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The Smith Blog

SMITH HISTORY BLOG: An Etude on English Baroque in Geneva

By Gretty Hollister

Baroque architecture has a long and tumultuous history. The movement began in Rome in the 16th century when the Catholic church feared that the Reformation would pull away believers. Art and architecture from this time sought to be simultaneously sensuous and spiritual: art was made more personal and naturalistic; architecture sought to add interest and style; music was made for the church, but accessible to the rest of the world. By the time the Baroque reached England, it had already made quite a stir. Charles I is credited as the one who brought the Baroque, at least artistically, to England, while the likes of Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren (architect behind London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral) were the paradigms of Baroque architecture. Especially after the London fire of 1666, many buildings—especially churches—had to be rebuilt. And Baroque seemed to be the style chosen. The problem was, despite the masters, that most of the architecture of the English Baroque was such an eclectic mix of styles—Egyptian, Aztec, Roman, Greek—that it seemed almost silly. By the mid-18th century, just a few years after Wren’s masterpiece was completed, it seemed that the English Baroque was dying.

But English Baroque architecture didn’t die out entirely. In fact, English Baroque made its way as far as our own Geneva, in the work of Pierce and Bickford architects in the old YMCA building on Castle Street and the Smith Opera House. These two buildings are similar, though this essay will focus mainly on the Smith. The façade is the only part of the building today that could be considered English Baroque, though that may have been different before the 1931 renovation. It is, after all, it is one of only two remaining parts of the 1894 original building, the other being the back wall. The façade is terracotta and stone, complete with arched windows and pillars on the top floor. The building is unique, however, in its possession of Renaissance elements as well. Baroque was deliberately not neoclassical, so the incorporation of columns into the windows and sides of the façade don’t really belong there. From another perspective, however, Baroque architecture was all about mixing themes, so perhaps they do after all. What is for certain is that the mix of styles on the façade all combine to create the landmark we know and love as the Smith Opera House. No imperfect pearls here, just a jewel on Lake Seneca.

The Baroque rose out of fear and darkness; in England, it rose out of flames. But its legacy has given us some of the greatest world landmarks and art of all time, despite its less than perfect beginnings. Meant to be accessible to the common man, it makes sense, I think, that little pieces of it found their way into our town of Geneva.

Works Consulted:

“Baroque Art and Architecture.” Britannica Academic, Encyclopedia Britannica, 11 Dec. 2014, https://academic.eb.com/levels/collegiate/article/Baroque-art-and-architecture/13445

 “Baroque: From St. Peter’s to St. Paul’s Art History Documentary, Parts 1, 2, and 3.” Youtube, uploaded by Timeline-World History Documentaries, 15 February 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_Dlu-zVHq0&t=3127s

“Reformation.” Britannica Academic, Encyclopedia Britannica, 14 Nov. 2017, https://academic.eb.com/levels/collegiate/article/Reformation/63023