Benjamin Latrobe, the architect of the U.S. Capitol, provided America’s sole contributions to (neo-)classical architecture in his corn-cob and tobacco-leaf capitals (figures 1, 2 respectively). That’s the cliché, and so I used to think.
But there is no reason at all why classical orders should not be updated, and Latrobe’s incorporating of indigenous flora into the architecture of a new nation is but one example. We can look all the way back to the emperor Theodosius in the fifth century, C.E., for an attempt to jazz up the classical Corinthian order with ‘wind-blown’ capitals (figure 3).
Latrobe’s tobacco-leaf numbers are fairly staid updates of the ‘Tower of the Winds’ variant of the Corinthian order, and his earnest attempt to use corn cobs do not astound so much as provoke a wry smile and prompt the question “can he do that?” They put one in mind of Benjamin Franklin’s ill-starred attempt to make the turkey the American national bird.
But much as the bald eagle was an improvement in everything but taste over the turkey, so too are Latrobe’s capitals superseded by the noble and elegant, astonishing and astounding
OAK LEAF CAPITAL!
I’ve found two variants of this striking and important innovation in Northeastern Pennsylvania, one in the Warman mausoleum in Dunmore Cemetery in Scranton (figures 4, 5), and one in the Jones mausoleum in Hollenback Cemetery in Wilkes-Barre (figures 6, 7). The former seems on stylistic grounds to date to about 1900-1910; Jones died in 1924, which is a fair date for his mausoleum.
Two examples are too few to speak of a ‘cluster’ in Northeastern Pennsylvania, but it seems significant that, always admitting my fallibility and the limits of my autopsy, I’ve not come across examples in the two-hour radius that includes Woodlawn, Green-Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Kensico, Laurel Hill, and West Laurel Hill. Going a little further afield I’ve not spotted examples in the great Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Richmond area cemeteries. But if I cannot exhaustively state that there are no examples of oak-leaf capitals in those great cemeteries, I can state flatly that the oak leaf capital was not a ‘thing,’ so to speak, that got picked up in the best contemporary work where serious money was being spent and serious trends were being set. I’m eager to have a look further west and in Allentown.
The Warman mausoleum architect uses brownish-grey stone which works well with the lawn and trees of Dunmore. Rustic-faced work serves as a foil to set off the polished columns and their capitals (figure 5). See how they project from the main mass to hold up a little porch and catch the afternoon sun.
The Jones architect, by contrast, was working within a cramped plot immediately inside the formal gate to Hollenback with a steeply rising hill behind it (figure 6). The choice here was to create as impressive a backdrop as possible to the little entrance plaza. Rustic-faced work has accordingly been banished to the sides, rear, and foundation of the mausoleum, the façade featuring polished stone with the two columns nestled in antis forming a shallow porch. The architect relied on some geometrical articulations of the surfaces, such as column flutes, to enliven the façade. The stained glass window has since been lost, but it would once have helped relieve this otherwise fairly plain façade.
The architect who designed the Warman capital (figure 4) felt the pull of the arts and crafts movement and its fetish for oak. To be sure, oak leaf or branch decorations were quite common in contemporary funerary art, but it is another matter entirely to craft a new form of classical column out of them. See the nifty acorns added here and there, e.g., on diagonals emerging from the tallest leaves in the lowest ring and the wee little leaves springing out diagonally below those large, central leaves of the lowest ring. The leaves wrinkle, bend, and curl naturalistically. One wishes they had been cut into a more expressive medium than granite.
The architect of the Jones capital (cf. figures 8, 9) has gone a rather different way, and at first the oak leaves, while as dense as in the Warman example, seem rather chaotically massed (cf. figures 10, 11).
However, order emerges from the chaos when we realize that the Jones architect has generally massed the oak leaves to the form of a Corinthian capital (cf. figures 12, 13). This is in general agreement with the Jones architect’s preferences for conventional classical forms.
In any event, that’s now two examples of oak-leaf capitals in Northeastern Pennsylvania.