Springboard Design

CFA Niches

When Henry Hornbostel designed the School of Applied Design (1912-1913, 1915-1916), now known as the College of Fine Arts, he gave the building a complex decorative scheme that served as a didactic program of instruction in the arts. Inside, for instance, floor plans of famous buildings are laid into the floors of the hallways, and the ceiling of the Great Hall is covered with canvas murals comprised of examples of great architecture, painting, and sculpture, and the portraits of musicians and playwrights.

In the same way, the building’s exterior was planned to display five large carved-stone niches representing chapters in architectural history: Medieval, Greek, Roman, Renaissance, and “Oriental” (non-Western). Sculptor Archille Giammartini (1861-1929) began carving these niches in 1912; but the money quickly ran out with only the Renaissance niche substantially completed and the Roman entry niche partially underway. The remaining niches stood for nearly eighty years as abstract assemblies of uncarved blocks of Indiana limestone.

In 1987, alumnus Verner S. Purnell offered to fund the completion of the niches. A group of faculty and students studied the project; and a team of faculty and stone carvers was subsequently assembled in 1990 to design and execute the project. The team included architectural historian Richard Cleary, architects Bruce Lindsey and Paul Rosenblatt, and Cathedral Stoneworks of New York City, a company affiliated with the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Stone carvers were brought in from around the world, led by master carver Nicholas Fairplay. Hornbostel had made preliminary sketches for the niches; but his designs were extremely elaborate and did not always coincide with the realities of the stone blocks actually in place. The project team had to produce carvings that would fulfill Hornbostel’s general intentions, while meeting economic and physical requirements.

In choosing the representative features of each architectural style, we sought to reproduce specific historic models. The challenge of this process was to identify works with proportions that could be adjusted to the dimensions of our stone. For this we turned to the resources that had served the generations of designers taught by Hornbostel: books of detailed photographs and line drawings and [plaster casts]. We made our decisions jointly, bringing to each step the viewpoints of the architects, the carver and the historian. (Cleary 1993)

For a time, this was the most important stonework project underway in North America. It resulted in the Romanesque statues and Gothic tracery of the Medieval niche; the classical orders of the Greek niche; the coffered ceiling and busts of Hornbostel (as Bacchus) and Purnell (as Mercury) of the Roman entrance niche; Giammartini’s elaborate Italian Renaissance and French Baroque details in the Renaissance niche; and the carvings representing ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Hindu, Islamic, Khmer, and Myan cultures in what is now called the World niche. Ancient and contemporary technologies–hand chisels and wooden mallets, power tools, and computer-aided design–were used at various stages of the project.

Upon the completion of the Niches Project, the University’s Architectural Design Practice Center restored and extended Hornbostel’s terrace in front of the building to showcase the niches and to provide a new “front porch” for the College. The removal of vegetation that had previously screened the building exposed the facade and its niches to clear view, as Hornbostel had intended, and strengthened the building’s position at the head of the primary campus axis.

Text from http://www.library.cmu.edu/Research/ArchArch/ACampusRenewed/Niches.html