LANCASTER IN STYLE, PART 19: EGYPTIAN REVIVAL, 1880-1930
Pyramids in Lancaster? Not quite. But, believe it or not, there are sphinxes!
Finding examples of Egyptian Revival architecture in Lancaster County may seem like a stretch, but we do have several fine examples to enjoy.
The United States and the rest of the world became obsessed with all things Egyptian in the last quarter of the 19th century, and well into the first quarter of the 20th century, following significant archeological discoveries including King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.
Egyptian Revival, like all the other revival styles, was an echo from the past that brought forward a fresh architectural interpretation incorporating modern construction techniques. However, unlike other revival styles, Egyptian Revival designs were rarely found in residential applications. Instead, this style was primarily reserved for public use such as schools, churches, theaters, banks, prisons, civic structures, monuments and cemeteries.
Examples of Egyptian Revival design in Lancaster [photos]
Egyptian Revival design, popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, was found more in public buildings and businesses than in residential construction. It was used in schools, churches, theaters, prisons, banks, monuments and cemeteries. Here are some examples of Egyptian Revival design that can still be found in Lancaster County.
The forms and shapes most commonly associated with Egypt are pyramids, sphinxes, temples, obelisks and tombs. The style uses references to the original ancient design elements. Interestingly, the Freemasons adopted the Egyptian style for their architectural expression and symbolism.
The architectural characteristics most commonly associated with the Egyptian Revival style include bulging columns, lotus leaf capitals, bundled papyrus stalks, battered and smooth walls, flat roofs, gorge-and-roll cornices, rolled moldings, minimal window openings and winged orbs. Although cemeteries are often the best places to search for Egyptian treasures, examples can also be found outside the graveyard gates.
Lancaster architect C. Emlen Urban designed the 1927 Ephrata High School building — which later became Highland Elementary School — in a combined Egyptian and Exotic Revival style. Breaking from his tradition of classical design, Urban introduced Lancaster County to a new vocabulary of materials, color and patterns using wire-cut gold brick, cast-stone medallions and columns with acanthus leaf capitals.
The best examples of pure Egyptian Revival are located in the Greenwood Cemetery on South Queen Street. The imposing 1895 masonry entrance includes a carving of the Egyptian “vulture guardian” goddess Nekhbet perched high above the arch. Beyond the gates, visitors can observe a pair of hand-carved granite sphinxes guarding the entrance to the imposing 1913 community mausoleum.
Bulging columns with lotus leaf capitals surround the perimeter of the windowless main facade. Elsewhere on the grounds are obelisks, sarcophagi, temples and monuments with Egyptian references.
It is no accident that we are exploring this unusual style in the month of October. Many of the surviving examples in the United States are found in cemeteries, just in time for Halloween!
What is a gorge-and-roll cornice?
Characteristic of an Egyptian roof cornice (crown), the concave design was often decorated with vertical leaves
What prison was designed in the Egyptian Revival style?
John Haviland, architect for the Lancaster County Prison, designed “The Tombs” in New York. The 1838 prison design was inspired by an Egyptian temple from 332 BC.
When did the style lose popularity?
By 1935, the unusual revival style had run its course. A parallel style, art deco, remained strong into the 1940s.
This column is contributed by Gregory J. Scott, FAIA, a local architect with more than four decades of national experience in innovation and design. He is a member of the American Institute of Architects’ College of Fellows. Email GScott@rlps.com.