American Fascist

A certain C. C. Ehrhardt, a name that seems familiar for some reason, writes:

Dear old Pa Pitt, please explain what you mean by American Fascist.

Father Pitt is glad to oblige.

The architecture of Hitler’s Germany (warning: the link leads to a slightly odd site) is famous, or notorious, for its grandiose scale and imitation of Roman imperial ideals. But it was part of a wider worldwide style in governmental architecture. Adapting classical forms to twentieth-century needs, the style conveyed the idea that your government is all-powerful and benevolent—but all-powerful first, benevolent a distant second. We might call the style “fascist” in the root sense of the term, the fasces being an ancient Roman symbol of authority.

When this style appears in the United States, old Pa Pitt can think of no better term for it than “American Fascist.” The most prominent example in Pittsburgh is the Federal Building on Grant Street:

Not only does this massive building strongly echo the parallel developments that would grow up in Nazi Germany, but over each entrance it even carries the very symbol of Fascism, the fasces, a bundle of rods surrounding an axe:

This is the most nakedly Fascist building in Pittsburgh, but there’s more than a little of the style on some other government buildings of the same period. The County Office Building, for example, has a strong whiff of the Fascist about it, although uniquely its architectural inspiration is not classical Roman but medieval Romanesque:

The choice of Romanesque style might seem surprising, but the urban context makes the reason clear. H. H. Richardson’s gigantic courthouse and jail sits right across the street; “Richardsonian Romanesque” became the official architectural style of Allegheny County, and even the strong current of fascism in middle-twentieth-century government architecture would have to take Richardson’s influence into account.

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