Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Pure | Modern | New | 1916 | Sioux City, Iowa

An illustration of a preliminary watercolor sketch, c 1910s, depicting the west facade of the Woodbury County Court House in Sioux City, Iowa. This sketch, drawn and painted, by William Gray Purcell seems to indicate cubist crystalline forms. Minnesota Libraries, Manuscripts Division, Northwest Architectural Archives [William Gray Purcell Job Files]

Woodbury County Court House
William L. Steele, architect
Purcell and Elmslie, associated architects
Sioux City, Iowa 1915/1916
Photographs by Versluis, © 2010, all rights reserved

Some of Prairie School architecture’s greatest accomplishments are found in the state of Iowa. Places such as Mason City, Grinnell, Algona, Cedar Rapids, and Sioux City all have very fine examples of the “Prairie Style” idiom. The largest Prairie School style public building ever built is the Woodbury County Court House in Sioux City, Iowa. The building is considered, by many, to be in the top one hundred buildings in the United States. Fundamentally, early twentieth century Prairie School design principles integrated art, craft, and technology into a relatively simple but noble geometric form.

According to Paul Goldberger, the Architecture Critic for The New Yorker, the early American architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe once said, “Simplicity is the highest achievement in art.” Latrobe also suggested that a graceful geometric style and simplicity resonates as democratic architecture because it is a form that’s more accessible to the public.

The “Sullivanesque” style bronze, tile and terra-cotta ornamentation on the Woodbury County Court House is mosaic and richly diverse. Writer Bill Menner mentions, in his book about Grinnell Iowa’s Merchants National Bank, that the magnificent terra-cotta ornament on the Court House was the work of Kristian Schneider who worked for the American Terra Cotta & Ceramic Company outside Chicago. Prairie School terracotta designs were usually intended for decoration and moved in the direction of abstraction and stylized floral patterns and rhythms. In addition, the architectonic tiles delineated linear geometries and were used to transition and harmonize corresponding masonry planes. However, the friezes and sculpture, designed by Alfonso Iannelli, are symbolic and publicly reinforce classic American icons with avant-garde geometric forms. The typographic inscription on the building reads: JUSTICE AND PEACE HAVE MET TOGETHER TRUTH HATH SPRUNG OUT OF THE EARTH.

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