Robert C. Spencer, Jr. (1865-1953)

Temple of the Sybyl

Temple of the Sybyl [Sybil], Tivoli, Italy
watercolor on paper

Robert C. Spencer, Jr. was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and received a degree in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Wisconsin before attending MIT from 1887-1888 as a special student in architecture. After leaving MIT, Spencer was employed by two Boston architectural firms: first by Wheelwright & Haven in 1889 and then by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge in 1890. In 1891, Spencer became the eighth recipient of the prestigious Rotch Traveling Scholarship, awarded annually to a young Massachusetts architect, and spent the next two years traveling throughout Europe and England.

Recipients of the Rotch Traveling Scholarship were required to make drawings and sketches, or envois, during their travels. The classical Temple of the Sybil illustrates Spencer's abilities as a superb draftsman, as evidenced by the careful detailing he used in rendering the column capitals. Watercolors of subjects such as the Temple and the Renaissance palaces of Italy were typical for a Rotch Scholar. However, many of Spencer's drawings are less typical and have neither Classical nor Renaissance subjects, such as his watercolors of rural or vernacular churches and farmhouses of the French and Italian countryside. The Church at Villemaur Sur Yonne is one such subject. In this watercolor, Spencer used careful detailing for his classical subjects and his broad, bold strokes indicate powerful forms and arrangements.

The Rotch Traveling Scholarship drawings that received the most critical attention were a series of six watercolors of the Renaissance ceiling decoration at the Ducal Palace of Mantua. Not only did Spencer paint existing decorations, but he also conceived partial restorations for these works. The subject of the vernacular farmhouse had a strong impact on Spencer's later professional work, particularly on the seven farmhouse designs he created in 1901 for the Ladies Home Journal. In this work, the emphasis is on simple, stripped down geometric massing, planar surfaces, and the play of shade and shadow.

Upon his return in 1893, Spencer was employed by the Chicago office of Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge and in 1895, after approximately a year and a half in that office, he established his own Chicago practice. While at Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, Spencer was assigned the task of designing the interior detailing of the Chicago Public Library. The interior walls of the library are covered with richly colored, intertwined and swirling foliate mosaic designs and bear a strong resemblance to Spencer's watercolors of the Italian palaces of Mantua. On visual grounds alone it is clear that Spencer's travels and his exposure to Italian palatial decorations had a strong bearing on his assignment and obviously influenced his design.

Spencer made perhaps his greatest contribution through his publications. In 1900, he wrote the first comprehensive article on the work of his friend Frank Lloyd Wright for Architectural Review. From approximately 1900-1910, he wrote well over 50 articles in both the popular home and shelter magazines, as well as in the professional journals. In the same year that he wrote the article on Wright, Spencer published a series of articles for The Ladies Home Journal. In this series he profiled seven model farmhouses in an effort to improve the architectural environment of rural America, specifically in the mid-west. Each of his farmhouses have specific features which adapt them to the particular climatic hardships of their regions. Spencer, unlike Wright, never wholly rejected the use of historical reference in his mature designs. Throughout his career, Spencer would remain torn between using or abandoning historical reference in his work.

Church at Villemaur Sur Yonne, France

Church at Villemaur Sur Yonne, France
watercolor on paper

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