by Suzanne Spellen (aka Montrose Morris)
Beaux-Arts architecture was tailor made for the Gilded Age: It’s big, showy, opulent and gleaming, with many of its features carved from high-end materials like marble, limestone and granite. But how did it come to be such a big deal? In short: educational prestige.
Architecture — like many professions — has its educational hierarchy. At the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Brooklyn had scrappy self-taught architects like the great Montrose Morris, and trained architects like James Naughton who attended Cooper Union.
But then you had the creme de la creme: those who learned architecture at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The school was legendary among architects of the period, and gave rise to the elegant architectural movement which bears its name: Beaux-Arts.
The Beaux-Arts (pronounced Bowz-arr) style had a major influence on American architecture between 1880 and 1920. Since most of the aspiring architects who went to Paris to study were wealthy, or sponsored by the wealthy, they naturally went to work designing for the wealthy.
Beaux-Arts architecture mixes Roman bones and Baroque decoration
The look is a combination of classical Imperial Roman architecture, with Italian Renaissance, French and Italian Baroque, and Classical Greek architectural elements tossed in. In simpler terms, it’s Roman architecture with a lot of sculptural Baroque ornament on top.
Figures, faces, swags, cartouches, murals, mosaics, and bas-reliefs were thrown together with Classical elements like column capitals, pilasters, brackets, and balustrades. These designs are not subtle, and work best when they are built big. Most of our best Beaux-Arts architecture is found in public buildings.
How Beaux-Arts became popular in the U.S.
In America, the fad for Beaux-Arts architecture started with the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The Fair structures were large Classical-style buildings, almost all painted white. City planners left the exhibition inspired to build gleaming new cities across America — grand buildings that would evoke pride and civic unity through their beauty, symmetry and grandeur.
Beaux-Arts architecture is nothing if not symmetrical and grand. And architects trained in the style were ready to produce. Some of the most famous names in New York City architecture at the turn of the 20th century were trained at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts: Daniel Burnham; McKim, Mead & White; and Park Slope’s own C.P.H. Gilbert, among many others.
For many wealthy Americans of the day, Beaux-Arts was the architectural style, one that added European legitimacy to the American nouveau-riche. The gorgeous ornamented structures were a symbol that America had arrived.
Beaux-Arts masterpieces are found all over New York City: Grand Central Station, the old Penn Station, the main branch of the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Washington Square Arch, just to name a few.
Beaux-Arts in Brooklyn
We have a number of massive Beaux-Arts structures right here in our fair borough. McKim, Mead & White’s Institute of Arts and Sciences — now called the Brooklyn Museum — is the largest, and Grand Army Plaza is one of the finest examples of Beaux-Arts and the City Beautiful movement in all of New York. The plaza’s fountains, arch, and park entrance are textbook.
Rudolph Daus, the architect of Willoughby Street’s Beaux-Arts Telephone and Telegraph Building was also trained at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The Manhattan side of the Manhattan Bridge is classic Beaux-Arts, and originally, so was the Brooklyn side, as well.
The smaller scale of residential buildings is such that full-blown Beaux-Arts style is rarely found, but there are examples here in Brooklyn. In Crown Heights North, architect Peter J. Lauritzen designed a Beaux-Arts townhouse on St. Marks Avenue, its wealthiest street. The home has been mightily altered but remains Crown Heights’ only extant example of residential Beaux-Arts architecture.
Park Slope is home not only to Grand Army Plaza, but several homes in the Gold Coast that can be classified as Beaux-Arts — including 123A and 125 8th Avenue, designed by Peter Collins in 1902.
Bedford Stuyvesant can boast 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.
The difference between Beaux-Arts, Neo-Classical, and Renaissance Revival
All of these architectural styles come out of the World’s Fair and fall under the so-called White Cities Movement dating from the 1890s through the 1920s. The styles all feature buildings made of light-colored stone, and they all incorporate classical Greek or Roman elements like columns, colonettes, and decorative capitals.
Neo-Classical is easiest to separate, because it is the purest interpretation of the movement’s Greek and Roman roots. Courthouses, temples, banks, churches and libraries are often classified as Neo-Classical or Classical Revival.
Renaissance Revival and Beaux-Arts share the use of carved stone ornament; garlands, swags, faces and figures, flora and fauna. But which is which?
Renaissance Revival buildings, in general, have more two-dimensional ornaments — carved garlands, wreaths, floral motifs, fantastical animals and beings, all more or less in relief. The medieval-inspired Renaissance Revival style is also a bit more playful and grotesque, drawing from the ornament of different regions, like the French or German Renaissance.
Beaux-Arts, on the other hand, is much more three-dimensional. It features larger, heavier forms of ornament — no matter what size the building. Decorative elements are usually clustered above windows and doors, and near the roof. Classical motifs abound, but are hyper-accentuated with statues, balustrades, columns, 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 retains its power even today.