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The American Renaissance In Southampton Village

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

This summer we were lucky to have a great young intern join us for a few weeks. Milo Youngerman graduated from Bridgehampton High School in 2018 and is currently enrolled at Kenyon College in Ohio majoring in Philosophy and American Studies. While not exactly looking for a career in the museum filed, he greatly enjoys them and has a keen interest in architecture. So for his main project to work on this summer Milo got to know Samuel Parrish as best he could and spent a lot of time thinking about the architecture throughout Southampton Village. Below are Milo's thoughts and ideas about said architecture and how it links the past with the present.


The American Renaissance In Southampton Village

What now exist as small-scale landmarks of the Southampton village, buildings operating as the Village Hall, Southampton Arts Center, and Chase Bank, were once seen by some as important developments in shaping the village towards the direction of European inspired American Renaissance. In the early 20th century, elite patrons of the arts shared a taste in the renaissance inspired designs rooted in the prestigious forms of academic architecture taught within the École des Beaux-Arts and it’s adjacent institutions in France. The style incorporated elements of renaissance, gothic, and neoclassical designs. However, when the school and its famous classical exports waned in popularity by the end of the 19th century in Europe, its well-trained aesthetics found popular appreciation in the industrial and rapidly developing United States.

Grand Central Terminal In NYC has become An internationally famous example of the Beaux-Arts style

Shingle style - Beginning in the 1880’s, defined by shingles, classical columns, and asymmetrical forms

The American Renaissance, a style informed by the first generation of American architects to study at Beaux-Arts, became a widely desired style for government, commercial, and residential buildings alike. By appearing as cultured beyond the states, and professionally educated in a way that wasn’t nearly as developed domestically, American architects trained in the École des Beaux-Arts (and around) could assist in transforming familiar towns and cities into promising hubs of industry and classically inspired culture. Popular among prominent New Yorkers, the introduction of the style and attitudes that came with it to one of their popular summer destinations, Southampton, seemed like an obvious extension.

Greek Revival - Most prominent from 1830-1870 characterized by a white, temple inspired exterior

One Southampton summerer who’s classical education coupled with experiences travelling in Europe generated a strong desire to bring the Beaux-Arts and Neoclassical exports to their surroundings in the new world was Samuel Parrish. Following a career practicing law, Parrish successfully leveraged his connections with prominent architects in New York City.

Beginning with his own home, the Rogers Mansion, Parrish employed the well-practiced eye of Stanford White, of the leading American firm Mckim, Mead, and White to greatly expand the already grand Greek-revival mansion. Parrish’s social connections to the firm can also be seen in Charles Mckim’s renting a room in the residence for a summer. Following the death of White, Parrish increasingly worked with prominent architect Grosvenor Atterbury of the same firm.

Two examples of the Greek-revival derived extensions to the Rogers Mansion.

Featuring stark white, classical forms.

Single greek-revival window part of Parrish’s extensions to the Rogers Mansion

In 1897 Samuel Parrish built the Parrish Art Museum (now Southampton Art Center) with a vision of a village permanently beautified in his image, a treasure trove of European classics, largely derived from Parrish’s own collection. With the assistance of Grosvenor Atterbury, the design of the museum drew inspiration from the previously popular Greek-revival. A style long practiced by the architect, as well as the emerging shingle style, both with a long presence in Southampton. Parrish’s reach and attitude was not limited to this spot on Job’s lane, one of Southampton’s oldest roads. It was at this time in the late 19th century that many American landmarks were being transformed by wealthy elites with the chosen vision of an American renaissance, drawing heavily from the beaux-arts dominated contemporary European architecture. Often with the grandiosity of a new empire in mind.

Original entrance of the Parrish Art Museum which incorporated the window design throughout.

Contrary to Parrish’s vision, however, the aesthetic values of this era were short lasting. With Beaux-Arts lasting as the premier American style from approximately 1880 to 1920. With increased prominence in the town resulting from many years of social and cultural engineering, Parrish had the mind that the nature of his structural developments of Southampton village would remain as permanent fixtures, Parrish wrote: “The spirit of the place can be best maintained by continuing it on practically the same lines upon which it is now conducted.”

The American Renaissance never found the same prestige in the rapidly developing 20th century, with the rise of modernism displacing its interest among wealthy patrons. Architectural firms such as those patronized by Parrish saw diminished prospects in clientele and new recruits, their classical visions then regarded as dated and redundant.

“Nothing so far as practicable be either added to or taken away from the collection as it may stand at the time of my death” Samuel Parrish - Early Reminiscence

While Parrish’s museum would shift to favoring local and contemporary artists in the coming decades, the Southampton buildings of the American Renaissance remain as artifacts of an imagined classical new world.

In Southampton village, plenty of prime lots have been host to multiple generations of design and appearance, reflecting visions of the growing village’s future. Many original facades and tastes were only transient, soon replaced or remodeled to reflect the ideals of the time and its respective future. As the village grew, many commercial spaces have received countless modifications, often to fit the vision of luxury of the time.

In the village’s past, a more humble, squat bank sat next to an early edition of the local post-office, built with a simple, small town friendly facade. The old bank, sporting a polychrome Greek-revival facade and elaborate metalworking, would have fit nicely into Southampton today, if it wasn’t for its size. While no longer around, it represents the beginning of a short lived American Renaissance in Southampton. Later incorporating regional designs and traditions, the style often favored well-constructed imitations, attempting to communicate both structural integrity and the prestige associated with classical forms.

Further examples of the displacing of this time period include the current Chase Bank on Main Street, once possessing an interior design to match its stylized ornamental stone facade. While the grand medallions and Greek patterned trim of this exterior still remain, shifts in ownership have resulted in a complete modernization of the inside quarters, greatly opening up the building.

Regardless, the desire to impress a classical revival onto the village remains relatively immortalized through stone reliefs, with fancifully decorated corbels encasing a past label of “Southampton Office”. Additionally, a single banding wraps the building in the style of a decorated and labyrinth patterned Greek key. The fine details, also including attention-grabbing stone medallions, contrast to the slick, modernized Chase Bank logo now sitting atop the entrance. Many of Southampton’s constructions dating to the American Renaissance have followed a similar path, repeatedly repurposed and reimagined, often only sharing in common location and elements of exterior design a century later. In reutilization, the desire for grandiose impressions of luxury and empire fade, leaving behind visual ruins and relics of a past Southampton.

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Sep 17, 2021

Another great piece. I love the original entrance of the Parrish Art Museum! Some of the Greek Revival made for truly stately edifices.

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