The Rchive no. 9—The Return of the Classical Roman Letter

The New York Life Insurance Company Building (1899; now the New York City Criminal Court Building) was designed by Stephen Hatch but completed by McKim, Mead & White after his death in 1894. The building’s address is affixed to the side in copper letters that have classical Roman overtones not normally found at that time. They are surely the work of McKim, Mead & White rather than Hatch, reflecting the firm’s interest in Beaux Arts architecture with its adoption of Greek and Roman stylistic vocabulary.

This budding classicism, as well as its flaws, can be seen in the R. The proportion, serifs and bowl all suggest the Imperial Roman capital but the sagging, curved leg—poorly positioned in relation to the weight of the bowl—is a feeble echo of William Morris’ Golden Type and Jenson Oldstyle, the pirated copy designed by J.W. Phinney and cut by John Cumming for the Dickinson Type Foundry in Boston. Despite its shortcomings (which include a left serif at the apex of A), the address lettering heralds a new interest in classical Roman capitals among architects that blossoms in the years after 1910.

R detail from 346 Broadway building, Manhattan, New York. Photographed 7 March 2013.

However, architects and craftsmen struggled with the classical form, often mixing it, consciously or not, with features typical of Victorian lettering. A prime example (and a late one) is the lettering on the directory in the lobby of the Bowery Savings Bank building (York & Sawyer, 1923). The E is clearly inspired by the Trajan inscription letters yet the R has a seriffed leg and a bowl that suggests it is part of a compass-made circle. Father Catich would be horrified.

Detail of lobby directory, Bowery Savings Bank, 110 East 42 Street, Manhattan, New York. Photograph 16 February 2013.