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Cass Gilbert: 9 Buildings by America’s Original Starchitect

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From Manhattan to Portland, some of the key projects by a monumental American architect

With a career that spanned nearly a half century, Cass Gilbert helped reinterpret classical design elements for the American vernacular, creating Neo-Gothic skyscrapers and American Revival capitols and federal buildings that still define the forms today. An Ohio-born MIT graduate who got his start with the famous firm of McKim, Mead, and White, Gilbert began working on railroads before early commissions, including the Minnesota State Capitol, thrust his profile onto the national stage. His prolific output in the early 20th century helped shape an era of bigger and better buildings, bringing a classical sense of artistry to contemporary architecture, while simultaneously pushing the envelope forward in regards to engineering, leading to the creation of some of the era’s signature skyscrapers.

Minnesota State Capitol (Saint Paul, Minnesota: 1905)

An early project that helped establish Gilbert’s reputation, this domed Beaux Arts-inspired American Revival structure would showcase many of the design elements that made his projects so beloved. Utilizing nearly two dozen types of stone, the immense domed building, modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica (Gilbert had traveled Europe for inspiration), features a star at the apex, a reference to the Minnesota motto, “The Star of the North.” It went against the prevailing Colonial style used for many previous state capitols, and helped establish a new model for similar projects.

Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House (New York City, New York: 1907)

Another commission with a Beaux Arts inspiration, this federal building was modeled after the classic Paris Opera House. Gilbert won the gig after navigating a newly introduced process that opened up government buildings to private architects, making it a contentious and controversial appointment. Still, Gilbert succeeded in partially silencing critics with his elegant design, a masterpiece which featured elaborate flourishes and a collection of incredible sculptures. The beloved building, constructed on the site of the first European settlement on the island, was one of the first to be landmarked in New York.

Saint Louis Art Museum (Saint Louis, Missouri: 1904)

The only permanent structure built as part of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (or World’s Fair), the Palace of Fine Arts, a limestone-and-brick connection to European architectural styles, became a city icon. Decades later, the structure, long since renamed and repurposed as the St. Louis Art Museum, stands as a local favorite. A series of extensions, including a recent addition by David Chipperfield, have helped maintain the prominence and importance of the original Gilbert design.

90 West Street New York (New York City, New York: 1907)

Built for a syndicate of shipping and railway execs, this tower in Lower Manhattan presaged many of the design elements and engineering feats that would make the Woolworth Building such a masterpiece. In addition to working with structural engineer Gunvald Aus, who would work on other signature Gilbert projects skyscrapers, the architect designed 90 West as a celebration of terra cotta. The material covers the entire structures, which ends in a riot of gargoyles and tracery on the top floors. Severely harmed but still standing after the 9/11 attack (thick layers of terra cotta protects the structure from extensive fire damage), the celebrated 23-story skyscraper was painstakingly restored in 2004, including the copper roof.

Spalding Building (Portland, Oregon: 1911)

A classically inspired 12-story structure that mimics the form of a column, this rare West Coast commission was completed at the time Gilbert began working on the Woolworth building. The early skyscraper, still in use as an office building, was an anchor of downtown commerce, and now sports a cool bike storage room in a converted bank vault, recalling one of the original tenants, Ladd & Tilton Bank.

Woolworth Building (New York City, New York: 1913)

Perhaps Cass’s most famous project, and an key part of the turn-of-the-century New York skyline, this “Cathedral of Commerce” stood nearly 800 feet tall, a record-breaking height at the time of its completion. Cass designed the striking, slender, steel-framed tower, an engineering achievement of its day, with both business and beauty in mind, cladding the exterior in cream-colored terra cotta and emphasizing the drama of the lobby with a vaulted ceiling, grand staircase, and elaborate decorations (including one of owner F.W. Woolworth counting coins). Still in use today as offices, the building and its Gothic spire may be more than a century old, but they still represent a turning point in New York City’s transformation into a financial and economic powerhouse.

United States Supreme Court Building (Washington, D.C.: 1935)

For decades, the highest court in the land met in chambers inside the Senate building, making it the one branch of the government without its own permanent home. That changed beginning in 1929, when Chief Justice and former President William Howard Taft petitioned to create a new, permanent, home for the justices. Glibert’s design, his last major commission, which was completed after his death in 1934, was meant to be a Neoclassical temple of pomp and circumstance. Gilbert requested only the highest quality marble be used for the project, going so far to petition Italy’s Premier, Benito Mussolini, to make sure the quarry in Siena only sent the best. While many at the time criticized the Temple of Justice as being too overwrought and pretentious, even though the Corinthian style was deliberately chosen to match nearby Congressional buildings, the court is now a National Landmark. The gym and basketball court on the fifth floor is jokingly referred to as “the highest court in the land.”

Detroit Public Library (Detroit, Michigan: 1921)

Gilbert felt that libraries should not just store culture, but become cultural centers themselves. Nowhere is this more evident than in this elegant library, a commission he won during a national contest in 1913. Designed in an Italian Renaissance style meant to complement that art museum across the street, the four-story institution is brimming with playful details and colorful additions, from clay mosaics depicting Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man and carved panels depicting the signs of the zodiac to decorative Pewabic tiles in the children’s reading room that showcase famous characters from fairy tales. Students of the city’s history can also trace the evolution of the metropolis thanks to a series of mural recreating moments in regional history. A stalwart repository for literature, as well as an inviting place for all manner of students, Gilbert’s main library design infuses a civic centerpiece with charm and character, putting the Detroit Library in a league with the best in the country.

New York Life Building (New York City, New York: 1928)

Gilbert’s last great Manhattan skyscraper, which still contains an office for the insurance company that commissioned the building, is a Neo-Gothic standout. Inspired in part by the Salisbury Cathedral in England, the 40-story structure is capped by a can’t-miss gold crown fashioned from tiles that stretch six stories. Constructed on the site of circus legend P.T. Barnum’s famous Hippodrome and the original Madison Square Garden, the building is another in a series of New York classics.

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