Pioneer Texas Architects - F. E. "Ernst" and Oscar Ruffini - 1870 - 1917

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Historical Context

The profession of architecture was in a transitional period at the time the Ruffinis began their careers.  Prior to 1875, there was no real distinction made by most Americans between the term architect and builder, although "architect" did connote higher status. The individuals who practiced architectural design were called master builders or master craftsmen. After 1830, master builders did begin to refer to themselves as architects.They made this distinction in view of their possession of superior design skills as opposed to those of builders.

Ernst Ruffini kept a cartoon titled "Ecce Architectus!!" by Boston architects George Tilden and William Preston that satirized an English publication's praise of the architectural contributions of craftsmen.  The cartoon showed a group of people paying homage to a poorly-dressed craftsman and his ramshackle building.  In the background, well-dressed architects wearing frock coats and top hats, carrying their portfolios, slink off to the Asylum for Educated Architects.

The first permanent professional organization dedicated to the architectural profession, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) was established in New York City in 1857, with very few members through the end of the century. And it was not until 1889 that Illinois became the first state to mandate professional licensing. Historically, this meant that the Ruffinis and their contemporaries struggled to establish themselves professionally as a distinct group possessing specialized knowledge and skills. 

The Ruffinis were among the first generation of professional architects in the United States. They trained through the system of apprenticeship to a master builder. The generation preceding theirs was composed of master builders or craftsmen with no formal training. The generation following the Ruffinis attended college to receive formal education in architecture. The University of Texas in Austin was the first university in Texas to offer a degree in architecture, beginning in 1902. Texas A & M University and Rice University [then known as the Rice Institute] began their degree programs shortly after, in 1905.

Architecture in Texas

A significant historical factor influenced the development of the architectural profession in Texas. During the 1870s and 1880s the State Legislature appropriated funds to build new institutions and to enlarge others statewide. These buildings included expensive facilities such as prisons, asylums, and universities. An architect could earn large fees for this work and also enhance his reputation, which would make it easier for him to acquire county or private work. Against this framework, Ernst and Oscar had to work to establish their reputations as professionals. They were in direct competition with builders, as evidenced in their business and personal correspondence. Versatility was a key characteristic necessary to establish and maintain a successful practice in Texas. Each brother was able to diversify his business through his ability to design a number of building types, including public buildings, churches, opera houses, stores, office buildings, banks, lodge halls, and schools.

Ernst played a role in the design or construction of a total of four institutions built by the State of Texas - the East Texas State Penitentiary (1879), the Temporary Capitol (1882), the Main Building of the University of Texas at Austin (1882-89), and the Asylum for the Insane (1883-1884).  Although Oscar did not design or execute a state building personally, he did assist his brother from 1878 to 1884 to prepare drawings and specifications for several of Ernst's projects.

Architectural Training

The Ruffinis, like their contemporaries, were educated in their profession by following the apprenticeship system. That is, they did not attend college to receive their training, but worked for a period of time with a master builder, or craftsman, to learn their trade. This training generally lasted several years, and usually began at the age of 14. 

At least three copies of the specifications were required - for the client, contractor, and the architect.  Since this was prior to the invention of the typewriter, the format used to copy specifications, or "specs", was a letter press.  A letter press is a device that permitted a copy of the inked original to be made using a wet paper technique. A special device was used to press a newly written document against a dampened sheet of copy paper. The dried copy was then placed in a letter press book, which permitted a businessman to keep a record of all transactions.

During that time, an apprentice learned skills considered essential for an architect.  The main skill to be acquired was drafting.  An apprentice learned how to draft or draw plans, elevations, and numerous details of construction and ornament under the direct supervision of the architect or master builder. He learned to write specifications by copying specs prepared by the master by hand.  This enabled him to understand the terms used in design, building, and construction, and the practical skill of detailing all of the materials to be used in the construction of a building.

Another essential skill for an apprentice was the ability to draw and paint.  The method of training used was to examine and draw existing structures of all types - residences, commercial buildings, churches, and institutional buildings. This way, an apprentice became familiar with the architectural styles in vogue as well as developing a skill he would use in his profession.  Usually, the apprentice practiced this skill on a Saturday, a regular workday in nineteenth century America.

As a final step to becoming an architect, the individual worked for other professional architects or master builders. At this stage of his professional development, he would be called a "journeyman" architect.  This phase of architectural training lasted several years.  At the end of that time, the new professional architect would generally go into practice for himself. Architectural firms of two or more individuals were the exception at this period of American history.

Architectural Terms

This section includes architectural vocabulary/terms used in the section on "Comparison of architectural styles" to provide readers of the exhibition with a clearer understanding of the architectural building elements being discusse

Ashlar rectangular stone masonry
Arch                            a curved member spanning an opening
Aspe the area in a cruciform plan church which contains the altar
Balloon frame            framing system of vertical studs that extend the height of the structure, joined by wire nails
Balustrade a railing supported by a series of balusters, or short posts
Bargeboard               carved board under the gable, also called vergaboard
Bay                             a repetitive division of a building based on openings or the structural system
Bracket                       a support for an overhang or other projection
Belfry                          a small bell tower
Belt course                 a continuous molding on an exterior wall
Building type a category of structures based on function [examples: residential, commercial, ecclesiastical]
Cant                            opening set at a forty-five degree angle to the intersecting walls
Cornice                      a projecting member between the roof and the wall
Course                       a row of bricks or stones
Coursed rubble         broken pieces of stone laid in courses
Cut stone                    stone dressed to a smooth surface
Delineator                  an apprentice or assistant who prepares plans, elevations, and perspectives
Eastlake style            popular in the United States in the 1880s. Characterized by ornamental spindle work and geometrical wood details. Also called stick style.
Elevation                    an architectural drawing to scale of a side of a building
En eschelon plan       a plan of receding planes
Encaustic tile             a clay tile decorated with inlays and fired
French Second Empire        a historical revival style popular in the United States from about 1865 to 1890. Characterized by Mansard roofs.  Named for the French Second Empire of Napoleon III.
Gable                          a triangular upper part of a wall under a pitched roof
Gothic arch                a pointed arch
Gothic revival             a historical revival style characterized by Gothic arches, trefoils, quatrefoils, and other forms of thirteenth to fifteenth century Europe. Popular in domestic architecture in the 1860s.
Hipped roof                a sloping, four-sided roof
Hood                           a moulding above a door or window.
Jerkin head gable     apex of the gable is clipped and slopes back to the hipped roof.
Italianate style            a historical revival style popular in the United States from about 1850 to 1870. Characterized by low hipped roof, bracketed cornice, and other elements from Renaissance Italy.
Mansard roof             a roof with sides made of two sloping planes, one of which is steep and the other low pitched. May incorporate concave or convex curves.
Modillions                   a series of horizontal brackets under the cornice
Neo-classical             a historical revival style popular in the United States from the mid-1890s to about 1920. Employs elements from Greek and Roman architecture
Pavilion                      a projection from the dominant plane. Pavilion may also refer to a major component or a large structure example: the center pavilion of a large building).
Parapet                      a wall extending above the roof, sometimes called a false front
Pediment                   usually a triangular, or sometimes segmental, feature located above a wall, wall opening, or colonnade
Perspective               an architectural illustration showing two sides of a building
Pilaster                       a pier projecting from a wall, usually structural as well as decorative
Plan                            refers to the overall configuration or shape of a structure when viewed from above.  The most common plans are square, rectangular, L-shaped, and T-shaped.  The expression "in plan" refers to a measured drawing of a plan showing the division of the interior space.
Renaissance revival a historical revival style popular in the United States from about 1870 to 1890.  Often used in commercial architecture.  Used decorative vocabulary of the Renaissance.
Richardsonian Romanesque      a historical revival style popular in the United States from about 1885 to 1905, using Roman arches and other forms of eleventh to thirteenth century Europe, as interpreted by Henry Hobson Richardson.
Roman arch a semi-circular arch
Rubble  broken pieces of stone
Rusticated stonework with beveled or abated edges emphasizing joints
Segmental arch an arch with a curvature less than a semi-circle
Spindlework thin wood features turned on a lathe
Steeple the tower and spire of a church or public building
Stilted arch a segmental arch with vertical members at each end
Tracery interlocking and repetitive curvilinear decorative work, usually in carved wood or stone.  Characteristic of Gothic Revival.
Uncoursed rubble undressed stone laid in a random fashion, not in courses.
Vernacular building based on traditional arrangement and use of space, proportions, and textures passed on from one generation of builders to the next.
Page last modified: May 8, 2019