A Medici palace on Main Avenue? Yes, indeed.
Recently, I showed a picture of the Newman Building, 801-813 Main Ave., in my series “Art as a Matter of Life and Death” at the Durango Arts Center. People seemed surprised.
In the presentation titled “Status and Power,” I added a sidebar on local architecture. Comparing the Newman Building to the Medici-Riccardi Palace in Florence seemed a stretch. There were skeptics in the audience.
But side-by-side photographs proved my point. From the massive, block-like general plan to the three-storied stone facade, the comparison holds up. The question of influence or inspiration seems obvious.
In both cases, the palace and the commercial building derive from Roman fortress design. Both are massive square structures with heavily rusticated stone at ground level, round Roman-arched openings above and a spectacular framing cornice at the top. Except for materials – Colorado sandstone and Italian limestone and marble – you’ve got a Medici Palace on Main.
Why? The answer lies in late-19th century American architecture and a fascination with eclectic styles. Victorian architecture, as it has come to be known, overflowed with revivals – Greek, Italian, French, Gothic, Moorish – and Romanesque.
In both art and architecture, the period after the Civil War experienced an outburst of imagination and construction. It is not a stretch to find Roman arches or a Mansard roof along Main Avenue. Why not a Renaissance palace-cum-office building at 801?
The Medici Palace was designed by Michelozzo Michelozzi for his patron Cosimo de Medici. The block-square Florentine structure was built between 1444 and 1449. The link between Florence, Italy and Durango, however, is the great American architect, Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886).
Richardson integrated the concepts and forms of 11th century Romanesque architecture into American building practice. As its name implies, the style derived inspiration from Roman architecture, particularly stone fortresses, hence the massive proportions and limited decoration.
Richardson Romanesque was a reaction to overly fanciful buildings made popular by the Gothic revival. Richardson-designed commercial buildings ignored filigree and emphasized structural solidity. He pitted weight and solemnity against frothy embellishment.
Victorian-age architecture was all about showing off, status and power. So it was fun to include local buildings as an extension of the architecture of status. From the Pyramids to the Roman Forum, from private palaces to the American skyscraper, we zoomed down to the corner of Eighth and Main.
One of my goals for the short, experimental course at DAC this winter was to bring traditions into the present. I have been writing for The Durango Herald for almost 20 years, and I an an adjunct professor at the college. So the DAC gambled we’d find enough people who wanted to learn more about art, architecture and Durango examples. It looks like the course will continue next fall with a fresh set of topics: “Art as a Matter of,” say ... play, protest, propaganda, decoration and maybe memory. Participants have been asked to submit topics or artists to study.
Meanwhile, let’s appreciate Durango’s architectural heritage. Check out the French Mansard silhouette at 975 Main Ave. or the former Burns Bank, now the Irish Embassy Pub at 900 Main Ave.
Rusticated stone never looked so good.