Romanesque Revival Architecture: History and Design Characteristics 

The Romanesque Revival style celebrates architectural designs that were popular in the late Middle Ages. The revival style became popular in England in the early 19th century and came to the United States by the 1840s.

Romanesque Revival buildings are large and imposing. The materials used to make them are expensive. The style is most visible on large historic structures like churches, municipal buildings, and academic centers.

Roots of Romanesque Revival Architecture

Romanesque Revival Architecture

The Romanesque Revival style is a reimagining of Romanesque architecture popular in the 11th and 12th centuries. The style features decorative elements like arches, sturdy pillars, barrel vaults, and arcades for interior and exterior walkways and wall decoration.

Archeologists and historians of the 19th century applied the term “Romanesque” to the style of architecture that developed between the 5th-13th centuries because of the heavy use of Roman architectural devices like the arch. Most modern historians use the term Romanesque to apply to architecture built during the later period from the 10th-12th centuries.

Many buildings were designed and created in the Romanesque style, but most were destroyed or altered to reflect new styles in the late 12th century.

The architectural form that eclipsed Romanesque was the Gothic style. Early architects adapted the most important Romanesque cathedrals in Europe to reflect Gothic characteristics. There are a few remaining but scattered examples of Romanesque architecture.

Early Years of Romanesque Revival Architecture

The Romanesque Revival style began in England and developed over almost two centuries. Historians document the first use of Romanesque Revival architecture, also known as Norman Revival, in Great Britain in 1637. It was the Tower of London restoration by the architect Inigo Jones.

By the early 1800s, architects and designers recognized a distinct Norman Revival architectural style, most popular for churches. Neo-Gothic architecture was typical for churches with Anglo-Catholic leanings, but Romanesque Revival styles were popular for Non-Conformist or Dissenting beliefs.

Romanesque Revival Architecture in the United States

The Romanesque Revival style made its way to the United States by the mid-1840s. It increased in popularity in the 1880s and lasted until the end of the 19th century and even later in some parts of the U.S.

The increase in German immigration throughout the 1840s helped popularize the style. Among these immigrants were German architects influenced by the Rundbogenstil style. Rundbogenstil combines Byzantine, Romanesque, and Renaissance motifs that were popular with the German diaspora. It mirrored the design features of Romanesque Revival.

Another reason Romanesque Revival architecture gained traction was the publication of articles detailing the style. Robert Dale Owen praised the Romanesque style in one important article prepared for the Building Committee of the Smithsonian. He suggested these designs were more flexible and economical for buildings than the prevalent Greek Revival style used throughout the United States.

The first notable example of Romanesque Revival architecture in the United States is the Maronite Cathedral of Our Lady of Lebanon in Brooklyn, New York. Richard Upjohn designed and built this cathedral from 1844-1846.

Another early notable example of Romanesque Revival architecture is the Smithsonian Institution Building, built from 1847-1851 and designed by James Renwick Jr.

The architect that experts most identify with the Romanesque Revival movement in the United States is Henry Hobson Richardson. His designs in the 1870s and 1880s were so popular that they were copied throughout the United States and became known as Richardson Romanesque.

Design Features of Romanesque Revival Architecture

The design features of the Romanesque Revival style create a look that is similar to a medieval castle or church.

  • Facades of stone and brick
  • Wide, rounded arches as a dominant design feature
  • Short and thick pillars
  • Floor plans for cathedrals in the shape of a cross
  • Heavy and massive appearance that resembles a castle or fortress
  • Asymmetrical facades
  • Rounded or square towers with a pointed roof
  • Polychromatic stone or brickwork
  • Semi-circular barrel vaults

Notable Buildings in the Romanesque Revival Style in the United States

The materials used for Romanesque Revival buildings are massive quantities of stone and brick. Since this material was more expensive than wood, most people couldn’t afford to build an individual Romanesque Revival house.

Today, most buildings of this style are churches, university buildings, and municipal structures like train stations, office buildings, and courthouses.

Alexander Brown House

Alexander Brown House

The Alexander Brown House is an example of the Richardson Romanesque style. The inventor and entrepreneur Alexander Brown had the house built in 1895.

The red masonry cladding is a combination of sandstone and Spanish tile. The rounded arches, massive presence, and asymmetrical facade are all hallmarks of Roman Revival architecture. The Alexander Brown House has been part of the National Register of Historic Places since 1988.

Museum of Early Trades and Crafts

Museum of Early Trades and Crafts

Charles Brigham and Willard P. Adden completed the building that houses the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts in 1900. It features stone masonry, a tower, and arched openings for the doorways and windows, giving it an unmistakable Romanesque appearance.

Samuel Cupples House

Samuel Cupples House

Thomas B. Annan designed the Samuel Cupples House during the high point of Romanesque Revival architecture in the United States. He completed the construction of this home in 1890 for wealthy entrepreneur Samuel Cupples.

The house features short columns which support arches at the entry with round tower projections that resemble those of a castle.

Smithsonian Castle

Smithsonian Castle

The design for the Smithsonian Castle is not a pure style but rather a combination of Gothic and Romanesque Revival architecture. James Renwick Jr. designed the plans for the Smithsonian Castle and submitted them in a nationwide competition. His plans received a unanimous vote.

The architects first designed the building’s facade using marble, but the high cost led the designers to look for alternatives. They settled on Seneca red sandstone because it was less expensive and still had a distinctive look.

Royce Hall

Romanesque Revival Architecture

Royce Hall is a late example of Romanesque Revival architecture. It graces the campus of UCLA and defines the look of this university. The Los Angeles architecture firm, Alison & Alison, designed this building and completed it in 1929.

The polychromatic facade, the layered arches, and the square towers embody the Romanesque look.