical design that might have inhabited the mind of each architect. Both might have been channeling the same internal meme four years apart.
Classical architects of whatever age have never been troubled, as modernist architects are, by the practice of applying previously used architectural forms in their work. But no such “copy” is ever exact, whether the inexactitude is experimentation, a reflection of utilitarian needs, or error.
Note the triple arches of each library’s entrance. The Clements library’s arches seem narrower than those of the Hall Library. The side windows are different, too, the former pedimental and the latter stripped classical – more likely in 1927 than in 1923, since the modernist challenge that gave rise to stripped classical arose, or at least grew more insistent, during the elapsed four years. The reverse might be said, however, of the roofs’ cornices – that of the Hall Library features very classical dentils (the “teeth” below the cornice) and that of the Clements Library seems more stripped, with a more subdued personality. Close examination of the entrance pavilions reveals other variations, but those are the main ones.
(William Henry Hall, founder of the Cranston library, is apparently no relation to its architect, George Frederick Hall. The Clements Library’s architect, Albert Kahn – who is not to be confused with the celebrated modernist Louis Kahn – also designed the Providence Journal building on Fountain Street, which no longer belongs to the newspaper, which now occupies rented space on the second floor.)
Both libraries are extraordinarily beautiful, possibly because both designs arise from a sort of Platonic ideal of perfect classicism. Those classicists of the past and present who insist upon following the classical orders to a tee are often looked down upon by their colleagues who consider the orders as a launching pad for innovation. The result is more likely to be a little bit off than that of their more orthodox brethren. Often but not always, of course.
Either way, both libraries are beautifully inspired. That is enough.