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.

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