In the early years of the 20th century, the skyscraper captured the American imagination in a way that went far beyond its utility as a modern office space.
In “Skyscraper Gothic,” a new exhibition at The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, the influence of the iconic buildings on fine art, decorative arts and even toys and games is explored through paintings, prints and other artifacts.
The exhibition is curated by Lisa Reilly, Commonwealth Professor of architectural history at the University of Virginia, and Kevin D. Murphy, Andrew W. Mellon chair in the humanities and professor and chair of the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Vanderbilt University. They teamed up to edit a new book, “Skyscraper Gothic: Medieval Style and Modernist Buildings.”
Exquisitely detailed architectural drawings of the Woolworth Building, built in 1913, from Cass Gilbert’s office offer a glimpse into the precision of an era before computer-aided design tools. Several of the rare drawings, which never have been exhibited before, include annotations of modifications in minute detail.
“They show how the project evolved from 1911 to 1913,” Murphy said. Reilly said that the drawings also offer rare documentation of the skyscraper’s terracotta ornaments.
The allure of the skyscraper captured imaginations far from New York, Chicago and Detroit in the first three decades of the 20th century. Murphy said communities across the country dove into the skyscraper aesthetic in their own environments to announce that they were up to date and moving along with the times.
The height and streamlined shapes of the buildings also influenced interior design elements and can be seen in cupboards, shelving, seating and other furnishings. A collection of toys, puzzles and Erector sets with skyscraper themes reflect a fascination with construction among younger audiences that hasn’t dimmed over the years.
Another section of “Skyscraper Gothic” salutes the construction workers and tradesmen who turned the architectural drawings into jaw-dropping structures.
Visitors can sit on a bench created from an I-beam to watch a loop of a 1930 film about the construction of the Empire State Building. The flickering images capture a moment between new technologies and old methods; construction workers toil without hard hats, at heights that can make viewers shudder.
The paintings, photographs and artifacts capture “a moment when worker was hero” and brings to mind larger social justice issues, including the impact of racial discrimination and a greater focus on workers’ rights, said Matthew McLendon, J. Sanford Miller Family director at the Fralin.
The Fralin reopened to the public Aug. 28 after closing its doors during the pandemic for safety’s sake and making use of the time to replace its roof and HVAC system and freshen its gallery walls with new paint.
The refreshed space also offers visitors a chance to view “Everyone a Curator: The Langhorne Collection of 18th-Century Prints,” “Delicate Trades: British Porcelain, Global Connections,” “Solitude,” “Structures” and “Focus On: Sally Mann and Pamela Pecchio.”
Creative contributions by UVa students can be seen throughout the exhibition — including the tall, lean skyscraper graphics on the stairway walls leading upstairs to “Skyscraper Gothic” and the elegant elevator wallpaper patterns reminiscent of graphics from the Chrysler Building — and in others on view.
“Delicate Trades” was curated by Elyse D. Gerstenecker, 2019-2020 Barringer-Lindner Fellow. Avenues of research inspired new insights, including a closer look at how the elegance of a sugar bowl in a porcelain tea set brings to mind the role of enslaved labor in the international sugar trade and the impact the industry had on the environment.
“We’ll look for ways to partner on projects like this in the future,” McLendon said.
“Solitude,” in a freshened, roomier gallery space, gave students who were working remotely during pandemic restrictions an opportunity to explore different interpretations of what solitude can mean. It brought together students from across disciplines, including architecture, art and museum intern programs.
“Focus On” makes enriching use of the space near the elevators to draw attention to a few of the more than 14,000 works in the museum’s permanent collection. Photographs by Mann and Pecchio offer different ways of perceiving the natural world.
“Structures,” which greets visitors as they enter the museum, invites viewers to consider different kinds of connections among physical and social structures and built environments.
“Everyone a Curator” dives into the importance of engravings, mezzotints and prints at a time before photographs became the customary way of viewing the world.
Also on display is Guy Carleton Wiggins’ “Lower Fifth Avenue at Night,” a 1920 oil on canvas from the collection of Heywood and Cynthia Fralin that reflects an early electrified New York nightscape. McLendon selected this painting to complement “Skyscraper Gothic,” and a new work from the collection will be chosen each semester by a staff member to help deepen engagement among students, faculty members and visitors who notice their own connections.
Visitors can see “Skyscraper Gothic” through Dec. 31. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays; and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.
The museum is closed on Mondays, as well as on New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Learn more at uvafralinartmuseum.virginia.edu.