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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Richard Morris Hunt

The John Griswold House, 1864, Newport, RI,
Hunt's first Newport house and one of his
earliest, bears traditional English Tudor styling
before Hunt glamorized his French influences.
When we think about various influences having to do with American architecture we usually dwell mostly on the English, and with good reason. Of course it's not hard to find  Spanish/American architecture, especially in the Southwest. But except for some French colonial structures in the deep South there was very little French influence on American architecture, at least until one Mr. Richard Morris Hunt came on the scene. He was the first American to study architecture at Paris' Ecole des Beaux-arts. He hit town around 1843 and spent the next twelve years soaking up everything French he could find. Then he brought so much of it back to the U.S. he might well have needed an import license. At the time, the prevailing style in France was called Francis I. The same thing we here in the U.S. call the Chateau style or sometimes Chateauesque. And running parallel with this, was a somewhat more restrained, boxier style most often referred to in the U.S. as Beaux-Arts.

Photo by Daderot
Hunt's Marble House, Newport, RI, 1888-92
Although they differ considerably in appearance, it's fitting these two styles should be discussed together in that, first of all, they came from the same country; second, they were popular during roughly the same era in the U.S. history, and third, in both cases only the wealthiest could afford them (and sometimes, even then,  just barely). I think it was Mark Twain who referred to the 1870s through to 1910 as the "Gilded Age." Richard Morris Hunt was the architect of Twain's Gilded Age. He was the architect of the Vanderbilts, and the...well, when you have the Vanderbilt family as clients, who needs anyone else. Both the Chateauesque and Beaux Arts styles would be quite minor ripples in the mainstream of late nineteenth, early twentieth century architecture except for Newport, Rhode Island, and a couple other east coast venues where costly, exuberant, megalithic examples have been preserved as tourist attractions and architectural oddities. Richard Morris Hunt designed several of them. He didn't, however, design for the "man on the street." Thus, you'd have to live in some pretty ritzy neighborhoods to spot more than one or two.

George Washington slept here...George Washington Vanderbilt, that is,
 Hunt's most lavish work, Biltmore, Asheville, NC, 1889-95. 
Even in France, few chateaus could match this scale and opulence.
In picturing the Chateauesque style, think French chateau, with it's mixture of Renaissance Italian and Gothic influences. Since they were exclusively architect designed, they are surprisingly pure in their translation to the American architectural idiom. Unlike other American styles, it would be quite difficult to craft a cheap rip-off of either of these French flavors. Seldom, in fact, do you even see one made of brick, and never of wood. Sizes varied somewhat from the merely large to humongous. Rarely, in fact, do you see an example of either style in a house to small for the larger-than-life masonry and decorative details. And once you acclimate yourself to the style, accepting that overbearing, over-decorated, and pretentious are "good," in fact, the hallmarks of the style; then get used to the mindset that more really is better (or was thought to be, at least), then they can be really quite beautiful. Biltmore (above), near Asheville, North Carolina, the home of the youngest of the three Vanderbilt brothers, is the perfect example of this style.

660 Fifth Avenue, New York City, 1885,
Hunt's Chateauesque edifice for George's
big brother William K. Vanderbilt
(since demolished).
The Chateauesque style has a country look to it, as indeed, most of them both here and in France are located in the country, Hunt's Vanderbilt mansion, (left), in New York City being an exception. The Beaux Arts style though is thoroughly citified. In certain parts of Paris, you can see block after block of them, culminating in the glorious Paris Opera House. In the U.S., today at least, you'd have to go to Newport, Rhode Island, to see that many Beaux Arts homes and even then, they are set spaciously amid acres of grassy landscapes. Picture a turn-of-the-century bank building in nearly any major or minor city in this country and you'll get a pretty good idea of the Beaux Arts style. Roofs are usually low-pitched or flat.  Porticoes feature arches at least as often as columns, and there is as much an Italian Renaissance flavor to them as French. Decoration is more restrained than in the Chateauesque and tends toward the lower, heavier, levels of the structure. Mansard roofs and dormers are quite common; and even though they occasionally rise to as much as four stories, insofar as homes are concerned, the tendency is for horizontal lines to predominated. Marble or limestone is the favored architectural medium with symmetry a must. In cities often the style is limited to the street facades of the buildings to save costs. And although curves are occasionally seen, in window groupings, most other aspects are severely rectilinear.

Americans have always loved the French and all things French. The French have panache. However, when it comes to architecture, from Richard Morris Hunt to the present,  few could afford it. Moreover, whether Chateauesque or Beaux Art, any attempt at a less costly version always comes out looking...well...fake.

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