John C. Wenrich (1894 – 1970) is one of the more obscure greats in architectural rendering. There is no book covering his life, and his rendering work is limited and scattered. In spite of this, the sense of atmosphere that he imbued into pencil and watercolor is unsurpassed. No survey of early 20th century architecture is complete without noting his contribution.
He was born in Maryland, the son of a locomotive engineer (Whistler had similar parentage), and worked for a local architect before enrolling at the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute (RAMI) in Rochester, New York. Being drawn to art, he went to New York City to study at the Art Students League, and after serving in France during World War I, spent 5 months at the University of Toulouse. Returning from Europe, he joined the firm of Gordon and Kaelber Architects as an illustrator, staying there until 1931.
Oddly, it was during the Great Depression that his career took off. In 1930 he did renderings for the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago. The illustration of the Tower of Water and Light (below) begins to suggest the atmospheric direction his art is going.
In 1932, on the strength of his work in Chicago, he was hired as an architectural renderer for the design team of Rockefeller Center. The following seven illustrations are pencil and watercolor views from those years.
This view from the east of the central tower was for me emblematic of what an architectural rendering should be. Although the viewpoint is impossible (buildings are in the way), the majesty of the image makes any objections irrelevant.
This view of the project looking down Fifth Avenue cheats on the sun direction (he shows it coming from the north), but again, is forgivable considering the effect produced. His technique of subtle watercolor tones and practiced pencil texture is done with a sure hand.
This aerial view of the complex is less romantic than his other drawings, but it is a brilliant mix of atmosphere and information. The problem of differentiating the project from the surrounding urban fabric is handled with a strong but delicate tone and color change. This is another image that I kept in mind whenever working a similar job.
While the previous aerial took a viewpoint with the sun behind the viewer, this aerial looks directly into the sun. That Wenrich would take such an unusual view says a lot about his artistic daring. The effect is less informative than the previous rendering, but the abstract mystery of the result is worth the effort.
This view overlooking the sunken plaza at Rockefeller Center (famous for winter skating)illustrates Wenrich’s quick confident hand.
Above is another rendering where the viewpoint is inside an existing building. Any renderer who has worked on urban projects has encountered the same problem; a pedestrian simply cannot see a skyscraper set among other skyscrapers. It is fairly standard for the type, but the darkened main tower setting off the light block in the middle ground is interesting.
I only have an uncolored copy of this view of Rockefeller Center, but the conceptual idea is quite tantalizing. The moon and car headlights mark this as a dusk view with the dying light illuminating the top of the building. Dusk is the time of day I love to capture, and I would absolutely love to see what Wenrich did with his colors here.
This rendering of a Wall Street office tower, completed in 1935 is a long time favorite of mine. It places the ethereal tower above the old New York fish market, and makes them fit together perfectly. The morning light is pure New York, but the dissolving form is of an imaginary, almost fantasy Gotham. This rendering suggests the color tones that Wenrich might have used on the last Rockefeller illustration above.
The Rockefeller Center work led directly into a gig for the New York World’s Fair of 1939. Wenrich, along with Theodore Kautzky, Hugh Ferriss and Chester Price were hired as "official delineators" of the fair. Each of the following four illustrations show a different side of his vision and art.
The Plaza Study, above, shows in detail what Wenrich had been doing (at street level) for Rockefeller. The crowd is believable, varied and yet holds together as a whole. Knowing his penchant for atmospheric drama, a “happy story” fair with flowers and flags is a real change.
This view across the water toward the silhouetted statue of George Washington is another change of pace for Wenrich. It reflects the poster art of the early century which emphasized blocks of color and texture, while de-emphasizing 3D forms.
This illustration of the Hall of Music seems to be a conscious tribute to Wenrich’s fellow “delineator”, Hugh Ferriss. The night view, spot lights, black and white technique and silhouetted crowd, all suggest “homage”. Unfortunately, the design in general is less than forgettable.
This early study of the Metals Building at the Fair is curiously washed out from a distance, but plays a sophisticated game with warm and cool colors close up. It reminds me of Lebbius Woods’ work 50 years later. I doubt that there is any direct connection between this and Woods, but it does suggest a similar genius.
I have not found anything about Wenrich after 1940. He did work on the New York World’s Fair in 1964, but I haven’t found any drawings attributed to him from that work. By 1947 he was back at RAMI, now known as the Rochester Institute of Technology, teaching part time. I like to imagine that he decided to settle into a quiet life in Rochester, after the tumult of the big city with its big projects. He died August 16, 1970, just as I was enrolling in architecture school.
Sadly, that is all I’ve got on Wenrich (a few websites are noted below). Someday I hope that a well illustrated book will come out. But in any case, if he had only created the 2nd and 9th images above, he would still be on my list of heroes.