Walkabout: Beaux-Arts Architecture

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As in many professions, there are hierarchies of education. At the end of the 19th, and into the 20th centuries, there were several ways to become an architect. Some people skipped the school/higher education thing and went to work as apprentices to established architects. If you had the talent, or the money or influence, you could apprentice to a real master, and get a first rate education, with on the job training. Montrose Morris, among many others, did this, and did quite well for himself. Others went to school, at places like Cooper Union, Columbia, MIT, and various other finer American institutions of higher learning. Nothing shabby there, either, as architects like Cooper Union’s James Naughton can attest. Many of our finest architects came to this country from Europe, and studied at their universities before coming to the US, men like Swedish architect Magnus Dahlander, or Englishman Albert Parfitt. And then you had the creme de la creme, a la Francaise: L’ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France. This school is legendary among architects of that period, and gave rise to an entire style of architecture which bears its name: Beaux-Arts.

The Beaux-Arts (pronounced Bowz-arr) style was a major influence on American architecture between 1880 and 1920. Since most of the would be-architects who went to Paris to study were wealthy, or sponsored by the wealthy, it comes as little surprise that when they returned to the US, they went to work designing for the wealthy. Conveniently, the training they received in Paris prepared them well, because Beaux-Arts architecture was tailor made for the Gilded Age, it is big, showy, opulent and gleaming in marble, limestone, and granite. In form, Beaux-Arts architecture is a combination of classical Imperial Roman architecture, with Italian Renaissance, French and Italian Baroque, and Classical Greek architectural elements and models tossed in. To simplify it to its basics, we’re talking Roman architecture with a lot of Baroque sculptural ornament: figures, faces, swags, cartouches, murals, mosaics, bas-reliefs; the works, on top of Classical elements like column capitals, pilasters, brackets, and balustrades. These designs are not subtle, and work best when they are built large across the landscape, so most of our best Beaux-Arts architecture is public in nature.

In America, it really starts with the 1893 Chicago World’s Exhibition, which gave us the White City Movement, which led to the City Beautiful Movement in the United States. The Fair was comprised of large Classical style buildings, almost all stuccoed or painted white, which literally glowed from that new invention, electric lights. City planners came from the exhibition with the promise to build new beautiful cities across America, cities that would inspire industry, pride and civic unity by their beauty, symmetry and grandeur. Beaux-Arts architecture is nothing if not huge and impressive, and those trained in it were ready to produce. Some of the most famous names in NYC architecture, at the turn of the 20th century were trained at L’ École des Beaux-Arts: Daniel Burnham, architect of the Chicago Ex, and the Flatiron Building, Carrére & Hastings, Warren and Wetmore, designers of Grand Central Station, CPH Gilbert, of Park Slope fame, but also the mega-mansions of the Upper East Side rich, Cass Gilbert, of the Woolworth Building, and Charles Follen McKim, W.R. Mead, and Stanford White, among many others.

As mentioned before, Beaux-Arts architecture is best when it can be large and impressive. New York City would be the perfect place for impressive architecture, and we have our share. For many wealthy Americans of the day, this was OUR architectural style, one that said who we are to the rest of the world, especially the Europeans with their centuries of architectural heritage and achievements. The City Beautiful would show everyone that America was no longer a cultural backwater, with uncouth, albeit fabulously wealthy nouveau-riche; we too, had impressive buildings, so there! Unfortunately for Manhattan, the city was growing too fast for it to slow down enough to be completely rebuilt, City Beautiful or no City Beautiful, so our Beaux-Arts masterpieces are found all over : Grand Central Station, Penn Station, the Public Library, much of Columbia University, the Municipal Building, Tweed Courthouse, US Customs House at Bowling Green, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Siegel-Cooper Building, Washington Square Arch, NY Stock Exchange, Farley Post Office, Ansonia Apartments, NY Yacht Club, and many, many more. The wealthy also embraced the Beaux-Arts style in their mansions such as the Breakers, and the marble mansion of the Vanderbilt’s, and others in Newport, R.I., as well as on the side streets and 5th Avenue, on the Upper East Side.

Ok, so what about Brooklyn, and what’s the difference between Renaissance Revival, Classical Revival and Beaux-Arts architecture, when it comes to the streets of our fair borough? Well, we have a couple of massive Beaux-Arts structures here too. McKim, Mead and White’s Institute of Arts and Science, now called the Brooklyn Museum, is the largest. In fact, Grand Army Plaza is one of the finest examples of Beaux-Arts and City Beautiful designs in the city, with the fountains, the arch, the entrance to the park, also by MM&W, and then the museum. If the original design for the library had been kept, that too, was to be a large classically inspired structure, and would have completed the City Beautiful design. Rudolph Daus, the architect of Willoughby Street’s Beaux-Arts Telephone and Telegraph building was L’École trained. The Manhattan side of the Manhattan Bridge is classic Beaux-Arts, and originally, so was the Brooklyn side, as well.

The general small scale of residential buildings is such that full blown Beaux-Arts style is rare, but there are examples here in Brooklyn. In Crown Heights North, architect PJ Lauritzen designed a Beaux-Arts townhouse on St. Marks Avenue, its wealthiest street. It’s been mightily altered but remains Crown Heights’ only remaining example of residential Beaux-Arts architecture. Park Slope is home to not only Grand Army Plaza, but several homes in the Gold Coast that can be classified as Beaux-Arts, such as 123A and 125 8th Avenue, designed by Peter Collins in 1902. Bedford Stuyvesant can boast of the French Beaux-Arts apartment buildings designed by William Debus, on MacDonough Street at Throop, as well as the beautiful row houses, also by Debus, on Stuyvesant Avenue. There are other examples in many neighborhoods.

So what’s the difference between Beaux-Arts, Neo-Classical or Classical Revival, and Renaissance Revival? They all come out of the White Cities movement, and share dates from the 1890′s through the 1920′s. They all feature buildings of light colored stone, such as limestone, marble, or light colored brick. All can feature classical Greek or Roman columns, colonettes, or columns in relief, complete with decorative capitals. Renaissance Revival and Beaux-Arts share the use of carved stone ornament; garlands, swags, faces and figures, flora and fauna. Which is which? Classical Revival is easier to separate from the other two, because it is the purist in form to its Greek and Roman roots. Courthouses, temples, banks, churches and libraries are often classified as Neo-Classical or Classical Revival. Renaissance Revival and Beaux-Arts can be a bit trickier. My observations tell me that Ren-Rev buildings, in general, are more uniform, almost always limestone, and in row houses, consist of rather symmetrical and uniform building shapes, with applied ornament in the form of carved garlands, wreaths, floral motifs, fantastical animals and beings, all carved more or less in relief. Similar ornament can be found in cornices in pressed metal. Since there were many influences in the Renaissance, different regions produce different kinds of ornament, and some, like the French Renaissance, can be more 3 dimensional and ornate. Beaux-Arts, on the other hand, is much more 3 dimensional, with heavy forms of ornament, in much larger scale, no matter what size the building. The ornament is usually clustered above windows and doors, and near the roof. Classical motifs abound, but are hyper accentuated, with statues, balustrades, columns and capitals, large shield-like cartouches and medallions, garlands and wreaths. Renaissance Revival references the highly decorative, but lighter touch of the Renaissance. Beaux-Arts embraces the much more overblown heavier grasp of the Baroque. All of these styles represent the confidence of a wealthy nation coming into its own as a world power in the 20th century. There’s something about Rome and empire that will always attract. Nevertheless, this bold and public architecture in many ways defines New York, and the Beaux-Arts style is still powerful, and does indeed make for a City Beautiful.

0 Comment

  • I love the Beaux-Arts period in american architecture. The area around St. Marks in Crown Heights North and PPW in Park Slope really have some fascinating architecture. Crown Heights south has great Beaux-Arts homes also…

  • Thanks for the great write-up. I am not a big fan of many older styles, but I love Beaux-Arts.

  • Wonderful write-up as always Montrose.

  • ***********************************
    Post from the new, improved Benson
    ***********************************

    Sigh….

    Those were the days. We dumb Americans learning higher things from the French. Why was life so good before 1900???

  • Nice essay MM.
    I would just like to add that one of the hallmarks of the Beaux-Arts style is the incorporation of figural sculpture into the design of facades. Usually these are allegorical figures such as Goddesses representing the major continents as seen on the Custom House on Bowling Green, or important historical judges and lawmakers such as seen on the Surrogates Court on Chambers Street or the goddesses representing different branches of the arts perched on top of the Brooklyn Museum.
    The wonderful clock facing south on Park Avenue on the facade of Grand Central Terminal topped by a great winged figure of Mercury and flanked by “industry” and “commerce” is a masterpiece of the American Beaux-Arts. On the old Penn Station female figures representing “night” and “day” were prominently placed on either side of that building’s great exterior clock. One of the maidens representing night, half hidden under a cloak, is in the garden of the Brooklyn museum. One of the few pieces salvaged from that once great structure, most of which ended up as landfill in NJ.

  • Beautiful article, MM. Thanks.

    Hi Benson.

  • benson- “sigh* why don’t you just stop stalking MM and bitching about what she writes? Start your own blog if it bothers you so much instead of carrying on like a pissy child? Honestly- are you that immature you have to make what she writes about an issue every chance you get? Enough already. It’s enough.

  • The facade of the Museum was really beautiful … until they added that incongruous and tasteless glass addition to the front. This was NOT what was originally proposed some 15 years ago when they spoke of restoring the steps that had been removed decades earlier. (so I was told by a former museum curator)

  • morralkan- you know I love old buildings but I have to say I do love the glass addition. I used to work at the Brooklyn Museum and always the facade looked so incomplete. I was totally prepared to hate the glass addition but when I walked past it I really found it beautiful- I thought the contrast, plus the stepped roof referenced the original grand stairway but the glass and such made for a great juxtaposition of materials and styles. I think the fact that it’s glass makes it work. At least for me it does.

  • I never saw that pre-glass facade, but I like the combo of the glass with the Beaux Arts building.

  • The glass entry is where the great flight of stairs used to be leading up to the main entrance. The glass roof is supposed to echo the geometry of the masonry steps. It works well enough. Of course nothing like that would have been contemplated on the Met, but then again you don’t see a bike lane of Fifth Avenue either.

  • Well, the Met still has its staircase- and it is spectacular, minard. I think one of the reasons they did not reproduce the original is that the Brooklyn Museum wanted ot establish an identity as other than the Met wannabe. I’ve always love it- although i have to say I’m not thrilled with the artistic direction its taken lately. It would be a shame for it to have worked against being the MiniMet only to become the MiniMOMA

  • I read that when the Met replaced their old staircase with one the new one twice the size in the 60s/70s, there was a big uproar about how it would destroy the facade.

  • BoerumHill, the big uproar was due to the fact that the architect who redesigned the front steps at the Met in the 70′s wanted to remove the monumental stair inside the Met that leads up to the picture galleries. The uproar stopped that stupid plan dead in its tracks.

  • I’m pretty sure I also read about an uproar over the outside steps messing up the look of the facade at the Met, but I could be wrong.

    I agree that taking down the inside grand stair case would be a big mistake.

  • right! a big mistake! and I may be misremembering but wasn’t the architect in question IM Pei?
    Anyway he did a fine job with the new outdoor steps and the Fifth Avenue fountains.

  • At first, I was very disappointed with the Brooklyn Museum’s new facade. But it has grown on me and it feels nice from the inside. I love the Met’s steps and so does everyone else. It is one of the best people watching perches ever.

  • I think the Met’s steps function as one of the best public places in the city.

  • Bxgrl: It would be a shame for it to have worked against being the MiniMet only to become the MiniMOMA.

    So true, Bxgrl. It can really exploit its own really great collection without being a mini-either. I think a city of New York’s size and importance can handle having many important museums, which it does. The Met is the Met but the Brooklyn has its own world class collection.

  • When I go past the Brooklyn Museum on nice days, it seems it’s become a public spot as well. Who couldcomplain about the view or location? Eastern Parkway and right next ot the Botanic gardens.

  • I do think the Brooklyn Museum is a great public space. I love the fact that it is friendly to both adults and kids.

  • What about the BAM building on Lafayette? Isn’t that Beaux Arts, with all those cute cherubs?

  • Anyone who likes Beaux Arts will love San Francisco. Most of the civic architecture there was built post 1906 earthquake and looks like this.

  • I guess it still needs to find its own identity- until it does, it will never be a destination in its own right. And I love the place. I can’t understand why it would undermine the best thing it has going for it- its collections. What they really need is a better way to get their message out- not try so hard to be edgy and trendy.

  • When the new bus depot was unveiled, the architecture critic of the NY Times went on an on about how wonderful it was. Of course, he didn’t suggest that the Met rip down its stairway and emulate the Brooklyn Museum. UESiders would NEVER have allowed such a travesty. Only in Brooklyn would we have allowed what is perhaps the finest building in our borough to have been desecrated. This was pure bait and switch.

    The new Brooklyn Museum leadership was trying for something edgy and for some great community outreach. Sure, they get plenty of people in, but mostly on the monthly, free family days. I’ve gone by the front of the museum many times (I do, however, try to avert my eyes or take an alternate route), but it is rare that I see these “magnificent” steps more than sporadically populated. That occurs mostly with school trips and on West Indian Parade Day.

    The leadership of the Museum should be changed and the present curator hung.

  • Have you seen the North and South sides of the Met? Almost all glass.

    How about the Museum of Natural History on the UWS with it’s 5 story high glass cube and sphere?

  • Cross-posting from the wrapped column thread:

    Without creating a curatorial focus, the BM will always be little brother to the Met.

    But what should they focus on? Modern is covered my MoMA and the Guggenheim. The New Museum covers contemporary. The Whitney focuses on American art.

    As it is, I only go to the BM when they have an interesting special exhibit (Murakami, Gilbert & George, Basquiat, etc).

    I suppose they could specialize in 19th century works, but I don’t see that boosting ticket sales.

  • The BMA stairs were removed ca. 1930 (by renowned International Style architect William Lescaze). The configuration of BMA was very different from the Met, though – the front yard is twice as deep and the first floor is twice as high (and hence so too would have been the steps). Replacing the McKim, Mead & White steps (which was Polshek’s original master plan) would have created less a public gathering space and more of an expedition!

    The Met’s stairs date to the 1970s – Kevin Roche was the architect (Roche Dinkeloo were the architect for much of what is today the Met). Prior to that, the Met’s front yard was very much like the old (post-1930) Brooklyn Museum – a driveway. There was a shallow set of stairs, hardly the urban gesture that it is today (see images here – http://www.nyc-architecture.com/UES/UES074.htm – fourth down on the right).

    The Met is actually a series of additions – RM Hunt’s 1902 front wing was no doubt a bold and highly contemporary addition in its time. Perhaps not as radical as Polshek’s front on the Brooklyn, but not nearly as contextual as we might think today. The steps on the Met and the Polshek “porch” on BMA both work – for their building, for their site and for their street. But neither is universal – you could not switch them, for instance. And both are wonderful arguments for why architecture (even protected architecture) should change and evolve.

    Regarding MM’s lovely write up, I’d only add that the Beaux-Arts style is not the same as the Ecole des Beaux Arts (the school). The Beaux-Arts “style” was a neoclassical style popularized by Beaux-Arts trained architects, but the style does not define the school (which lasted until 1968). Hunt (the first US architect to attend the Ecole) did much of his work not in the Beaux Arts style. So too did HH Richardson (who had a whole style – Richardsonian Romanesque named for him. MMW’s early work was daring and innovative, but it was not big-C classical – think shingle style as the Low House, or the Richardsonian Tiffany mansion on Madison and 72nd. On the other hand, many architects who did not train at the Ecole (i.e., Cass Gilbert, whose Custom House was mentioned above) worked very comfortably and ably in the Beaux-Arts “style”.

  • Very true, WB’er. I was trying to distill it down, perhaps too much. I appreciate your elucidation.

  • Of course I’ve seen those other sides of the Met, BoerumHillScott . Those sides, however, are NOT the facade.

  • Ultimately, I think any definitive parsing of Beaux Arts vs. other Classical styles is an impossible task, though that was not really what I was commenting on (and I think you did just fine with that impossible task). Beaux Arts is a style, a sub-style, a historical period and an actual place (the school). It is sort of like Art Deco – a period, an umbrella term for a collection of styles, and a (occasionally) an actual definable style – and like Art Deco, Beaux Arts is something that you know when you see it.

    In the case of Beaux Arts, where do we draw the line between it and Renaissance Revival, Classical Revival and neo-Classical? Particularly when architects of the time freely switched between one and another (and many other styles – look at Gilbert’s work!). MMW’s Racquet and Tennis Club, clearly based on Italian Renaissance precedents, vs. Penn Station, clearly based on Classical precedents but also clearly a functionally and stylistically new building type. Both of those buildings are “Beaux Arts” style (or are authoritatively called such), but they use clearly different precedents (Renaissance and Roman), and certainly Penn Station has a large dash of “neo” to go along with all that Classicism.

    Impossible – and exhausting!