Urbanities

David Garrard Lowe
The Man Who Gilded the Gilded Age
Autumn 1996

New York had seen nothing like it. As darkness fell on Monday, March 26, 1883, a crowd gathered outside the shimmering new mansion at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street. It was a mild evening; the long New York winter had finally broken. About 8:30, footmen in maroon livery with powdered wigs unrolled a maroon carpet down the front steps all the way to Fifth Avenue. At 9, a police troop arrived to control the growing crowd of onlookers. Suddenly, a crush of elegant carriages stopped before the limestone château, and out stepped what appeared to be the ghosts of all the great dead since the world began: Joan of Arc, complete with solid silver mail; Christopher Columbus; Louis XVI; Queen Elizabeth I with a bright red wig; the goddess Diana; Daniel Boone. By 11:30, a bouillabaisse of kings, queens, fairies, toreadors, and gypsies blocked Fifth Avenue.

But the star of the fancy dress ball that evening was not Alice Vanderbilt as an electric light or Mrs. W. Seward Webb as a hornet or Mrs. W. D. Sloan as Bo-Peep: it was the extraordinary dwelling in whose honor Gotham’s movers and shakers had been summoned. With golden light blazing from every window of its four stories, the pale limestone edifice was a gleaming lithic lantern set down amid the muddy brownstone of old New York. For New York was still what Edith Wharton had termed it, a city with a “universal chocolate-coloured coating of the most hideous stone ever quarried.” This house gave notice of a sea change in the style of New York’s domestic architecture. It was as different from the city’s prevailing brownstones as a Rolls-Royce from a horse and buggy.

Until this moment upper-class New York taste had expressed itself in anonymous row houses, with any gesture toward individuality subdued. The city’s Dutch and English grandees—Stuyvesants and Schermerhorns, Newbolds and Livingstons—had equated social and architectural acceptability with a kind of invisibility. Behind facades with high stoops, uniform plate-glass windows, and flat roofs, their homes offered interiors whose dark walnut furniture and earthen-hued walls seemed chosen, as indeed they were, because they concealed the soot from the coal fires that blazed in every room. It’s no wonder that the 20 years following the Civil War have been labeled “The Brown Decades.”

How different this house was! How different the impulse that led to its construction. It stood not as one of a row, but boldly alone, not as an expression of conformity, but as a proclamation of individualism. It was an outward and visible sign of the success of booming American capitalism and trumpeted the fact that this country could design and construct a dwelling equal to anything in London’s Belgravia or on Paris’s Avenue du Bois.

Here the tall, aloof stoop had been banished, and in its place rose a broad flight of shallow steps, offering a welcoming, self-assured hospitality. The steps led to a wide arched entranceway that pierced a wall decorated with graceful ogee moldings and niches, a wall topped by a slender turret embellished with fleurs-de-lis and a high blue slate roof with copper crestings and finials. And there, at the very peak of the roof, was Richard Morris Hunt, the Merlin who had summoned forth this Renaissance château, this architectural echo of Chenonceau and Blois and Azay-le-Rideau, and set it down beside Fifth Avenue’s river of paving stones. It wasn’t the actual man who perched there against the heavens, of course, but an almost life-size statue of the architect in the guise of a stonemason. The château’s contractors had secretly crafted it as a surprise tribute to Hunt.

The real Richard Morris Hunt was inside. He had chosen to come as Cimabue, the thirteenth-century Florentine painter who was, according to art critic John Addington Symonds, the father of “nothing less than what the world now values as Italian painting.” Despite his costume, many recognized the handsome, well-built man of medium height, with his deep-set eyes and signature mustache and goatee—an “Imperial,” worn in emulation of the one sported by the French emperor Louis Napoleon. Hunt thoroughly enjoyed the evening; he was a social being, a man who, according to the famed New York diarist George Templeton Strong, “would put life into the dullest Fifth Avenue dinner party.” And this was not a dull party.

That Hunt had dressed as Cimabue, who first introduced into painting both structural unity and the illusion of depth, says much about the 55-year-old architect’s view of his own role in American architecture and civilization. He had every reason to feel that he too was an artistic revolutionary. Coming after gentlemen amateur architects like Thomas Jefferson, and English-trained architects like Benjamin Latrobe and Richard Upjohn, and skilled carpenter-builders who had followed pattern books to erect Greek Revival temples and Gothic Revival cottages, Hunt had the satisfaction of knowing that he was the best-trained native American architect ever.

When he had been admitted to the architectural section of Paris’s august École des Beaux-Arts in 1846, he was a cultural Christopher Columbus. “Aujourd’hui nous commençons bien étudier l’architecture” (Today we begin truly to study architecture), he had inscribed in his diary as he started to prepare for his entrance exams. That “we” could, without exaggeration, stand for all American architects in the coming century. Hunt had been the first American architect to matriculate at the famed school on the Left Bank of the Seine. The second was Henry Hobson Richardson, from whose hand came such monuments of the Romanesque Revival as Trinity Church in Boston, the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh, and the seminal Marshall Field Wholesale Store in Chicago, which had such a profound influence on Louis Sullivan. The third was Charles F. McKim, who built Columbia University’s magisterial campus, J. P. Morgan’s lapidary library, and Pennsylvania Station, perhaps America’s supreme Beaux-Arts structure. It was McKim who gave the Vanderbilt mansion the accolade that must have pleased Hunt most. Asked why he strolled by it almost every evening when he was in New York, McKim replied, “I can sleep better knowing it’s there.”

“Like an Oriental Dream,” enthused the New York Herald of the Vanderbilt party. And the dazzling effect, the paper made clear, arose not only from the satin and lace and brocade, the plumes and magnificent jewels worn by those at the soiree, but also from the exquisite chambers in which the fête was held. The thousand guests passed between front doors fashioned to disappear into pockets and then through inner doors of intricately wrought steel, into a vestibule and then a vast hall—60 feet long and 20 feet wide—soaring to a carved oak ceiling. From the hall, a gargantuan staircase of Caen stone rose to the second floor, a stairway that the New York World called “the finest piece of work of its kind in this country.” Everywhere the guests glimpsed breathtaking rooms like nothing ever seen in New York: a Moorish billiard room, a Louis XV boudoir adorned with a Boucher painting commissioned by Madame de Pompadour, and a two-story dining hall, complete with musicians’ gallery.

On the first floor, the château’s chatelaine, Alva—Mrs. William Kissam Vanderbilt—awaited the obeisance of her guests in the glittering white and gold Louis XV music room, its walls paneled with gilded boiseries from an old French castle, its ceiling depicting the marriage of Cupid and Psyche painted by Paul Baudry, who’d recently decorated the grand foyer of the Paris Opera. Everywhere hung the scent of roses, Alva’s favorite flower. In one night this luminous room made passe the browns and dead reds that until then had prevailed in New York interiors. Here was the wellspring of that devotion to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French design that later inspired Stanford White, Edith Wharton, and Elsie de Wolfe.

Posed before a full-length portrait of herself, the 30-year-old Alva wore a brocade French gown sprigged with flowers worked in gold—the costume, Mrs. Vanderbilt announced, of a Venetian princess. Since the republic of Venice had no princesses, that was pure fantasy. But the ropes of pearls that reached to her waist were not. Some had belonged to Empress Catherine the Great of Russia; some had belonged to Empress Eugénie of France—and those Alva treasured most, because of their French connection.

Indeed France, and particularly Paris, is the key to understanding this extraordinary evening and this remarkable woman who, by commissioning a Manhattan château and by throwing this wild extravaganza, had suddenly shot to the top of New York society. As Alva wrote in her unpublished autobiography, “I was in sympathy with everything [in France]. Its musical language had become mine. I loved its culture, art, people, customs.”

Astonishing circumstances landed her in France in the first place. She had been born Alva Erskine Smith in Mobile, Alabama, in 1853, the daughter of a rich cotton merchant. “I was a natural dictator,” she wrote of herself. “I enjoyed nothing so much as tyrannizing over the little slave children on my father’s cotton plantation.” The Civil War ruined the Smiths, who decamped, like many other Southerners, to Paris.

Alva’s later passion for building grew out of what she saw in Paris. The Smiths arrived when the city was, as one American visitor described it, a vast construction site. Emperor Louis Napoleon and his consort, Empress Eugénie, aimed to make Paris Europe’s grandest metropolis. With the help of his Préfet de la Seine, Baron Georges Haussmann, Louis had his way. Historic quarters, parks, monuments, even palaces were torn down, cut in two, and paved over to create a modern nineteenth-century city. Alva witnessed the creation of new boulevards like St.-Germain and Malesherbes, the completion of the Louvre, the construction of vast new government buildings such as the Palais de Justice, the beginnings of the Opera House, and the sprouting up, along the Champs-Élysées, of staggering mansions commissioned by the nouveaux riches. One of the grandest, built for the courtesan La Pavia, had a ceiling painted by Paul Baudry. Alva would never forget it.

The Smiths returned to America, this time to New York, after France’s defeat by Prussia in 1871. And though Alva later claimed that members of the family had been presented at the imperial court, there was nothing imperial about their situation in Gotham: Alva’s mother was forced to open a boardinghouse, on West 23rd Street. With her father dying “of worry and failure,” in Alva’s words, she resolved to try to marry a rich man, joining New York’s “Belle Underground” of girls from good Southern families ruined by the Civil War who married New York bankers and brokers and merchants. The technique was for a well-connected female friend to introduce the young woman to a suitable match. Alva had just such a presenter in Consuela Yznaga, a childhood friend from Natchez, with grand Cuban-Spanish relations.

And Consuela had sighted the ideal husband for Alva, William Kissam Vanderbilt. Willie had everything: charming, superbly educated in Switzerland, and, the ladies said, “built like an athlete,” he had the matchless asset of being the grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the richest man in America, whose fortune was conservatively estimated at more than $100 million.

Alva was not beautiful. She resembled, according to her friend, Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, “an intelligent Pekinese.” But she did possess energy, a lively imagination, and sex appeal. In time she would become one of America’s most formidable suffragettes. It was Alva who pronounced the immortal words, after an egg spattered one of her fellow marchers in a “Votes for Women” parade, “Brace up, my dear. Don’t cry. Pray to God. She will help you.”

Now she used her intelligence and animal magnetism to win Willie. On April 20, 1875, she married him. The Vanderbilt fortune would be the engine that brought Beaux-Arts grandeur to America.

During that famous ball in 1883, Alva asked Hunt to join her in the dazzling music room. Equally surprising paths, first to Paris and then to New York, had brought them to that spot. When Richard Morris Hunt was born on October 31, 1827, in Brattleboro, Vermont, no one would have predicted that 16 years later he would be living in France. His father, Jonathan, a successful lawyer and banker, had been elected to Congress as a National Republican the very year of Hunt’s birth. He was a popular congressman, a close friend of no less a personage than Daniel Webster; but in 1832, in his third term, he was suddenly struck down by cholera. Hunt’s mother, Jane Maria, who loved to draw and paint, found provincial Brattleboro stultifying. Restless, she moved the family first to Hartford, then to New York, and then, to be near her eldest son, William, who had entered Harvard, to Boston. When William, who would become a renowned painter, developed a persistent cough, and a doctor suggested that the sunny climes of the South or even of Italy might be beneficial, Jane Maria saw her chance. She announced that she was taking her five children to Europe.

Though her family objected, warning of “Roman fever” and the effects of “churches full of Catholics,” they could do nothing to stop her, for the congressman had left her more than $200,000, a very considerable fortune. Thus, on October 9, 1843, Jane Maria Hunt and her children sailed for France aboard the Duchesse d’Orléans. “My friends had done their best to discourage me,” she wrote later, “and the greatness of the undertaking was indeed oppressive; yet there was no way but to go on.”

And go on they did. Though Mrs. Hunt assured her worried family and friends that she and the children would be abroad but a year, their sojourn lasted more than a decade. During those years, Hunt seemed to embody Henry James’s famous adage about the cultural advantages of Americans: “I think that to be an American is an excellent preparation for culture,” James wrote. “[W]e can deal freely with forms of civilization not our own, can pick and choose and assimilate and in short claim our property wherever we find it.” Everywhere Hunt found property to claim: the matchless facade of the Cathedral at Rouen, the colonnaded courtyard of Paris’s Palais Royal, the palazzi of Genoa, the mosaics in Venice’s Basilica of San Marco, the ruins of Pompeii, and finally, Rome. He would later recast the images of the tall, fluted, Corinthian columns of the Temple of Vespasian, the spectacular barrel vaults of the Basilica of Constantine, and the mysterious domed interior of the Pantheon in the portico of Newport’s Marble House, in the great hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in Chicago’s White City.

When the family sailed for Europe, Hunt had already told his mother that, upon their return, he intended to enter West Point, attracted by the excellence of its education, particularly in engineering, a field that interested him deeply. Moreover, in a letter written in January 1845, he declared that, since the family had always distinguished itself, he had no intention of being “small potatoes”—and the army seemed his surest route to avoiding that fate. But he soon changed his mind about how to achieve the distinction he sought.

In May 1844 Hunt entered a private school in Geneva run by Alphonse Briquet. He quickly perfected his French, and for the first time, as he confided in his letters to his mother, he began to contemplate becoming an architect. This dramatic shift undoubtedly stemmed from the lessons in architectural rendering he was taking from a Geneva architect, Samuel Darier. In a letter home Hunt assured his mother that his teacher believed that if he decided to become an architect, he “would make a first-rate one.” By the summer of 1845, Richard Morris Hunt was determined to enter Darier’s alma mater, Paris’s École des Beaux-Arts.

There he fell under the spell of Hector Martin Lefuel, a distinguished Parisian architect and superb teacher, who agreed to be his patron. This was crucial. Though the École was open to all without cost, without a patron, an aspirant couldn’t even attempt to take the daunting entrance examinations in mathematics, geometry, architectural design, drawing, and other subjects. But a patron was even more important than that. The structure of the École was a brilliant mix of academic rigidity and creative freedom. At the institution itself on the rue Bonaparte, students attended lectures on subjects such as architectural history, engineering, new materials, and planning. Here too were assigned the all-important sketches, which had to be completed within 12 hours, and the finished drawings that had to be handed in within two months.

But the glory of the École was the ateliers under the direction of established architects. These were in buildings scattered across Paris’s Left Bank. The 20 or so students in a particular atelier paid its rent, bought wood or coal for its fireplaces or stoves, purchased candles for light, and paid a fee to the patron. All those who passed through the ateliers recalled fondly the joie de vivre there and the camaraderie among the students, who were encouraged to help one another in their work. Once or twice a week the patron—the word embraces a variety of meanings ranging from “boss” to “friend”—would visit. A turn-of-the-century description of a visit by Victor Laloux, a great teacher and the architect of the Gare d’Orsay, wonderfully captures the complicated atmosphere of the atelier: “Followed by his pupils, he went from table to table, giving his criticism to each student in turn. Having made the rounds, he would bow, put on his silk hat, and quietly leave the room. No sooner was the door shut than pandemonium would break loose, and a noisy discussion of what he had said would follow.”

After his admission to the École, Hunt entered Lefuel’s atelier and, as Hunt later recalled, an “intimate and affectionate” bond quickly developed between patron and student. Hunt was lucky to have Lefuel for a patron, for the architect had studied at the École, mastered its intricate and often nasty politics, and had won the school’s highest prize, the Grand Prix de Rome, a guarantee of government commissions.

The rock upon which all instruction at the École was based was the belief that the classical was the ultimate expression of beauty in architecture. Classical meant the forms of ancient Greece and Rome, especially the five orders, refined and expanded by the Renaissance. The École taught that, by study and through the use of reason, it could be demonstrated that the proportions and forms of the classical were the eternal norms of architectural design. They were as real and immutable as the principles of chemistry and physics. Thus the École never advocated copying the structures of the past, for classicism was an alive and evolving tradition. In ancient Greece it had raised the Parthenon; in ancient Rome, the Pantheon; and in the Renaissance, St. Peter’s. The École saw the classical as no less appropriate for modern hospitals, city halls, and railroad stations.

Hunt’s Paris years were joyous ones. He had a chance, as Alva did under the Second Empire, to witness the city’s transformation. In the 1840s, with the Orleanist king Louis Philippe on the throne, the French capital was dazzling. The German poet Heinrich Heine, who was living there at the time, left this impression: “Everywhere there are construction sites for new buildings and even whole new streets. The Tuileries and Louvre reverberate with the sound of constant hammering. The plan for the new Bibliotheque is the most splendid one could imagine. The Church of the Madeleine, formerly the Napoleonic Temple of Fame, is nearing completion. . . . On the Place de la Concorde we can already see a wooden model of the obelisk of Luxor; in a few months the Egyptian original will be erected there.”

Hunt’s fellow students soon noted the extraordinary capacity for work and for concentration that marked his entire life. He enjoyed his assignments, and stayed up all night draining endless pots of tea while he sketched and drew. Later, when he was teaching in New York, this aspect of his character became legendary among his pupils. One of them, George Post, recalled being scolded by Hunt after turning in some sloppy work: “You won’t live half long enough to be a really accomplished architect.” His bookplates in the vast architectural library he assembled carried these two Latin inscriptions: “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis Est” (Art is long, life is brief) and “Laborare Est Orare” (Labor is prayer). In 1851 Hunt was promoted from the beginning or second class at the École to the top or first class. Since there was no formal graduation, he left the school in the spring of 1854, when he felt he had learned all that the École des Beaux-Arts could teach him.

Hunt was prepared to return to the United States, where, he wrote, “an architect of the first quality would be much sought for.” He even had a letter of introduction from former president Martin Van Buren to Richard Upjohn, who in the previous decade had established himself as the most prominent architect in America with his Gothic Revival Trinity Church at the head of Wall Street. But just as he left the École, his patron, Lefuel, made him an irresistible offer. Having been named “Architect to the Emperor,” Lefuel found himself at the center of the Second Empire’s building boom. Among his many projects, Napoleon III was determined to accomplish what had been a dream of French rulers for centuries: linking the main body of the Louvre to the Tuileries Palace. Lefuel asked Hunt to become inspector of works on the project, which would, in effect, put him in charge. Soon Paris buzzed with the news that an American was designing the Pavillon de la Bibliothèque on the rue de Rivoli. “My finest work on the Louvre,” Lefuel later wrote to Hunt’s wife, “was accomplished while my dear Richard was with me.” These were more than mere words, for Lefuel, dangling the bait of a lifetime public post, urged Hunt to stay and make his career in France.

But other voices were pulling Hunt home. In school in Geneva he had proudly styled himself one of “the Green Mountain Boys,” and in their travels the Hunt family had always proclaimed their American background. When his mother wrote that some of their countrymen said that America was not yet ready for the fine arts, Hunt replied that, even if that were true, “There was no place in the world where they are more needed, or where they should be more encouraged.” September 1855 saw him in New York. He settled in Greenwich Village, the neighborhood where his mother had lived before the family began their European adventure.

The architecture of the country to which Hunt returned could charitably be described as eclectic. In and near New York City alone, recent building provided an encyclopedic survey of all the styles since the world began—from John Haviland’s Egyptian Revival Tombs Prison on Centre Street to James Renwick’s Gothic Revival Grace Church on Broadway at 10th Street; from J. P. Gaynor’s Italian Renaissance Haughwout Building (in cast iron, no less) at Broadway and Broome to Alexander Jackson Davis’s Tuscan villa designed for the Litchfield family in Brooklyn. Further afield, in Hartford, Connecticut, rose the mansion of the Colts of revolver fame, described by the Art Journal as “a little Turkish among other things.” If Hunt “believed that . . . he could do something to direct a part of his country’s crude but tremendous energy to the service of beauty and art,” as one of his pupils, Henry Van Brunt, wrote, he certainly had his work cut out for him.

Hunt’s first chance to guide this energy into new channels came with the commission he received in 1857 from two brothers, James and John Taylor Johnson, wealthy merchants who were patrons of New York University and later of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Johnsons wanted a structure that would provide artists with spacious studios and a Left Bank sense of community. Hunt, with his vivid memories of Lefuel’s atelier and the knowledge of artists’ needs garnered from his painter brother, William, was the ideal architect for the project.

The resulting Studio Building at 15 West 10th Street incorporated in its deceptively straightforward facade important lessons Hunt had learned in France. The structure introduced New York to the néo-Grec style, a style in which French architects aimed to give a rational articulation to even the simplest of facades. In this three-story, dark red brick and sandstone structure, Hunt clearly divided each story with bold moldings, outlined the tops of the large flat-arched windows of each floor with uniform brick bands, and ran an innovative geometric circle-within-a-square motif across the first story. The Studio Building, with its sense of order and geometry, was something new for New York. It brought Hunt immediate notice.

Behind its facade were 24 studios, half of which had attached bedrooms. In a city where Anglo-Saxon prejudices condemned as immoral the idea of unrelated families of either the middle or upper classes lodging under one roof, the Studio Building was a pioneering venture in apartment living. Over the years the structure provided space for a dazzling galaxy of American artists, including Frederick Church, Winslow Homer, John La Farge, Eastman Johnson, Emanuel Leutze, Albert Bierstadt, and Alexander Calder. Dwight D. Eisenhower took painting lessons there in the late 1940s when he was president of Columbia University. In 1954 the Studio Building was mindlessly demolished.

It is no exaggeration to say that this structure was an indispensable element in nurturing New Yorkers’ taste for art. At the open houses held there every Saturday afternoon and at the large galas thrown four times a year, there was that uproarious mix of liberty and order so dear to the ateliers of the École. Passing through the studios and the large two-story skylit exhibition gallery, the public could see Leutze’s sketches of Washington crossing the Delaware, La Farge’s exotic visions of the South Seas, and Bierstadt’s staggering paintings of the Rockies. There would also be food and drink and music. Later the New York Herald noted that the structure radiated “a peculiarly friendly quality.”

The friendly quality reached a new pitch when painter William Merritt Chase, dressed as though he were still in Paris’s Latin Quarter, rented the exhibition gallery for his studio. Filled with precious tapestries, antique furniture, and huge porcelain vases, and enlivened by a wolfhound, a dozen exotic birds, and a black servant attired in Turkish costume, Chase’s studio became the center of New York’s artistic whirl. It was here that one might meet John Singer Sargent or Mrs. Jack Gardner or Henry James or Stanford White. Chase was also the most brilliant painting teacher in the city.

But Chase was not the only teacher at 15 West 10th Street; Richard Morris Hunt himself occupied a large studio in the building. One of Hunt’s dreams when he returned to his native land was to make architecture a true profession along the lines of law and medicine. (His long involvement with the American Institute of Architects reflects that abiding ambition.) While the usual method for a young American to become an architect—working in the office of an established figure in the field—often provided excellent practical training, it generally ignored theoretical instruction.

In his studio, Hunt prepared to offer rigorous architectural instruction modeled on the École des Beaux-Arts. There would be lessons in drawing, assigned readings, and lectures on architectural theory and history. His studio, with its library of more than 5,000 volumes, its thousands of photographs of buildings, and its extensive collection of plaster casts of design details, quickly became a Mecca for bright young students. Among them were Henry Van Brunt, who went on to design Harvard’s gargantuan Memorial Hall; George B. Post, the architect of New York’s sumptuous Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion; and Frank Furness, the Philadelphian into whose office would come Louis Sullivan. All remembered Hunt’s “vehement and strenuous manner” of teaching, his “excitement and enthusiasms,” his cries of “draw, draw, draw; sketch, sketch!” and his sudden dashes to the blackboard to scrawl “You are lazy!” when he was displeased with a student’s work or “Wonderful!” when he was pleased. And all fondly recalled, as George B. Post wrote, “the inspiring nature of his instruction.” Sometimes, as a special treat, Hunt would cook an oyster stew in the studio and, over bottles of wine, regale the group with tales of Paris and his days at the École.

It was through a student who came to him in 1859, William R. Ware, that Hunt saw his hopes for American architectural education finally realized. For in 1866 Ware established the United States’ first professional school of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1881 he set up a similar school at Columbia College. He gave all the credit to Hunt: “Everything that has been done at the institute and at the college has followed . . . the whole scheme of the École.” It was all, he said, “a direct outcome of the Tenth Street Studio.” There’s no better statement of Richard Morris Hunt’s extraordinary role in implanting in American architectural education those Beaux-Arts principles that were to shape it until the eve of the Second World War.

The Studio Building was a rare early example of Richard Morris Hunt’s having the chance to employ fully the skills he had acquired at the École. Most of his work in the 1860s and 1870s reflects that architectural eclecticism—that smorgasbord of styles later labeled the “Reign of Terror”—that characterized American building in these decades. In her great New York novel The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton trenchantly sums up the taste of the time: “That Greiner house, now—a typical rung in the social ladder! The man who built it came from a milieu where all the dishes are put on the table at once. His facade is a complete architectural meal; if he had omitted a style his friends might have thought the money had given out.”

Hunt, it must also be said, was an ambitious man. In his office his assistants worked a strict nine-to-five day. He hated unnecessary interruptions. His eight-minute lunches—a chicken sandwich and a cup of tea—were legendary. His persistent search for clients and his desire to please led to the charge that he sometimes built less well than he might have. On one occasion the accusation came from his architect son, Richard Howland Hunt. “The first thing you’ve got to remember is that it’s your clients’ money you’re spending,” was the father’s famous reply. “Your goal is to achieve the best results by following their wishes. If they want you to build a house upside down standing on its chimney, it’s up to you to do it.”

But Hunt was no mere mirror reflecting the riot of architectural styles surrounding him. He was experimenting, using the various styles he had seen in France that were outside the sacred canon of the École. Gothic, for instance, though condemned by the members of the Academie des Beaux-Arts that governed the École, had been championed by the famed theorist and architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, the restorer of Notre Dame. In 1865 Hunt proposed a Gothic home for the New York Historical Society, and his Yale Divinity School of 1869, with its encrustation of curious trefoils, fleurs-de-lis, and flying buttresses is an astonishing example of High Victorian Gothic.

Hunt was also familiar with the surprising rage for all things English among the French upper classes, particularly among those devoted to sport. This goût Anglais led to the construction of English-style half-timbered cottages in seaside resorts like Trouville and near racetracks like Chantilly. Appropriately, in 1863 at Newport, Rhode Island, another retreat from city life, Hunt completed a summer cottage for J. N. A. Griswold that unmistakably echoed this style. Its rich variety of gables, the overhang of its upper stories recalling medieval forms, and the bold exposure of its wood framing in an echo of half-timbering made the Griswold House indistinguishable from a cottage orné on the Normandy coast.

It was in Newport too that Hunt was presented with the challenge of remodeling a dull granite 1850s house into an American version of the pretentious palaces that parvenus were running up in the Paris of Napoleon III. He transformed George Peabody Wetmore’s Château-sur-Mer into a Second Empire mansion with lavishly papered, painted, and carved interiors and, outside, an enormous porte cochere, a pinnacled turret, and an impressive square tower with a high mansard roof.

Hunt’s numerous Newport commissions stem in part from his marriage to Catharine Clinton Howland, daughter of a wealthy shipowning family with houses in Newport and an important web of relations throughout Rhode Island. Catharine’s guardian—she was an orphan—and most of her very protective family disapproved of her marrying Hunt, on account of his artistic profession, his too-independent conversation, and his too-French manner. But they relented, and on April 2, 1861, Catharine and Richard were married in the Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue. Their house on West 35th Street, in which they lived and raised their five children until 1885, quickly became one of the centers of New York’s artistic life. At the Hunts’ Sunday dinners one met a heady mix of painters, businessmen, musicians, writers, and actors, and one drank a heady champagne punch whose formula only Hunt knew. When the architect became too argumentative and began swearing—”How he could swear!” a friend said—Catharine, inevitably serene, would calm him.

Though Hunt’s work might stray from the strict canon of the École, his ultimate goal was undoubtedly to establish the architectural hegemony of Beaux-Arts classicism. You can see that impulse clearly in his 1863 design for gateways to Manhattan’s Central Park. Based on European precedents such as the Place de la Concorde entrance to the Champs-Élyseés, these elegant entrances would have boldly defined the boundaries between the park and the surrounding city. The authorities approved the designs and authorized the erection of the gates. But they were never built, for a storm of protest, orchestrated by Central Park designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, broke out. A typical article in the New York Tribune condemned the gates as being “as un-American as it would be possible to make them” and went on to call Hunt’s designs “a barren spawn of French imperialism.” America was not yet ready for the Beaux-Arts.

Two structures that he succeeded in building show vividly that Hunt’s École training was just waiting for opportunities to express itself. In 1870 he was commissioned to design a library facing Fifth Avenue between 70th and 71st Streets. The library was the creation of James Lenox, born in New York in 1800 to one of the city’s real estate magnates. Lenox was a pathologically shy bachelor, and upon the death of his father in 1839—when he inherited several million dollars and a 30-acre tract that encompassed most of what is today Lenox Hill—he retired and set about doing what he enjoyed most: collecting books, manuscripts, and works of art. In time he assembled the nation’s most important library, which included, among other rare tomes, Cardinal Mazarin’s Latin Bible, used by Martin Luther to translate the Scriptures into German. His painting collection included works by Gilbert Stuart, Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Turner. Lenox wanted a building to house these priceless treasures.

At last, Hunt had a client with the means and independence to let him build in the classical manner favored by the École. Luckily, too, James Lenox wanted a building as different as possible from the vaguely Venetian red brick structure that housed John Jacob Astor’s library on Lafayette Street. The design Hunt produced echoed the library Henri Labrouste designed for the Sorbonne, completed while Hunt was a student at the École. Hunt introduced elements that became hallmarks of the Beaux-Arts style: the light gray limestone exterior walls—the Beaux-Arts strongly condemned a dark palette—enriched with precious materials like the pink granite columns that divided the high arched windows of the second story, the gray granite columns of the top story, the bronze entrance gates, and the marble-sheathed interior walls. The exterior elevations were a dictionary of the Beaux-Arts classical vocabulary: Ionic capitals atop the pink granite columns, fluted Corinthian pilasters, dentil moldings, rusticated stonework, and, on the Fifth Avenue facade, a pair of pediments embellished with the garland-framed busts of ancient gods. The astute critic Montgomery Schuyler, writing in the New York Times, proclaimed the new Lenox Library “the most monumental public building in New York.”

An equally atypical commission allowed Hunt to display all the sophistication and subtlety of which he was capable on a grand scale in New York harbor. In 1881 he won the commission to design the base for Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi’s colossal Statue of Liberty, with its Gustave Eiffel-designed skeleton. Hunt’s Beaux-Arts training led him to compose a pedestal deftly embellished with classical elements and appropriate in scale to carry the 151-foot goddess. He created an 89-foot-high, four-sided fortress of liberty, built of giant blocks of rusticated Connecticut granite and lightened on each face with an open loggia framed by square Doric columns, recalling Thomas Jefferson’s belief that the American republic demanded classical simplicity in architecture. Near the foot of the pedestal, Hunt placed 40 circular shields meant to carry the coats of arms of the 40 states. At the monument’s unveiling on October 28, 1886, the pedestal received universal acclaim. Though opinion regarding Richard Morris Hunt’s other work has ranged from crests of approval to troughs of condemnation, his achievement with the base of the Statue of Liberty has never been questioned. “The height and mass of the pedestal—the major architectural considerations—are perfect,” wrote Lewis Sharp, curator of American paintings and sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art during the 1980s.

The château that Hunt had raised on Fifth Avenue for the independent-minded Alva Vanderbilt was an equally extraordinary commission that permitted him to express—in its logical, classical composition, its light stone, its sumptuous interiors, and its French Renaissance details—those Beaux-Arts ideals he had carried home from Paris. From that commission flowed opportunities that allowed him to prove himself America’s master architect of the great house.

After his return to his native country, Hunt had frequently used the phrase “the new Medicis” to describe the just-minted millionaires that America’s steel mills and mines and railroads were producing in the post-Civil War years. And he had often reiterated the idea that they should inhabit Medicean dwellings. This was a revolutionary conception in a nation that had romanticized the log cabin and the simple rose-covered cottage as the ideal expressions of the American personality. These things had come to represent American honesty and goodness as opposed to the corrupt sophistication and elegance of Europe. It was not easy to convince a nation enamored of the myth that it was a virgin wilderness and forever young that it was in fact approaching maturity. An architect who wanted to construct the equivalent of the palaces of Italy and the castles of France faced no easy task.

It is not surprising that Hunt’s finest residences were built for clients who, like Alva Vanderbilt, were not diffident about their wealth but saw it as a reality of a new age. Hunt’s greatest clients, again like Alva, had an element of eccentricity in their makeup, an eccentricity that liberated them from the commonplace and let the architect push his designs beyond the limits of the ordinary.

Henry G. Marquand, a banker who specialized in financing railroads, fit the pattern perfectly. Marquand, who had commissioned a summer house at Newport and a chapel for Princeton from Hunt, had such a passion for art that, according to a friend, he never saw a picture that he didn’t try to buy. He possessed some of the finest Van Dycks in the United States, an incredible array of Roman bronzes, and a superb collection of Chinese porcelains. Later, when he became president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s board, Marquand insisted that Hunt become the museum’s architect, but now he wanted a New York residence reflecting his artistic tastes. Completed in 1884 at the northwest corner of Madison Avenue and 68th Street, the Marquand mansion was a magical evocation of the French Renaissance châteaus of the sixteenth century.

Its exterior was a lavish composition of balustraded balconies, pedimented dormer windows, crested mansard roofs, and clustered chimneys. But it was the interior that fully revealed Marquand as the princely patron. To assist in the decoration of the house’s Pompeian salon, its Moorish library, its Japanese drawing room, and its Spanish refectory, Marquand summoned outstanding artists, from the Americans John La Farge and Louis C. Tiffany to such famed English painters as Sir Frederick Leighton, whose Light of the World was one of the nineteenth century’s most reproduced pictures, and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, the creator of the wildly popular A Reading from Homer.

An equally special client was Elbridge T. Gerry, a New York lawyer and real estate magnate whose mother was a member of the landowning Goelet family. One of Gerry’s chief reasons for asking Hunt in 1891 to design him a mansion was his desire to provide fitting quarters for his stupendous library of some 30,000 law books, many exceedingly rare. The odd bibliophile—he wore heavy sealskin hats no matter how sizzling the heat—proved a difficult client, insisting that his butler, cook, and valet review Hunt’s plans, often with ridiculous consequences, such as dumbwaiters that opened into closets. But when the essentially Louis XIII-style house at Fifth Avenue and 61st Street was complete, its beautiful brickwork, its exquisitely carved limestone quoins and window frames, and its soaring, elegant square corner tower led critic Montgomery Schuyler to proclaim that, other than the Vanderbilt residence, this was “the most interesting and most successful” of all Hunt’s grand New York houses.

It was Alva Vanderbilt’s new project for a Newport summer cottage that allowed Hunt to take the Beaux-Arts style a step further in opulence. The Rhode Island town was one of the Gilded Age’s most fashionable resorts. For the first half of the century it had been a quiet spot to summer for established families like the Howlands, for Southerners fleeing the torrid heat of the Carolinas, and for intellectuals and artists such as John La Farge, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry James, and Hunt’s own brother, William, who gave painting lessons there. Alva was about to change all that.

Hunt began designing the appropriately named Marble House in 1888. The exterior, which consumed a half million cubic feet of white marble, focused on an entrance portico of four soaring Corinthian columns approached by a raised, curving ramp that put on display all the Vanderbilts’ glittering guests. The portico, Alva said, was inspired by temples she had visited in Greece; others said that it was modeled on the White House. The truth was that, in this fantastical evocation of all the Southern Greek Revival plantation houses lost to the Yankees in the Civil War, Alva was having her revenge.

While the construction of the mansion’s shell cost $2 million, an additional $9 million went to decorate the interior and to buy furniture from the renowned Paris firm of J. Allard et Fils. Alva and Hunt both adored dramatic entrances, and Marble House was to have the ne plus ultra of dramatic entrances. When the mansion’s partially gilded bronze and gunmetal steel doors—each weighing one and a half tons—swung back, one stepped into a jewel-box entrance hall, whose walls, paving, and grand stairway were all of radiant golden Siena marble. To the right, the ballroom was a shimmering gilded and mirrored cavern with huge bronze chandeliers and a marble fireplace upon which rode larger than life-size bronze figures. To the left was the dining room, its walls glowing with precious dark pink Numidian marble brought from North African quarries unused since the age of Imperial Rome.

When Alva greeted Richard and Catharine Hunt at the gala that inaugurated Marble House on August 19, 1892, she smiled and glanced meaningfully over her shoulder. There behind her at the top of the grand stairway were portrait medallions of Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the architect of Versailles, and Richard Morris Hunt, architect to the Vanderbilts.

The triumphalism displayed by Alva in the creation of Marble House got a cool reception from the Cornelius Vanderbilts, who lived nearby in the Breakers, a large but nondescript wood and brick residence they had bought in 1885. Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt, in particular, was disconcerted; after all, her husband, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, was Willie K.’s elder brother and thus the titular head of the Vanderbilt family. And Alice, unlike Alva, didn’t like ostentation. A devout Episcopalian who regularly taught Sunday school at New York’s St. Bartholomew’s Church, she was a committed supporter of both the YW and the YMCA as well as the Salvation Army. But when she was challenged, a surprising streak, that touch of eccentricity found in so many of Richard Morris Hunt’s clients, broke through. It had always been there, of course. Her children related the story of sitting down to a Sunday evening supper when, unexpectedly, their mother was informed that the butler had taken ill. Because it was Alice Vanderbilt’s rule that, when in the dining room, she gave orders only to the butler, she refused to tell the waitress to serve the meal, and she and the children went to bed hungry.

In November 1892, just three months after the unveiling of Marble House, the original Breakers fortuitously burned to the ground. The Cornelius Vanderbilts lost no time in summoning Hunt and commanding him to design a new Breakers. Slowly there arose the most enormous “cottage” Newport had ever seen. Its exterior of Indiana limestone was inspired by Genoa’s sixteenth-century palazzi. Its interior held among its 70 rooms some of the most impressive creations of Beaux-Arts design ever. The 300 guests invited in August 1895 for the debut of both the house and the 20-year-old Gertrude Vanderbilt (later Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney) saw chambers of unparalleled richness. Assembling in the 50-foot-high great hall, with its gilded ceiling and walls of ivory-like Caen stone, they moved on to the gray and gold music room whose boiseries had been carved in Europe and reassembled in America, and then on to the breathtaking 2,400-square-foot dining room, where the glitter was blinding. Around the periphery of the room, red-and-cream-colored alabaster columns with gilded Corinthian capitals rose to a painted ceiling that depicted Aurora, goddess of dawn. The huge fireplace had a high hood of fine gray Cippolino marble decorated with silver leaf. As a final touch, Hunt had designed two 12-foot chandeliers, cascading with thousands of individual pieces of Baccarat crystal.

The 1890s witnessed the professional high-water mark and the close of Richard Morris Hunt’s life. Though Hunt drove himself relentlessly in his work, carefully supervising every project that came into his office, his health had never been robust. He regularly suffered from bouts of boils and from respiratory infections. In 1874 double pneumonia forced him to take a six-month leave from his office. In 1868 he had his first attack of gout, which plagued him often thereafter. Indeed, when in October 1893 he visited Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition, whose classically inspired architecture heralded the triumph of all that he had fought for, he was so incapacitated with gout that he was forced to view the bedazzling White City from an electric launch that plied its intricate waterways and from a wheeled chair.

It was thanks to Hunt and his Beaux-Arts training that classical architecture was chosen for the gigantic fair with which the United States celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World. Other persuasive voices, like Louis Sullivan’s, had argued that the Exposition should be designed in the style of the rugged terra-cotta, brick, and granite structures that had grown out of Henry Hobson Richardson’s Romanesque Revival and were justifiably the Windy City’s pride. But Hunt’s selection as chairman of the fair’s board of architects tipped the balance to the classical.

By the 1890s Hunt’s prestige was enormous. In 1887 he had been elected the third president of the American Institute of Architects, and—in the words of Dankmar Adler, Louis Sullivan’s senior partner—Hunt was the “leader of the profession of architecture in America.” Hunt had another not-so-secret weapon in his battle for the classical: some of the architects selected to design buildings for the Columbian Exposition had been students in his atelier in the Studio Building. One of them, Henry Van Brunt, reported that when their former teacher presided at meetings of the fair’s architects, “we once more became his willing and happy pupils.”

What Hunt inculcated at these meetings was that the fair must have the monumental look that only the classical could give. And since the architects of the fair began meeting only in February 1891—giving them scarcely two years to complete the gigantic task—Hunt argued that the buildings should have skeletons of iron and steel covered with inexpensive “staff,” plaster stiffened with hemp fibers, which had a durability of about two years. The staff, Hunt noted, could then be molded into any form desired—but, he added slyly, the classical, with its formulated repertory of columns and pilasters, cornices and balustrades, would lend itself to the process better than any other style. Painted white to resemble marble, the edifices of the Columbian Exposition would allow Americans to walk among monuments of ancient Rome magically restored upon Lake Michigan’s shore.

Though the fair didn’t open until May 1, 1893, the official dedication ceremony took place in October 1892. Richard and Catharine Hunt were there. The weather was windy and dismal, as were the speeches, and the crowd of distinguished architects and artists looked downcast and somewhat bedraggled. Suddenly Richard Morris Hunt’s unmistakable voice rang out. “Look around you,” he proclaimed. “Here we stand in the midst of what we have done, and have a cause to be proud of doing so much in so short a time! Why don’t you hold up your heads!”

Certainly during his later visit in October 1893, shortly before the fair closed, Hunt had much to be proud of. At last he had a chance to see the Court of Honor, the Exposition’s centerpiece, which hadn’t been completed on his previous visit. The Court, with its harmonious structures all having a uniform cornice line, had been Hunt’s inspired conception.

Now, beneath a moonlit sky, he saw the amazing assemblage revealed. From the waters of Frederick Law Olmsted’s vast Grand Basin rose Daniel Chester French’s high, august, gilded figure of a woman representing the Republic. On the basin’s verge, McKim, Mead & White’s domed Agricultural Pavilion and Peabody & Stearn’s pinnacle-topped Machinery Hall looked as though they were crafted of ivory. Occupying the place of honor at the head of the Grand Basin shimmered Hunt’s own Administration Building, a breathtaking composition of be-columned tiers rising to a dome 275 feet in the air, 57 feet higher than that of the Capitol in Washington.

The novelist Theodore Dreiser wrote that all who saw the Court of Honor would never forget “its monumental stateliness and simple grandeur.” Indeed, they never did. They carried the Court of Honor’s combination of careful planning and harmonious Beaux-Arts architecture to every corner of the country. Out of it would be born the nationwide City Beautiful movement in urban planning and architecture, and the fair’s chief of construction, Daniel Burnham, would give to Chicago a peerlessly planned lakefront, and to Washington, a re-classicized Mall, on these principles. From Boston to Kansas City, from Minneapolis to San Francisco, Beaux-Arts museums, libraries, and city halls rose to show how well the lessons Richard Morris Hunt had taught at the Columbian Exposition had been learned.

Hunt himself got to design the greatest Beaux-Arts museum in the land. He had been associated with the Metropolitan Museum as a trustee and donor since its founding in 1870 and had watched with dismay as the museum’s first home, a banal red brick and granite structure designed by Calvert Vaux, went up on Fifth Avenue between 79th and 84th Streets. Vaux’s Ruskinian pavilion proved too small, and an even less attractive wing, designed by the virtually unknown Theodore Weston, soon rose to join it. “Uninspired” was the  New York Times’s curt summation of Weston’s work. Here, in the golden city of the Western world, was irrefutable evidence that Americans still preferred the diffident, the picturesque, the irredeemably rural.

The wind quickly shifted when Henry G. Marquand became the museum’s new president in 1890. One of his first acts was to appoint Hunt as the Metropolitan’s architect. In Hunt’s end was truly his beginning, for he now browsed through his portfolios from Lefuel’s atelier and drew forth sketches that he had made then for an imaginary Ministry of Justice. The center of the Metropolitan’s Fifth Avenue facade bears a striking similarity to that project. Hunt recalled too, now that he was designing an American Louvre, his work in the 1850s on the Rivoli side of Paris’s Louvre. The Fifth Avenue structure he proposed for the museum was not rural, not diffident; it unashamedly proclaimed urbanity and confidence.

The facade was a Roman triple triumphal arch composed of four pairs of colossal Corinthian columns linked by three soaring arches. The facade sculptures—heads of Athena on the keystones of the arches; four caryatids representing architecture, sculpture, painting, and music; portrait medallions of six Old Masters in the spandrels; and high atop the paired columns, groups symbolizing four great periods of art—reiterated the point that this was an edifice dedicated to a high civilization that reached back through eighteenth-century France and the Renaissance to imperial Rome and Periclean Athens. The stone for the four statuary groups, still uncarved, sits in place high above Fifth Avenue today.

Hunt never saw his museum. In April 1895 the New York State Legislature appropriated $1 million for its construction, but the architect could not be in New York on May 20 to present his plans to the museum’s trustees. He was in Asheville, North Carolina, completing yet another stupendous Vanderbilt house, Biltmore, for George Washington Vanderbilt, younger brother of Cornelius and William K. The 255-room gray limestone French Renaissance palace delighted him. “The mountains are just the right size and scale for the château!” he wrote to Catharine. In his stead, his son, Richard Howland Hunt, who had joined the office in 1887, met with the trustees. His father hoped to review the plans with Marquand over the summer.

But that was not to be. Throughout 1894 and 1895, Hunt had been plagued with persistent colds and ever more painful attacks of gout. Catharine vainly attempted to persuade him to slow down. Even though he was not feeling well, in July 1895 he and Catharine traveled to Lenox, Massachusetts, to attend the wedding of a Vanderbilt niece. When he returned to Newport, a combination of a chill and a frightful attack of gout forced him to take to his bed, his doctors assuring the family that there was nothing to fear. He died unexpectedly on July 31. Among the pallbearers at his funeral in Trinity Church, Newport, were Charles McKim, who always recognized Alva’s Fifth Avenue château as the first full expression of the Beaux-Arts style in America, and Henry Marquand. Hunt was buried in Newport’s Island Cemetery. On his gravestone is the line from his bookplate, “Laborare Est Orare,” Labor is prayer.

With the sudden death of Richard Morris Hunt, some of the Metropolitan’s trustees felt that an architect with more experience than the 33-year-old Richard Howland Hunt should be brought in to supervise the construction of the new building. But Henry Marquand insisted that the son should finish what the father had begun; besides, Catharine Hunt had inherited all the drawings and plans for the museum project and refused to allow anyone other than her son to use them.

Not long before his death, Richard Morris Hunt, speaking to New York’s Architectural League, had unabashedly stated his feelings about art and America: “By the Great Caesar, if this country doesn’t take up art, we’ll make it, we’ll educate it, we’ll show it what a great and glorious thing it is.” When the Metropolitan’s new building opened on December 22, 1902, rare was the person who stood in the 166-foot-long, 48-foot-wide Great Hall, with its vaults and columns and three high domes reverberating with the architectural memories of the ages who could doubt that Richard Morris Hunt had indeed shown his fellow citizens what a “great and glorious thing” architecture could be.

Between 70th and 71st Streets, Daniel Chester French’s bust of Richard Morris Hunt gazes across Fifth Avenue at the Frick Collection, where his seminal Lenox Library once stood. Alva Vanderbilt’s luminescent New York château and those of Henry Marquand and Elbridge Gerry have vanished as completely as the court of Louis XIV. But Hunt’s genius and the enduring power of Beaux-Arts design still radiate from the aureate chambers of Marble House, from the Breakers, from the sublime base of the Statue of Liberty, and from the Metropolitan’s Great Hall. These structures remain a gold standard by which to measure just how much we have debased our architectural currency.

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