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.

Esenwein 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

As construction 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.

Early experimenters in steel framing continued to rely on historical ornamentation, which stretched uneasily to new proportions. Although they signaled a new era in American architecture, tall buildings also posed an artistic challenge, requiring a new aesthetic mode than their load bearing, shorter predecessors.

Chicago based designer William Le Baron Jenney, who was trained as an engineer, is credited with designing the first all metal frame building, the Home Insurance Building (1885), but despite its engineering achievement, the building remains “blocky and ill-proportioned [and] marred by an awkward overlay of ornament.”

By contrast, Adler & Sullivan’s Wainwright Building, completed in St. Louis in 1891, represents an early departure from overreliance upon historical detail for tall buildings. The ten-story red brick office building maintained the traditional tripartite vertical organization but relied on restrained ornamentation to achieve an unprecedented communication of the structure on the facade. The unbroken piers of the middle seven floors, which frame recessed spandrels between the windows, highlight the verticality of the building.

Similarly, Chicago firm Holabird & Roche’s 325 West Jackson Boulevard Building (1904) was a tall building in which “classicism recedes into minimal inflection and detail.”

Esenwein & Johnson - Commercial Style

Esenwein & Johnson employed a similar stylistic toolkit as these firms while working through structural technological transitions in Western New York. They filed plans for the Sinclair, Rooney, & Co. Building in May 1909, and while it falls within the same period as some of their more ornate designs, the building departs from the firm’s use of terra cotta and represents a more simplified design. The three-part vertical block has storefronts at the ground level, a middle section of five floors, and originally had an ornamental cornice supported by stylized brackets. This tripartite facade design recalls the Neoclassical design of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts but is decidedly utilitarian in its treatment.

The unbroken piers and recessed spandrels of the middle section emphasize the verticality of the building and the simplicity of the piers and spandrels concede to the steel structure. Restrained ornamentation supports but does not obscure the steel skeleton. Large window openings, allowed by the structure and echoing the form of early Chicago skyscrapers that devoted greater than two-thirds of the facade to windows, provide significant natural light to the interior.

The removal of the cornice represents the biggest loss of integrity for the building, as the cornice is a major identifiable feature of Commercial Style buildings. Despite the loss, the building still retains nearly all of its original exterior features. The verticality of the building (six stories), the flat roof, steel and beam construction, masonry wall surfaces, and first floor commercial buildings still clearly identify the building as part of the Commercial Style of architecture. Inside, the steel structure provides a floor plan of unprecedented flexibility. Each floor consists of a neutral grid of structural piers and encased beams are visible on the ceiling.

In part because of its simplified detailing, the Sinclair, Rooney & Co. building does not suffer from the awkward and abrupt transition between the base and middle section common to many of the transitional buildings of this era. The strong cohesion between the piers and fenestration of the first floor and the repeated middle floors above prevent the appearance of stacking parts, a criticism of early skyscrapers and a weakness of Esenwein & Johnson’s Mayer & Weill Building (1898-1899). The simplified design may be related to the singular ownership and occupation of the building by Sinclair, Rooney & Company and the integration of manufacturing and sales into the same building (in contrast to retail and office, a more common combination for urban commercial buildings).

It could also signal the influence of daylight factories, a burgeoning style of industrial design serving manufacturing companies in Buffalo at the time. While daylight factories were generally more austere than commercial buildings, they parallel the negotiation of style and detail alongside transitions in structural technology. As manufacturing and warehouse construction trended towards reinforced concrete and concrete slab floors, designers developed simplified details that expressed the underlying structure.

In fact, Esenwein and Johnson were early designers in the style; their 1906 Forsyth Manufacturing Building in Buffalo is an early daylight factory in the city, and their 1924 M. Wile & Company Factory Building is listed on the National Register as an “outstanding example of early twentieth century ‘Daylight Factory,’” which represented a “great advance in workplace fireproofing, lighting, and spaciousness.”

Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2016
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