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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Cass Gilbert

New York's Woolworth Building soars upward in all its 792 feet of Neo-Gothic splendor, while in the background the World Trade Center Freedom Tower (now completed)
rises to a new record height (for New York, that is) of 1776 feet.
Cass Gilbert, 1907, Kenyon Cox
Some seventy-five miles north of where I live lies the eastern Ohio city of Zanesville. Other than a bridge shaped like a "Y", and being the second capital city of Ohio, and having the ugliest courthouse in the whole state, the city doesn't have much to proclaim any fame. It can, however, lay claim to having been the birthplace of Cass Gilbert. If that name leaves you scratching your head, try bringing to mind the Woolworth Building in New York. Not much help? How about the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.  Ahh...that Cass Gilbert. Yes, that Cass Gilbert was the architect responsible for arguably the second most beautiful building in Washington (after the White House). His sixty-story Woolworth Building (above), completed in 1913 was, at the time, the tallest building in the world, until surpassed by the Chrysler Building followed by the Empire State Building in 1930.
The Cass Gilbert residence, 1890, St. Paul, Minnesota
Little Falls Depot, 1899, Cass Gilbert.
I've always held that you could tell a lot about artists by looking at their self-portraits. However, inasmuch as architects seldom paint self-portraits, the self-representational equivalent would be the homes they design for themselves. In Gilbert's case, that would be one of his earliest works (designed for his mother, actually) build in 1890 in St. Paul, Minnesota (above) where Gilbert counted as home. It's a sort of faux Tudor style, sometimes called "Shingle" style, and is still occupied today, nearly 125 years after its completion. In fact, unlike many architects of his era, the vast majority of Cass Gilbert's buildings are still standing, though some have been re-purposed. During the 1890s, Gilbert's first clients hired him to design and build Minnesota train stations such as the Little Falls Depot (above, left) dating from 1899.

The Minnesota State Capitol, St. Paul, 1898, Cass Gilbert.
(He designed mostly just the dome.)
By the year 1899, Gilbert was a well-established architect of national importance having two state capitol buildings under construction at the same time, the first in his home state of Minnesota, the second further south in Arkansas. A third state capitol building, in Charleston, West Virginia, came in 1925. The Minnesota structure is Beaux Arts in style, while the Arkansas Capitol (directly below) could best be termed severely Ionic. Despite their differences in style, all three suggest the influence of the U.S. Capitol. Except for its blue and gold (leaf) dome, the West Virginia State Capitol (second image below) might easily be mistaken for its older cousin in Washington.

The Arkansas State Capitol, Little Rock, 1899, Cass Gilbert
West Virginia State Capitol, Charleston, 1925, Cass Gilbert
With the completion of the capitol building in his home state around 1898-99, Gilbert moved his architectural firm to New York City where he immediately picked up his first commission for a "skyscraper", the eighteen-story Broadway-Chambers building (below, right) designed in the same familiar Beaux Arts style he heavily favored during this period. However, Gilbert's big break in New York came not in designing a soaring skyscraper but in his heavily ornamented Alexander Hamilton Customs Building (below) built between 1902 and 1907. Despite its importance historically, I've never been a fan of the Beaux-Arts style, and this ugly monstrosity is the perfect example of why. I shudder in horror every time I see it.

The Alexander Hamilton Customs Building, 1902-07, Cass Gilbert.
The Broadway-Chambers
Building, 1901, Cass Gilbert
Union Central Life Building,
1911-13, Cincinnati, Cass Gilbert
Cass Gilbert came of age as a major architectural force (indeed, something of a celebrity) at an awkward time, during the first decades of the 20th century. Urban structures were beginning their "race toward the stars" (which continues today). The problem was no one really knew how to handle such massive structures and enormous heights. As Gilbert himself demonstrated with his first attempt, the Broadway-Chambers Building (above, left), the Beaux-Arts style was not the answer. The soaring, uplifting, Gothic style of French cathedrals looked to be a possible solution, which indeed, Gilbert chose to utilize in building F.W. Woolworth's 1913 ego-structure (top). In Cincinnati, (1911-13) Gilbert tried installing a Greek temple topped by and Egyptian pyramid topped by a Roman lighthouse all topping off his 495-foot tall Union Central Life Building (above, right). The result is almost comical.

The Woolworth Building Lobby, 1913,
Cass Gilbert--antique styles trying to
meet 20th century architectural needs.
The problem was, Cass Gilbert was born in 1859. He was a 19th century architect cast into the midst of a 20th century New York real estate boom where street frontage and square footage were skyrocketing into millions of dollars. The heights his clients demanded could not be shoehorned into the existing design modes Gilbert, and others like him, knew and loved. Gilbert saw on the horizon, and watched the New York skyline as the Chrysler Building embraced Art Deco and the Empire State Building adopted an architectural hybrid mixing Deco with the evolving International Style. He detested both. As late as 1927, Gilbert, in designing Prudential's 14-story "Rock of Gibraltar" Building in Newark, New Jersey, was still using a Gothic Revival style (though somewhat streamlined).

Fortunately, in terms of his architectural reputation and legacy, Cass Gilbert got out of the skyscraper business (or was simply bypassed). The latter years of his life involved designing art museums, libraries, and a Capitol building beside a remote river in West Virginia. His final, and by far his most successful architectural achievement, eloquently capping off his long career, was not completed until after his death in 1932. The U.S. Supreme Court Building is Corinthian Classical without being fussy about it. It's stately without being stodgy. It's elegant without being pretentious. Having recently undergone renovation and repair, Cass Gilbert's crowning achievement remains so nobly modern as to cause us to forgive and forget all his other struggling attempts to decorate the 20th century with motifs from the 19th.

The United States Supreme Court Building, 1935, Washington, D.C., Cass Gilbert.

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