In the early 20th century, age-old traditions of art and architecture, as with those of dress and social behavior, fell victim to the changes wrought by industrialization and modern war.
Buildings constructed between the world wars reflect those changes. Two popular styles of the time, known as Art Deco and Art Moderne, or simply Deco and Moderne, can be as sharp and sophisticated as a 1930s movie heroine, the kind who balances a cigarette and a martini while trading machine-gun-rapid banter with the hero. They're as different from the history-laden buildings of the previous century as the movie heroine was from her sentimental Victorian foremothers.
The name "Art Deco" comes from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts), held in Paris in 1925. The exposition was a shout of relief after the hardships of World War I, a statement that Europe was ready once again to have some fun. One way it did this was with a new style of architecture and decoration based on simplified forms and a break with traditional ornament, preferring stylized patterns that were usually hard-edged and shallowly carved.
Favorite motifs included chevrons, stylized flowers and animals, and zigzag sunrays or waterfalls. Aside from the ornament, Art Deco surfaces were usually smooth, often glossy, and set off subtle decoration, and exotic materials showed off the return to prosperity.
One of Hartford's best Art Deco buildings is the crisp and smart Polish National Home (1930, Henry F. Ludorf, architect). Nearly a cube, its flat walls step back in sections like a New York skyscraper, but the setbacks are very shallow, merely an exercise in shadow lines. Octagonal windows call to mind the portholes of a steamship, and the color scheme of buff brick and cream-colored terra cotta help the building stand out from its gloomy red-brick and brownstone neighbors. On the main facade, carved panels between the windows depicting flowers and leaves so stylized that they look like gears in a machine are highlighted in blue, yellow and green.
Art Moderne came a bit later, after the Depression took the edge off Deco extravagance. It generally relies more on overall form and less on ornament, but the difference can be subtle, and you'll often find a single building labeled as Deco in one source and Moderne in another.
Moderne buildings typically have strong horizontal lines, both in their massing and in bands of ornament or long, ribbon-like windows that reinforce that overall shape. Corners are frequently rounded off to emphasize the horizontal movement by carrying it smoothly around the building. Glass block is a favorite material, and sometimes there is a suggestion of nautical or aerodynamic styling. In fact, the style is sometimes called "Streamlined Moderne." The old Comet Diner on Farmington Avenue in Hartford (1948) exhibits the glass block, shiny steel and flowing lines that continued to be popular even after World War II.
A third style common between the wars, usually called "Stripped Classicism," is a pared-down version of classical architecture that was especially popular for governmental buildings - more ornamental than Moderne but less than Deco, and the inspiration is historical. See the Federal Building on High Street (1931-1932, Adams, Malmfeldt & Prentice, architects). The central section has a row of windows recessed between square piers that suggest classical pilasters, though their capitals and bases have been reduced to almost nothing.
Above the piers, a flat wall replaces the classical cornice, and giant aluminum eagles perch at the corners of the roof, looking like oversized hood ornaments.
The entrances are at either end of the building, recessed behind stylized columns. The roof at the end sections is lined with a shallow cornice topped with a ruffled molding inspired by classical motifs but carved in a hard-edged manner that is clearly akin to the cog-like flowers of the Polish Home.
Despite their stylistic differences, these three buildings have many basic traits in common: smooth surfaces, shallow carving, stylized and streamlined forms, and rich, glossy materials. Many of these traits can also be found in more overtly traditional buildings of the time - for instance, Colonial Revival buildings of the '20s and '30s tend to be simpler and flatter than earlier versions of that style.
At the other end of the architectural spectrum, European Modernists, who were developing their own revolutionary architecture of pure function and pure geometry, also tended to choose the same light colors, simple shapes with horizontal emphasis, and smooth surfaces.
The 1930s were a time of architectural ferment and diatribe. Traditionalists refused to recognize nontraditional buildings as architecture. They and the Deco/Moderne practitioners alike sneered at the barren designs of the European Modernists, and the Modernists saw them as either hidebound reactionaries or pseudo-modern pretenders - all beneath contempt.
But this set of underlying aesthetic preferences suggests that they all had some common ideas about what architecture in their age should look like, and this gives their buildings a unity that other ages could only achieve by employing a single style.
Christopher Wigren is deputy director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation in Hamden.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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