Beauty Born of America
An American Renaissance: Beaux-Arts Architecture in New York City, by Phillip James Dodd, (Images Publishing: 2021), 214 pages.
Time is the one vital quality in determining whether a trend was a fad or a classic, a wait that impatient observers usually aren’t willing to make. Amidst the churn of sham “Renaissances” we’ve occasionally failed to notice a real one, so we should thank Phillip James Dodd for labelling New York’s flourishing of Beaux-Arts architecture in the span of 1870 to 1920 as such. It is a body of work that deserves the “rebirth” description as richly as any other in American history.
There are grand Beaux-Arts buildings all across the country, obviously, yet no cluster quite like New York’s, a concentration reflecting a shared yearning for notice. Dodd quotes Oscar Wilde’s observation from his 1882 lecture tour, “Where the Americans have attempted to produce beauty they have signally failed.” This time they were intent on getting it right, with the animating spirit behind this Renaissance, as Dodd writes, “a striving to create memorable buildings and art that place the United States on the world stage,” which is just what they did. A number included in Dodd’s Renaissance are among the most famous buildings in the United States, but the selections that aren’t as prominent are no less impressive.
The Beaux-Arts style is a melange consisting of all sorts of influences, from ancient Greece, Rome, and Renaissance Florence, to French Baroque, Gothic, and ever more. While Americans were adept at buying all sorts of Old World art, those categories remained necessarily separate: Tycoons, no matter how arriviste, weren’t buying Watteaus and Tiepolos and making composites out of them. With architecture it was different. Influences could be mined and combined in any number of ways, and our exceptionally talented lot of Beaux-Arts architects combined these elements into a fantastic native branch of this exhilarating new style.
Beaux-Arts architecture, largely launched out of the École in Paris, took on somewhat different forms everywhere, but Americans were soon its largest national minority. Richard Morris Hunt was its first American graduate. The following year graduates included Charles Follen McKim and Henry Hobson Richardson, and the distinguished roll continued onwards after. They proceeded to blend these varied European elements with new American devices. Dodd writes, “What was remarkable was how little this new American Beaux-Arts architecture reflected the doctrines of the architects’ Parisian training. In most cases the facades masked a steel skeletal skin underneath that prevented the architectural materials from expressing their inherent tectonic value.” There were other very American elements stirred into this stew, not least our homegrown stained-glass artisans of the Tiffany class.
We know Reed and Stem and Warren and Wetmore’s Grand Central, Richard Morris Hunt and Charles McKim and others’ Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Carrère and Hastings’ New York Public Library, but you will find new things in Jonathan Wallen’s magnificent photographs, taken with an eye to details you’ve likely missed unless you’re frequently carrying binoculars and surplus time. Dodd, an architect and author, proves an exceptionally erudite guide. There is a nimble accounting of the design of the public library, melding the scenographic with the technical: the series of ascending stages to reach the main reading room is a coup de theatre but it’s also extremely practical. With nothing to support above, the ceiling (297 feet long, 78 feet wide, and 52 feet tall) is free to showcase James Wall Finn’s glorious murals.
Details of the most familiar of spaces reveal new things, such as Grand Central’s symbols of the Vanderbilt family, including “plaster reliefs of winged locomotive wheels.” No matter if you’ve been to Cass Gilbert’s U.S. Customs House, now the Museum of the American Indian, you’ll likely learn something about the carvings of varied actual and mythological nautical beings on its 44 column capitals.
Or McKim’s Morgan Library. Architects obviously don’t mind near-limitless budgets as it affords them the chance to do things virtually impossible otherwise. Dodd’s accounting of the marriage of material and method in this case is particularly enlightening. McKim’s
concept was to create a design that appeared to be carved from a single mammoth piece of Tennessee marble, a material specifically chosen due to its hue of pinkish gray to differentiate it from whiter marbles associated with mausoleums. McKim ventured the idea of using the ancient Greek technique of building with a fitted rather than a mortared stone, a madly expensive proposition in turn-of-the-century New York. This construction technique necessitated that the marble blocks rest upon each other so perfectly and precisely that not even a knife blade could slip in between.
A prime incentive is a view of spaces you cannot enter every day or that require more effort than just buying a ticket.
There’s George B. Post’s marvelous Williamsburg Bank Building, with its dome modeled on Brunelleschi’s Duomo, now “operated as a private events space named after Weylin B. Seymour, an obscure and perhaps even fictional character from The Gilded Age.” Or Calvert Vaux’s Samuel Tilden House, now the National Arts Club, where Victorian Gothic melds with Italianate detailing, and C.P.H. Gilbert’s De Lamar Mansion, more of a chateau and now a fit home for a Polish Consulate, or Warren and Wetmore’s James Burden Mansion, now home to the Convent of the Sacred Heart School.
You acquire, throughout this account, a sense not merely of individual buildings but of the range and trademarks of their most prominent designers, a few of which have multiple commissions here.
Unlike those architects that graduated through the ranks of Richard Morris Hunt or McKim, Mead & White, the work of Whitney Warren – along with that of Ernest Flagg — reflects a stricter, purer and more tactile application of their French Baroque inspired Beaux-Arts training. If Hunt was the American equivalent of Sir Christopher Wren, and Charles McKim likened it to Hawksmoor, then Whitney Warren was certainly Vanbrugh.
Cass Gilbert was more of a chameleon, with his Woolworth Building radically unlike his Customs House, drawing on Woolworth’s love of the Houses of Parliament in London and from his own voluminous sketchbook, where he “resourced Gothic details from the French Normandy abbeys of Mont Saint-Michel (1523) and Saint-Ouen (1537) and London’s Victoria Tower.” The lobby’s axial plan and detailing crafted a true cathedral of commerce.
The architects were drawing upon staggering stores of architectural detail, sketched, recalled, or researched, and combined in dazzling ways. As Dodd writes about McKim’s University Club,
for the new clubhouse McKim worked in his usual method, intuitively sourcing and combining material from the Florentine Palazzo Strozzi, the Bolognese Palazzi Bocchi and Albergati, and the Palazzo Spannochi in Siena. The result is not a mere academic replica, but instead a unique coherent composition that although resembling a familiar building is actually quite original and of its time.
The designers were often working with rather confined sites and frequently faced tasks of making smaller spaces seem larger than they were or large spaces smaller. As Dodd explains, “The real genius of McKim though, is best shown in how he deftly disguised a mammoth nine-story structure to appear like a proportionally correct three-story Italian palazzo.”
There’s much more from Stanford White’s undersung library at the Bronx Community College. It features “32 Corinthian column capitals elaborately carved and gilded by Tiffany Glass & Decorating Company.” What more do you need to know it’s worth a look? And don’t miss the preposterously ornate mausoleums of Woodlawn Cemetery.
Julian Fellowes provided the foreword, no surprise. He encapsulates the essence of the era and the book well, “I have long been fascinated by the Gilded Age, in its own way the first American statement of what it was like to be more successful, and richer, than almost anyone in Europe could have imagined.” It didn’t last, but the items here did, so please enjoy.
Anthony Paletta lives in Brooklyn. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.