Romanesque Revival buildings of the late-nineteenth century repudiated the fussy neo-gothic twists and turns of Victorian architecture. Rounded arches set upon short columns, complicated roof lines and soaring towers conveyed to the public a sense of stability and strength that made the style attractive to civic groups and churches. In St. Louis, the most prominent Romanesque Revival building remaining is Union Station (1890), while H. H. Richardson's imposing Trinity Church (1872) in Boston's Copley Square typically tops any list of great buildings in America.
Romanesque Revival was rarely the choice for individuals, however. As imposing as a building's look was the financial cost of masonry construction. Such buildings also imposed a great burden for the interior where close attention to detail was required to minimize the foreboding effects of substantial construction. A typical Romanesque structure was more often a church or city hall rather than a private home.
Yet Romanesque was the style Samuel Cupples chose for his house on West Pine Boulevard, a house to be built upon the highest ground in the city of St. Louis. Purple sandstone from Colorado was laid upon the pink foundation granite of southern Missouri. Tiffany-styled windows bathed the interior of the home with beautiful light, light that played upon the rich woods expertly carved by craftsmen brought from England by Cupples.
Just as richly detailed was the exterior of the house. Expert stone masons chiseled an intriguing feast for the eye. Delicate vines twist along balconies while strange being -- mythical animals and dwarves -- hug the rainspouts and gutters. Rounded towers clad in copper and fantastical chimneys pierce the sky, shaping one of the most interesting roofs in the city of St. Louis.
Cupples' house was designed by Thomas Annan. Construction began in 1888 and the house was ready for the family by 1890. There are 42 rooms in Cupples House and 22 fireplaces. Entertainments and galas, though no dancing, were held in the formal rooms of the first floor while the second and third floors were reserved for the family. In 1904, a conservatory was added to the rear of the house.
Vintage photographs illustrated how the house was furnished when the family lived here from 1890 to 1919. Although typically described as a Victorian-era home because of its date of construction, the Cupples House's interiors in the family's days in the home reflect a variety of decorating styles and tastes. Family comfort served as the catalyst for a rather eclectic collection of furnishings. So, too, changing taste encouraged the purchase of art and furniture which did not necessarily coordinate with what was already in the home or what would be later added to the home.
The choices for the design of Cupples House lay with its chief financier and future resident, Samuel Cupples. Mr. Cupples admired most things English and took great delight in his Anglo-Irish heritage. A Celtic design motif can be seen throughout the house especially in the carved wood panels of the second floor reception room. He was also a great booster for the city of St. Louis and one finds fleur de lis ornamentation throughout his home as well.
But Cupples also found in his architect, Thomas B. Annan, a man quite familiar with the innovative trends of the era. Cupples sent Annan to England prior to the execution of his design for the Cupples residence and it seems likely that, while in England, Annan confirmed his interest in the English Arts and Crafts Movement especially as exemplified by the designs of William Morris.
Annan's proposal of a Romanesque Revival home for Cupples House offered a nearly perfect stage for showcasing the design philosophy of William Morris. Morris had taken control of English design in the late-19th century, resisting the neo-Gothic tastes of a previous generation. He "wished 'to revive a sense of beauty in home life, to restore the dignity of art to the ordinary household decoration.'" Morris drew inspiration from the medieval world of church and manor and promoted the use of natural materials. In the architecture of that time, he saw in the rounded arches and stone work the hallmarks of a simple, practical world. "In keeping with his idealization of the medieval period, he advocated simple, uncluttered interiors in contrast to the elaborate decoration then typical of most Victorian homes."
There was complexity in the Middle Ages, of course. In the illuminated texts of that age, Morris saw intricate detail executed that featured "organic forms," twining foliage and geometric forms. He studied the patterns of medieval textiles and elaborated them in famous designs for wall papers. Over and again, he took "his abiding interest in making use of the past as inspiration for the present." *
* Quotes in the preceding paragraph taken from:
The Beauty of Life: William Morris & the Art of Design
The Romanesque design of a home like that of Samuel Cupples easily accommodated stained glass, medieval-inspired furniture, and the tapestry-inspired images that Morris promoted. Furniture original to the Cupples House mirrors arts and crafts themes as do the stained glass windows of the minstrel's gallery. Decorative inspiration from nature informs the house's exterior ornamentation of intertwining leaves and vines as well as the extensive woodcarving of the interior. A floral motif dominated the original wallpapers that one sees in the vintage photographs displayed in Cupples House today. Indeed, every room but the grand hall and the staff rooms at Cupples House were papered.
It also seems reasonable to suppose that both Annan and Cupples had drawn inspiration from another Englishman as well. In 1882, Oscar Wilde, author and raconteur, had delivered a series of very well-received lectures on aesthetics in the United States. He had planned to tour the United States for four months but instead stayed nearly a year. Among Wilde's stops was St. Louis, Missouri, where he delivered his remarks to a standing room only audience gathered at the Mercantile Library. Wilde's appearances garnered impressive coverage in local as well as national newspapers. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch described his visit as "the event of the season, the signal for an outpouring of fashionable people." A brilliant wit and an engaging speaker, Wilde and his views concerning art and the cultivated life made a huge impression in America although America did not make much of an impression upon Wilde. Upon his departure from the States, Wilde observed, "When good Americans die, they go to Paris; when bad Americans die they go to America."
However, Cupples and Annan came to know the aesthetics of English design, we do know that Cupples sent Annan to Great Britain prior to the construction of the West Pine mansion. While there Annan engaged English wood- and stone carvers to work in St. Louis and they did so from 1888 to 1890. The names of these craftsmen are lost to us but the legacy of their skill confronts the visitor from the first moment one sets an eye upon both the Cupples House exterior and interior. Throughout the house, only the finest woods were used. The floors are English quartersawn oak, a material little used today but one of the hallmarks of the Arts and Crafts period style. The log is cut in such a way as to eliminate knots and is an incredibly wasteful process because it wastes at least 3/4 of the tree. Therefore, quartersawn oak is virtually impossible to use anymore because of the cost. Once inside the doors of Mr. Cupples' house, a visitor encounters an American interpretation of William Morris' idealized medieval vision and Oscar Wilde's aesthetic sense.
It is this vision that one finds still today. The decorative detail of the interior and exterior of Cupples House fixes the house to its time while also permitting Saint Louis University to use the Cupples House as a gallery space for fine art, furniture and American glass. This is an unintended legacy of the Romanesque Revival exterior and the Arts and Crafts interior of Cupples House. The strength of its design elements permit the inclusion and display of artifacts without subverting the integrity and beauty of the residence.
In 1973, Father Maurice McNamee, S.J., took on the task of restoring the house to its original appearance. A century of coal dust and city grime were removed, once again revealing the rich colors of the stone exterior. Years of paint were removed revealing original wall papers. Surprisingly, none of the woodwork of the house had been painted over the years. Saint Louis University benefactors from around the nation donated period furnishings. The effect of such dedicated labor and support resulted in the placement of the Samuel Cupples House on the National Historic Register in 1976.
The Samuel Cupples House serves also as a gallery for Saint Louis University. Priceless art, including oil paintings brought to the St. Louis frontier by Father Peter De Smet, S.J., adorn the walls of the house. American decorative art, particularly Steuben and Tiffany glass, is featured at Cupples House.
Through the decades from private home to university museum, the Samuel Cupples House continues into its second century as a stunning example of the dynamism of the American experience!
Old House Journal - For more information on the Romanesque Revival in the Gilded Age, featuring Historic Samuel Cupples House.