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Volume 33, Number 1January/February 1982

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The Egyptian Revival

Written and photographed by William Rockett

William Bullock, England's answer to P.T. Barnum, shared with the Shakers, Mormons and other American idealists of the early 19th century a vision of Utopias springing up across the new land. His would be "Hygeia," an Egyptian city that would rise upon the banks of the Ohio River as Aswan and Luxor blossomed upon the Nile thousands of years ago. Except for the shop and tearoom of a Mrs. Frances Trollope, erected in Cincinnati, across the Ohio from Hygeia's site, Bullock's dream went no further. Nevertheless, Trollope's "bizarre bazaar" has a small place in history. Designed by Seneca Palmer, it was one of the first of some 80 structures erected in America's first 75 years that have been designated "the Egyptian Revival."

Richard G. Carrott, professor of art history at the University of California at Riverside and author of The Egyptian Revival (University of California Press, 1978), got interested in the subject through two earlier outbreaks of Egyptomania in Europe. Wandering into the Church of St. Maurice in Vienne, France, Carrott was "struck by the magnificent pyramid monument by Michelange Slodtz," erected between 1740 and 1747. "Five minutes earlier," says Carrott, "I had noted the Roman pyramid in the nearby square," and the juxtaposition of two Egyptian revivals some 1,600 years apart prompted him to explore a little-known corner of the American Republic's early history: its own obsession with things Egyptian during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Like Europeans, most Americans today take for granted the Egyptian symbols and forms that are part of their own cultural and historical baggage. The Washington Monument is, after all, a classic obelisk as Egyptian in design - and even in purpose - as the "Cleopatra's needles" found in New York's Central Park, on the banks of the Thames in London or in Rome.

Then too, half the Great Seal of the Republic is decidedly Egyptian. Look at the back of a dollar bill: to the right is the familiar eagle gripping a banner reading: E Pluribus, Unum - "Out of Many, One." But on the other side? On the other side is a pyramid surmounted by a human eye, over the legend, Novus Ordo Sedorum (sic) - roughly, "The New Order of the Ages."

As they saw it, Americans were creating a new order, and that meant establishing a bit of instant credibility through association with an old one. "With a newly won national identity," says Carrott, "Americans sought to achieve an ancient past for their land."

In this, Americans weren't too different from the Romans who dreamed up Romulus and Remus, and a wolf to suckle them, as founders of the state, later improving upon that by crediting Aeneas with the job. Aeneas, the Roman story went, came from Troy - every bit as ancient and as refined a place as the Greek city states that Rome was busily conquering.

Some American myth-makers found their Aeneas among Egyptian seafarers, who, they suggested, visited the shores of America, and left colonies long before Columbus or the Vikings. Robert Cary Long Jr., for example, an expert on Mayan ruins, believed the builders of pyramidal temples in Central America journeyed there from Egypt before the time of Cheops and the Great Pyramids at Giza. North America, of course, could boast no such ruins, but early Americans claimed a similar heritage anyway. "After all," says Professor Herb Kraft of Seton Hall University's Archeological Research Center on the North American Indians, "there are still... strange mounds, many of them pyramidal in shape, that dot the landscape in states like Ohio."

In the 19th century, these mounds fascinated American journalists. The Washington Daily National Intelligencer even compared the 1819 expedition led by American explorer Stephen H. Long - which explored the unknown lands between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains - with the "French expedition into Egypt...."

"Although the Missouri is not embellished by such stupendous monuments of art as is the Nile, her Indian mounds afford matter for much interesting disquisition.." said the paper.

The French expedition referred to by The Intelligencer was the scholarly and scientific expedition that accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte's Egyptian campaign in 1798 - and produced the 20-volume Description de I'Egypte (see Aramco World, March-April 1976), as well as a book by Vivant Denon, a young army officer with an interest in Egyptology, who later became director of the Louvre.

Denon’s account which gave almost equal time to the ancient land's artistic achievements - was entitled Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte pendant les Campagnes du General Bonaparte. It appeared in Paris in 1802 and, just a year later, Arthur Aikin's English translation was published in New York. In it, Americans learned that, "Nothing is more simple and better put together than the few lines which compose this (Egyptian) architecture."

With that, and the publication of the first volume of Description - in 1809 - the Egyptian revival was triggered. Between them, Denon and Edme Francois Jomard, editor of Description, provided American architects with the models they required to resurrect Egypt in America. William Blake urged England to build the New Jerusalem; men like John Haviland would encourage America to recreate Karnak.

Mind you, William Bullock, though planning a new Egypt on the shores of the Ohio River, wasn't quite in the same category. Bullock was the owner-operator of The Egyptian Hall of Piccadilly in London, a showplace where Bullock, like Barnum in America, could thoroughly titillate the public for a small fee and call the experience educational. Where Barnum gave New Yorkers Tom Thumb and Gargantua, however, Bullock offered 32 stuffed sea lions and what the museum catalogue described as "an exquisite model in rice paste of the death of Voltaire" - as well as the inevitable "Egyptian mummy."

In search of new wonders for his Piccadilly emporium, Bullock, crossing to the New York in 1827, saw, and was taken with, Elmwood, a Palladian villa across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. As a result, he came up with the idea of "Hygeia" - a community taking its name from the Greek goddess of health - bought the villa, persuaded an architect to draw up plans for "Hygeia," wrote a book about his trip and returned to Cincinnati to await colonists.

Only one of any consequence came: Mrs. Frances Trollope, who arrived in 1828 with an extraordinary plan. She wanted to establish a bazaar where Cincinnati's 20,000 inhabitants might find what the city director called "every useful and useless article, in dress, in stationery, in light and ornamental household furniture, chinas and more pellucid porcelain, with every gew-gaw that can contribute to the splendor and attractiveness of the exhibition."

In addition, a saloon would provide ices and other refreshments which would lend their allurements to the fascinations of architectural novelty - i.e. Seneca Palmer's fantasia of Egypt and Arabia, muddled together in what must have seemed to the more sensitive the product of Arabian Nightmares.

This time it was Denon's account of the Temple of Edfu which gave an architect-Palmer - his lead, but the result was the same: what Professor Carrott calls "commercial picturesque," a vaguely Egyptian building in which Palmer mixed up lotus columns from Denon and arabesque windows to produce "Trollope's Folly," as it was later known.

Historian Clay Lancaster, in the now defunct Magazine of Art, says that Mrs. Trollope intended to "improve the taste of this commonsense population, who, she intended and fully expected, would ultimately look up to her with awe and admiration." But it was not to be. First the gas mains began to leak, so Mrs. Trollope had to resort to oil lamps for illumination. Then she contracted malaria, so she had to sell off, quickly, $10,000 worth of goods. She even tried staging plays, but nothing worked, so she returned to England, leaving the bazaar to be auctioned off. It became first the Ohio Mechanics' Institute, then later a "physico-medical institute," and was finally demolished in 1881.

That fate, in fact, was shared by many of the major Egyptian Revival buildings in America, from the New Bedford railroad depot in Massachusetts to the most famous structure of them all, the prison-court complex of New York City, called "The Tombs." An example of the Egyptian Revival monument, "The Tombs" was also what Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, described as the effort by "pious individuals" to ameliorate the condition of the American prisons.

In the first half of the 19th century, "reform" was a popular cause, and two systems were vying for acceptance: the "silent system," in use at Sing Sing in New York, and the "separate system" favored by the Quakers of Pennsylvania. Both were designed to afford each criminal time and privacy to dwell upon his sins, resolve to amend his life and prevent, as Carrott points out, "the contagion of criminal ideas between inmates...."

Both concepts, however, required new buildings - with room for the prisoners to dwell upon their faults - and architect John Haviland, who owned the second edition of Description, chose Egypt as his model when he undertook the design of a prison for the State of New Jersey. It was, he said, "the first specimen in America" of real Egyptian Revival architecture.

Like Americans who lived upon the banks of the Mississippi - "The American Nile," they called it - the 19th-century inhabitants of New Jersey were already intrigued with Egypt- as any map would show. New Egypt, N.J., for example, is a stone's throw from Trenton, and is but one of numerous names, such as Memphis, (Tenn.), Thebes, Karnak and Cairo (Ill.) which reflect this fascination.

This interest, however, also took odd shapes - as G. W. Smith's 1833 disquisition, A Defense of the System of Solitary Confinement, suggests:

The Egyptians were accustomed to bury alive in the dark, narrow and secluded cells of some of their vast and secure edifices, which at once served for prisons and for tombs, certain offenders against their laws. These unhappy victims, from the hour when they were immured, until the tedious period when death released them from their lingering misery, never beheld the light of day, never inhaled the fresh air of heaven, and never again beheld the face of man, or heard the consoling accents of his voice.

Although this seems a far cry from the hopes of the reform-minded Quakers - among whom Smith was numbered - it may shed light on the building of new prisons in the New World. As a recent report by Princeton's Heritage Foundation suggests, "One cannot help but wonder whether the inhumanity of the Egyptians was not somehow accepted and approved by the reformers as an image - an image which might assist the rehabilitation process inside the prison by literally scaring away potential criminals with an 'awesome' building." In any case, Haviland, presumably with his Description de I'Egypte in hand, promised the legislature he would "avoid useless ornament..." and drew the plans for the new prison: an imposing edifice of local sandstone which glowed pinkish-brown above the banks of the canal.

Save for the long, great wall and the corner towers that encircled the prison, little remains of the original today. Despite strong opposition from state and national historical trusts, a recent legislature demolished much of the old building to make way for the kind of pre-poured concrete pile that has become the wattle-and-daub of contemporary architecture. Gone are the winged disk over the main doorway, the hieroglyphed walls, the columns of sandstone taken from pictures of the Temple of Amenophis III on the Elephantine.

But it seems to have been a success. Haviland went on to build The Tombs for New York, and a courthouse and jail for Essex County in Newark; none has fared any better than the Trenton prison. The Tombs burned and the courthouse, a beautifully proportioned building that looks not at all out of place in the old photographs of horse-and-buggy Newark, has given way to a massive Greek-Revival temple.

Elsewhere, among the Egyptianized buildings still left, most are small in scale and two are decidedly quirky: the First Baptist Church of Essex, Connecticut, and the Whalers' Church of Sag Harbor, Long Island, both decidedly Protestant and conservative, yet clearly derived from Egyptian themes.

Dorothy Zaykowski, librarian of the Sag Harbor History Room of the town's public library and a member of the Presbyterian congregation, says the old Whalers' Church is part Egyptian but also contains motifs drawn from Corinthian and Chinese Pagoda. It even had, she said, "a Christopher Wren steeple that fell in the hurricane of 1938."

Both churches are in excellent condition, speaking well for the durability of Egyptian design - from granite and sandstone to lath and plaster is a remarkable evolutionary process - though the Essex church has also lost its steeple. Both buildings in fact resemble their Egyptian models more closely now than in former years.

But while these little congregations in Connecticut and Long Island welcomed churches with origins in ancient lands, some wild debates erupted in the 19th century over the application of Egyptian design to clearly the most logical purpose: the building of cemeteries.

The idea of the rural cemetery, like prison reform, was a novelty, brought about by hygiene as much as by esthetics - as medical men of the day encouraged alternatives to the cluttered foundations and churchyards of American cities. In addition, though, the cemeteries—like the cities of the dead across the Nile at Karnak -would provide the public with areas of green parkland.

The first great necropolis was Mount Auburn, established in 1831 under the joint auspices of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and Dr. Jacob Bigelow of Harvard University. It was Bigelow who designed the gateway and odges, taking as his models "some of the best examples in Dendera and Karnak."

One old Massachusetts family - the Endicotts - went even further; they chose the ancient "mastaba" - in Egypt a tomb with sloping sides - as the architectural basis for their family crypt, while Martin Milmore's beautifully sculpted memorial to the Civil War dead, and the Yankee colonel who led them into battle, is an imposing sphinx - strangely at home among the bare trees and white snows of New England.

The erection of clearly Egyptian cemetery gates spread as rapidly as the rural cemetery itself from New Orleans to Connecticut. Even urban churchyards were given an Egyptian flavor; in Boston Isaiah Rogers built a gate for the Old Granary Cemetery, burial site of the likes of Paul Revere and the Adams family. Rogers duplicated his gate of winged disk for the Touro Cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island, already home to an impressive family of Momma, Poppa and Baby Bear obelisks. At least 15 such gates were erected between 1830 and 1850 and C. W. Walter, an author, defended the practice in Mount Auburn. "The now mythologized doctrines of Egypt, seem to have been the original source of others more ennobling; and hieroglyphic discoveries have traced, and are tracing, them far beyond the era of the pyramids... to a pure, sacred and divine source... Egyptian symbols certainly present many sublime ideas...."

In the winged globe of Mount Auburn's gateway, Walter found "a most beautiful emblem of benign protection... We do not know of a more fitting emblem than this for the abode of the dead, which we may well suppose to be overshadowed with the protective wings of Him who is the great author of our being - the 'giver of life and death"'

Yet even Walter's enthusiastic defense was not enough to stem the destruction of the Egyptian Revival's greatest monuments as its force in architecture ebbed. The world was entering an age of new courage in the arts, an age which would demand of architects as well as artists that they eschew the past in favor of the present or - better still - an as-yet-undefined future. Frank Lloyd Wright and Saarinen in architecture, Joyce and Proust in prose, Picasso and Klee in painting put much of the past behind them in order to free their own imaginations.

Yet the Egyptian still survives in American and European contemporary architecture. One need go no further than Kevin Roche's pyramids for College Life Insurance headquarters in Indianapolis, or James Stirling's history building at Cambridge University. Architects like Leon Krier are calling for a return to "urban classicism," demanding that we not dump the past, but save and reconstruct "civilized society/'

As the Smithsonian Institution's Farouk El-Baz has pointed out, Egyptian buildings may have survived as long as they have because they actually imitate the sculpture of the wind and sand of the desert - they echo natural formations found throughout Egypt. Given the Egyptians' original source, it is little wonder that successive generations of builders - Greek, Roman, Renaissance Europeans, 19th-century Americans, 20th-century Internationalists - have met with great success in returning to the shapes and forms and symbols Walter called "pure, sacred and divine."

William Rockett is an instructor at Rutgers University, a reporter and a freelance writer. He specializes in art and architecture.

This article appeared on pages 12-19 of the January/February 1982 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1982 images.