The Legacy of Francis Howse Cruess: Changing the Skyline
"My father, Francis Howse Cruess: a perfect English gentleman -- quiet, truthful, honest --
self-effacing, kind and loving, and with a content to be within himself, and not of the world.
I am glad that I am his daughter." -- Helen R. Cruess
Francis Howse Cruess, architect, illustrator and watercolorist, was born Feb. 24, 1867 at No. 77 Dorset St., Hulme, Manchester, England. His father Frederick John Cruess, was a reporter and sub-editor for the Manchester Guardian. In the first of many moves, the family left Manchester for Whitehaven, Cumberland, where the father edited the Whitehaven Free Press and young Cruess was indentured to the architects Lewes, Banks & Townsend on Lowther Street. In 1881 the family relocated to Leamington, Warwickshire, where his father edited the Chronicle. Francis Cruess attended the Leamington School of Art and produced many impressive early sketches. (By this time he had two brothers: John, who became a school teacher, and Frederick, a sea captain who rescued evacuees during the Boxer Rebellion).
Uprooted again in 1887 to Colne, Lancashire, Francis was fascinated by the Roman coins and fosse he saw. He worked several years for Atkinson, Architect and Surveyor. Later he went to Leeds as a draftsman in terra cotta works. His watercolors and drawings depict many scenes in his native England, including paintings of the ruins of Wycoller Hall, which had figured as Ferndean Hall in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
Cruess left England for New York City on Sept. 21, 1889 at age 22 and worked in Philadelphia for architects Yarnall & Goforth and Wilson & Co. Here he proudly noted the sale of a watercolor for $25 through the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In 1893 he moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to work for John C. Smith architects, who’d just been awarded a commission to design the new Lancaster Theological Seminary. The distinctive, graceful edifice Cruess created still stands, having survived a move to demolish it in the 1970’s.
In Harrisburg he met Bertha Connell, who grew up in Columbia, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. In 1896 a hurricane destroyed the Camel Back bridge over the Susquehanna River south of Columbia, and Cruess painted the scene showing the bridge piers, along with a ferryboat crossing the river and a steam locomotive rounding the hillside nearby.
Bertha Connell’s father was from Philadelphia, and her Lancaster County-born mother’s maiden name was Rutter. In 1898 Cruess and Miss Connell married and moved to 32 North 56th Street, Philadelphia. The young architect went to work for John T. Windrim architects. A member of the T-Square Club, he is listed in its 1899-1900 Catalog of the Annual Architectural Exhibition, held at the Gallery of the Art Club of Philadelphia (www.archive.org, last accessed May 2013).
Soon after Helen Rutter Cruess, his only child, was born, Cruess met Goldwin Starrett, designer of the Algonquin Hotel and co-founder of the prestigious New York City architects Starrett & Van Vleck, known for their designs of hotels, skyscrapers and department stores, including Saks.
Starrett recruited Cruess to work for him in New York, and so the family moved to 89 Pierpont St., Brooklyn, where Cruess became a U.S. citizen in 1905. A few years later the family moved to Rutherford, New Jersey, where Cruess lived 40 years.
His name was printed in The New York Times of June 4, 1910 as the chief architect in the remodeling of the Hippodrome building on the east side of 6th Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets.
One of Starrett’s four brothers, Paul, ran the company that built the Empire State Building, the Flatiron Building, and the original New York Times building on Times Square. Cruess designed the cover for Paul Starrett’s 1938 autobiography, Changing the Skyline.
When Wall Street crashed Cruess was over 60 years old. Bertha Cruess had passed away the year before. During the Depression he worked for the Works Progress Administration’s Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS). Many of his works are in the Prints and Photographs Collection of the Library of Congress. Among them are his drawings of the Samuel Demarest House in New Milford (Picturing_Home last accessed May 2013).
In 1947, Cruess moved to the home of her mother’s cousin, Frances (Rutter) Megargee, 413 Charlotte St., Lancaster, near the seminary he designed. His daughter Helen Cruess soon followed, and remained in Lancaster after her father died Dec. 31, 1948. He and his wife are buried at Fairview Cemetery, Coatesville, Pennsylvania. His obituary stated he designed the Lancaster Theological Seminary.
Cruess’s works have been shown posthumously at William Penn Memorial Museum, Harrisburg; Provident Bank, Philadelphia; Historical Society of Berks County, Reading, Pennsylvania; Sharp Jewelers, and Red Raven Art Company, Lancaster.
His painting Camel Back is displayed at the John & Kathryn Zimmerman Center for Heritage at Long Level, York County, Pennsylvania.
(Special thanks to Mark Platts, president of the Susquehanna Gateway Heritage Area, who identified many of the buildings Cruess drew, as well as their locations).