Esenwein & Johnson - Table of Contents .............................. Commercial/Chicago style
Esenwein & Johnson - Commercial Design
By Caitlin Moriarty
Historian, Preservation Studios
This essay is excerpted from the National Register Draft Nomination for the Sinclair, Rooney & Co. Building
Bios and Importance
Esenwein & Johnson was one of Buffalo’s premier architectural firms at the turn of the twentieth century. German-born August C. Esenwein and New Yorker James A. Johnson partnered in 1897, and the firm secured over one thousand commissions during its existence, showcasing its proficiency in a diverse range of building types and architectural styles.
attended the Stuttgart Polytechnic University and worked in a Parisian
architect’s office before immigrating to Buffalo in 1880. After a brief
stint working as a civil engineer for the Delaware, Lackawanna and
Western Railroad, he left to pursue an architectural career.
During his years of independent practice, Esenwein designed the Italian Renaissance style Buffalo Music Hall (1882-1883), the Romanesque German-American Brewery & Hall (1893 and 1895), and the Queen Anne style Alfred Schoellkopf Residence (1895- 1896). He also won a competition to design the Temple of Music for Buffalo’s 1901 Pan American Exposition.
Prior to joining Esenwein, Johnson worked with several notable New York architectural firms, including McKim, Mead and White, and Richard Morris Hunt, where he gained a strong background in Neoclassical styles. In Buffalo, he worked briefly with James H. Marling (1892-1895) and William H. Boughton (1895- 1897), designing Colonial Revival residential buildings, before partnering with Esenwein in 1897.
Over the course of
their career together, Esenwein and Johnson became a premier
architectural firm in Western New York. Currently, in 2015, the firm
has over a dozen buildings listed on the National Register of Historic
Places, a testament to their outstanding skill and the impact that they
had on the built environment of the region. Esenwein & Johnson
designed a variety of building types - including public buildings,
commercial structures, and residences - and drew from a diverse range
of stylistic references, creating such notable projects as the Mayer & Weill commercial building (1898-1899), the Hotel Touraine (1901-1902), Lafayette High School (1901, NR 1980), the Providence Retreat asylum (1905-1908), the original Hotel Statler (1905-1906), the Calumet Building (1906, NR 2010), the Automobile Club of Buffalo (1910-1911, NR 2012), and the M. Wile & Company Factory Building (1924, NR 2000).
Esenwein & Johnson also designed a number of private residences, including a house for John Sinclair, who commissioned the firm for his home at the same time he hired them to design the Sinclair, Rooney, & Co. Building. The house is part of the National Register listed Parkside East Historic District (NR 1986).
Esenwein & Johnson - Commercial Design
technology advanced during their first two decades in business,
Esenwein & Johnson embraced new construction methods and
experimented with various ornamentation schemes. Steel and concrete structures allowed architects an unprecedented freedom in facade design, and as they embraced these technologies, Esenwein & Johnson translated their proficiency in historical styles for modern structures.
In commercial buildings such as the Calumet Building (1906, NR 2010), the Ansonia Building (1906), and the Root Building (1912), Esenwein & Johnson composed Art Nouveau designs using terra-cotta facades that expressed the steel skeleton beneath.
Their design for the Buffalo Orphan Asylum (later McKinley Vocational School, 1908-1911) expanded beyond the traditional use of Neoclassical forms for public buildings; they “applied the factory aesthetic to a public institution,” featuring an exposed concrete structure, flat roofs and multi-pane windows.
The Sinclair, Rooney, & Co. Building (1909) expresses a more utilitarian appearance compared to the firm’s more ornate historical ornamentation common to commercial buildings. In their earlier brick-clad, steel-framed Mayer & Weill Building (1898-1899), the “American Renaissance [went] vertical,” with three distinct sections of window fenestration and terra cotta details that stretched traditional ornamentation onto a seven-story frame.
Esenwein & Johnson departed from this precedent with the design for Sinclair, Rooney & Company building. Though many commercial buildings were becoming less ornamental as they grew taller, as the ornamentation fought with the verticality of the structure, their choice of a utilitarian design was likely due more to its use as a manufacturing building. While working from a similar baseline for the Sinclair, Rooney & Co. Building - a steel-framed, brick-clad building - the architects shed heavy historical details in favor of a simplified, clean - and in retrospect - utilitarian, more industrial, aesthetic. Though more streamlined than other commercial styles, the building did not abandon all ornament, retaining the traditional tripartite commercial style, detailing around the uppermost bay, and originally, a wide projecting flat cornice.
Ornamented Steel Construction in the US
Approaching the turn of the century, as partial steel framing gave way to structures with entirely fireproof steel frames and curtain walls, buildings could be taller than ever before. Another technological advancement, the passenger elevator, solved the practical issue of getting rents beyond the fifth floor.
Since steel skeletons lack the inflection of masonry structures, this technology provided a new opportunity for facade design. While facades of masonry buildings are load bearing and necessarily functional, curtain walls are independent of the structure, freed from the restraints embodied in historical building design.
The Chicago Fire of 1871 and its aftermath provided peculiar impetus to builders in Chicago to rebuild the city with fireproof structures. In addition, rising property values added the economic appeal of taller buildings, which offered more square footage and rentable space per parcel, and patrons increasingly demanded larger and more flexible workspaces.
The Commercial Style is a common term for the aesthetic that characterized much of early skyscraper design with steel and beam construction, large storefront windows, classical detailing, decorative cornices, and flat roofs. Some of the most prominent architects of the era - William Jenney, Sullivan & Adler, and Burnham & Root - worked in Chicago and developed a particular brand of design that became synonymous with that city. In addition to the features of other Commercial Style buildings, the Chicago School was known for its distinctive windows, composed of two narrow casements flanking a larger central pane.
Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2016