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The Gilded Age Gems of the Dean of American Architecture, Richard Morris Hunt

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"The first thing you've got to remember is that it's your client's money you're spending. Your goal is to achieve the best results by following their wishes. If they want you to built a house upside down standing on its chimney, it's up to you to do it."

Not surprisingly, one of the men most associated with Gilded Age mansions and design, Richard Morris Hunt, made that observation about the role of an architect. And while that quote may be interpreted as deference to the whims of wealthy clients, Hunt, and his very eclectic body of work, was about much, much more than ostentatious displays of wealth. One of the best known architects of his era, "his renown almost worldwide," according to his 1895 obituary, Hunt helped establish the primacy of his profession in the United States as a starchitect of his times, one who earned the praise of figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. While mansions and homes for the wealthy remain his best-known works, his breadth of styles, as well as range of projects, make him an important contributor to urban design as well as some of the country's best-loved landmarks.

It's hard to overstate the impact Hunt had on architecture, and his role in advancing the profession in the United States. The first American to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Hunt so impressed his teachers in the 1840s that he was given the task of temporarily supervising the construction of the Louvre for Napoleon III (an experience he'd later relay to a young Louis Sullivan). He founded the American Institute of Architects in 1888 as well as one of the country's first architecture schools, and would design some of the first apartment buildings and skyscrapers in Manhattan (the now-demolished Stuyvesant Apartments and New York Tribune building, for example) and contribute his time to the construction of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., his first job after school, and design the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. Hunt also influenced or helped with the careers of other giants in the field, such as Stanford White and Frederick Law Olmsted, and a statue of the stately architect by Chester French can be found in Central Park near the Frick Museum, blocks from the site where he had proposed adding an arched entryway to Manhattan's backyard. His career can perhaps be best summed up by the inscription he added above the entrance to his library: "Ars Longa, Vita Brevis Est," or "Art is long, life is brief."


· Map: Grand Estates and Lost Mansions of Gilded Age Architect Horace Trumbauer [Curbed]
· Map: Extravagant U.S. Estates of the Gilded Age & Roaring '20s [Curbed]

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1. Stuyvesant Apartments

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142 E 18th St
New York, NY 10003

Built in 1870, at a time when the idea of middle class apartments was unheard of in the United States, Hunt’s design for upscale and dense urban housing was a demographic and design revelation. Previously, Manhattan was mostly tenements and rowhouses, but Hunt’s building brought both Parisian style, in the form of a building bearing Victorian Gothic style and mansard roof, and the concept of apartment living, back to American shores. Each of the main units in the five-story building, which boasts iron balconies on the second floor, consisted of a public parlor facing the window, bedrooms, and a kitchen and bathroom toward the back. Hunt designed the building with strong verticals to give the impression of four separate homes (Americans, unaccustomed to the apartment complex, were more comfortable with the implied separation, and were also provided with numerous entrances, to avoid the discomfort of bumping into a neighbor). Units cost between $1,000 to $1,800 per year, and the “French Flat” concept proved so popular, potential tenants had rented out the building’s 16 units (and four artist studios) before it even opened. Developed by 27-year-old Rutherford Stuyvesant, who was inspired by apartments he saw in Paris, the building was an initial success, later to be replaced by the Gramercy Green in 1960. In his history of late 19th century New York architecture, Robert A.M. Stern called the now-demolished Stuyvesant the “foundation stone” for middle class living downtown.

2. Roosevelt Building

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482 Broadway
New York, NY 10013

Commissioned by the Roosevelt Hospital in 1873, just as SoHo was establishing itself as a center for textiles, this Beaux-Arts work by Hunt is best known for its ironwork, which unlike other contemporary examples, took full advantage of the metal’s strength to create a more open, airy facade. Artful colonettes and filigree arches on the facade showcase Hunt’s mastery of the material; a 1896 Architectural Record review of his career noted that “the ‘iron age’ in commercial building produced nothing better” than his work on Broadway (he was also the architect for a now-demolished building next door that was celebrated for its Moorish revival design). The ironwork and large windows of the five-story commercial represent one of the few examples of Hunt’s work left standing in Manhattan.

3. New York Tribune Building

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Printing House Square
New York, NY 10038

This now-demolished skyscraper, a symbol of publisher Horace Greeley’s popular daily and Hunt’s largest commercial commission, cost $1 million by the time construction was finished in 1875. It was unlike anything ever seen in the city at the time, a tower of red, white, and black brick, accented with cream-colored granite trim, that initially stretched 260 feet, and helped anchor an area near City Hall that was once synonymous with the New York media world. An off-center tower, described as a “Florentine campanile” with clock faces on each side measuring 12 feet in diameter with the words “The Tribune” spelled out in two-and-a-half foot high letters, topped the early nine-story building and became a signature addition to the skyline. Anyone taking an elevator from the executive offices in the tower to the beer saloon in the basement, which dispensed lager to the “thirsty men of the press,” would see the world’s then-tallest office building was filled with the day’s latest technology, including electric wiring for lights and pneumatic tubes for sending paperwork. In 1905, the tower was temporarily removed, to add nine additional floors (after which the tower was then replaced atop the tower, piece by piece). Long after the paper finished publishing inside, the building was demolished in 1966 to make way for traffic exiting the Brooklyn Bridge, its end met with general indifference.

4. Pedestal for the Statue of Liberty

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Statue of Liberty National Monument
New York, NY 11231

Hunt, chosen by the American committee bringing the statue to New York, and sculptor Auguste Bartholdi worked on numerous designs for the final pedestal on which “Liberty Enlightening the World” would stand, including one fortress-like version based on the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria. Hunt’s final design for the granite pedestal, finished in 1884, measured 87 feet tall and earned him $1,000, which he donated to the fund that paid for the “New Colossus” to be moved to its new home on what was then known as Bedloe's Island.

5. Marble House

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596 Bellevue Ave
Newport, RI 02840

Quaintly referred to as a cottage, despite the $7 million bill for marble, this Newport home commissioned by William K. Vanderbilt was one of the elaborate buildings that established Rhode Island as a getaway for the moneyed set. Completed in 1892 and presented as a 39th birthday gift for Vanderbilt’s wife, Alva, the home was based on the design of the Petit Trianon in Versailles, famously built on the palace grounds as a home for the king’s long-term mistress. Hunt’s design for the opulent building, fronted in Westchester marble, included a temple-front portico, a massive carriage ramp and fountain, and indulgent, French-inspired interiors. The grandiose nature of the project began a trend of constructing summer cottages in the area, including the Breakers. Sadly for Mr. Vanderbilt, the couple would divorce three years later, and Alva would retain control over her birthday present, later adding a Chinese tea garden to the property and using the lavish setting to hold rallies for women’s right to vote.

6. Biltmore Estate

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1 Lodge St
Asheville, NC 28803

“Great in art and great in size” is how an early writer described America’s largest private home. George Washington Vanderbilt II spared no expense when constructing his 125,000-acre estate in Asheville, North Carolina, which features the work of Hunt and celebrated landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (in fact, it nearly ran through his sizable inheritance). Said to be modeled after three historic French chateaus in the Loire Valley, the sprawling estate may appear to be modeled after all of them, since the combined living space inside the numerous buildings totals 178,926 square feet (roughly four acres). The 200-plus rooms, including 34 master bedrooms, all arranged around a central iron chandelier, were wired for electricity and heated with a series of three massive boilers.Hunt placed the sprawling structure, with its 375-foot facade and pitched roofs, so as to blend in with the surrounding mountainous landscape. Decorated with trefoils, flowing tracery, rosettes and gargoyles, the effect is overwhelming, a massive monument to family wealth.

7. Gymnasium at West Point

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60 De Russy Loop
West Point, NY 10996

Finished in 1893, Hunt’s gymnasium, a Romanesque Revival design with two sizable towers, was used by cadets for decades before being replaced in the early ‘20s by Washington Hall. Constructed during a period of growth for the military academy, Hunt’s design was meant to be more stylistically consistent with the rest of the academy, and project an air of “toughness” fitting for a military school. It stood next to Pershing Barracks, the only Hunt-designed building still on campus.

8. Academic Building at West Point

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60 De Russy Loop
West Point, NY 10996

Known as the West Academic building when it was completed in 1895, the structure was later converted into Pershing Barracks and still houses cadets today. Construction of the building was controversial at the time, as Hunt went over budget, and many at the academy felt his initial sketches were too grand for the school.

9. Columbian Exposition Administration Building

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6401 S Stony Island Ave
Chicago, IL 60637

When Daniel Burnham began assigning architects to design different parts of the White City, it was only fitting that he would give Hunt the task of creating a grand Administration Building. Despite the functional title, this building had a key role to play in the layout of the Exposition. Situated near the train station, it was the entryway to the site and the Court of Honor, the foyer, so to speak, of the entire affair. Hunt didn’t disappoint, creating a massive white-and-gold gilded dome (higher and wider than the U.S. Capitol) with large arches and one of the more lavish interiors of any building in the Exposition, filled with sculptures and colorful decorations, with the names of participating countries inscribed on the dome’s interior. Generally met with enthusiastic praise—one correspondent called it "one of the finest achievements of modern architecture"—it was criticized by Louis Sullivan for being overdone and too ornate.

10. Beechwood

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580 Bellevue Ave
Newport, RI 02840

Hunt wasn’t the initial architect of the Astor’s elaborate Italianate summer home, constructed in 1851 and designed Andrew Jackson Downing and Calvert Vaux, but his renovation work on the property, a $2 million project including the addition of a stately ballroom, wowed member of the social elite, leading many to add similar structures to their homes.

11. The Breakers

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44 Ochre Point Ave
Newport, RI 02840

The Vanderbilt summer home, named after the waves which crashed against the shore, stands as an exemplary Beaux Arts creation, featuring imported marble (including a blue marble fireplace), imported rooms (assembled by European craftsman and shipped overseas) and a massive central hall. Hunt used the Renaissance palaces of Genoa as his model for the mansion, a five-story icon which contains a series of open-air terraces looking out at the ocean. Before settling on a final design, Hunt played with numerous styles, going through drafts of Gothic and French Renaissance mansions before settling on a more Italian layout. Vanderbilt commissioned this home after another property on the site burned down, and requested the most fireproof structure possible, one built with steel trusses and a boiler located in a separate building on site.

12. Cathedral of all Souls

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9 Swan St
Asheville, NC 28803

The only one of six Hunt-designed churches still standing, this cruciform structure drew inspiration from the Abbey churches of Northern England, and riffed off the Romanesque Revival style found at the nearby Biltmore complex. Topped in red terra cotta tile, the imposing structure, used as a wedding chapel for Cornelia Vanderbilt, still contains the same pews from when it was first built, filled with straw and horsehair stuffing. This was Hunt’s last design, finished posthumously in 1896, the year after he passed away.

13. Metropolitan Museum of Art

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1000 5th Ave
New York, NY 10028

Hunt's designs for the central wing and Great Hall of the Met, finished after his death in 1902 by his son, remain perhaps his best-known work in New York. His initial sketch included a larger structure, but it was shrunk due to budget constraints.

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1. Stuyvesant Apartments

142 E 18th St, New York, NY 10003

Built in 1870, at a time when the idea of middle class apartments was unheard of in the United States, Hunt’s design for upscale and dense urban housing was a demographic and design revelation. Previously, Manhattan was mostly tenements and rowhouses, but Hunt’s building brought both Parisian style, in the form of a building bearing Victorian Gothic style and mansard roof, and the concept of apartment living, back to American shores. Each of the main units in the five-story building, which boasts iron balconies on the second floor, consisted of a public parlor facing the window, bedrooms, and a kitchen and bathroom toward the back. Hunt designed the building with strong verticals to give the impression of four separate homes (Americans, unaccustomed to the apartment complex, were more comfortable with the implied separation, and were also provided with numerous entrances, to avoid the discomfort of bumping into a neighbor). Units cost between $1,000 to $1,800 per year, and the “French Flat” concept proved so popular, potential tenants had rented out the building’s 16 units (and four artist studios) before it even opened. Developed by 27-year-old Rutherford Stuyvesant, who was inspired by apartments he saw in Paris, the building was an initial success, later to be replaced by the Gramercy Green in 1960. In his history of late 19th century New York architecture, Robert A.M. Stern called the now-demolished Stuyvesant the “foundation stone” for middle class living downtown.

142 E 18th St
New York, NY 10003

2. Roosevelt Building

482 Broadway, New York, NY 10013

Commissioned by the Roosevelt Hospital in 1873, just as SoHo was establishing itself as a center for textiles, this Beaux-Arts work by Hunt is best known for its ironwork, which unlike other contemporary examples, took full advantage of the metal’s strength to create a more open, airy facade. Artful colonettes and filigree arches on the facade showcase Hunt’s mastery of the material; a 1896 Architectural Record review of his career noted that “the ‘iron age’ in commercial building produced nothing better” than his work on Broadway (he was also the architect for a now-demolished building next door that was celebrated for its Moorish revival design). The ironwork and large windows of the five-story commercial represent one of the few examples of Hunt’s work left standing in Manhattan.

482 Broadway
New York, NY 10013

3. New York Tribune Building

Printing House Square, New York, NY 10038

This now-demolished skyscraper, a symbol of publisher Horace Greeley’s popular daily and Hunt’s largest commercial commission, cost $1 million by the time construction was finished in 1875. It was unlike anything ever seen in the city at the time, a tower of red, white, and black brick, accented with cream-colored granite trim, that initially stretched 260 feet, and helped anchor an area near City Hall that was once synonymous with the New York media world. An off-center tower, described as a “Florentine campanile” with clock faces on each side measuring 12 feet in diameter with the words “The Tribune” spelled out in two-and-a-half foot high letters, topped the early nine-story building and became a signature addition to the skyline. Anyone taking an elevator from the executive offices in the tower to the beer saloon in the basement, which dispensed lager to the “thirsty men of the press,” would see the world’s then-tallest office building was filled with the day’s latest technology, including electric wiring for lights and pneumatic tubes for sending paperwork. In 1905, the tower was temporarily removed, to add nine additional floors (after which the tower was then replaced atop the tower, piece by piece). Long after the paper finished publishing inside, the building was demolished in 1966 to make way for traffic exiting the Brooklyn Bridge, its end met with general indifference.

Printing House Square
New York, NY 10038

4. Pedestal for the Statue of Liberty

Statue of Liberty National Monument, New York, NY 11231

Hunt, chosen by the American committee bringing the statue to New York, and sculptor Auguste Bartholdi worked on numerous designs for the final pedestal on which “Liberty Enlightening the World” would stand, including one fortress-like version based on the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria. Hunt’s final design for the granite pedestal, finished in 1884, measured 87 feet tall and earned him $1,000, which he donated to the fund that paid for the “New Colossus” to be moved to its new home on what was then known as Bedloe's Island.

Statue of Liberty National Monument
New York, NY 11231

5. Marble House

596 Bellevue Ave, Newport, RI 02840

Quaintly referred to as a cottage, despite the $7 million bill for marble, this Newport home commissioned by William K. Vanderbilt was one of the elaborate buildings that established Rhode Island as a getaway for the moneyed set. Completed in 1892 and presented as a 39th birthday gift for Vanderbilt’s wife, Alva, the home was based on the design of the Petit Trianon in Versailles, famously built on the palace grounds as a home for the king’s long-term mistress. Hunt’s design for the opulent building, fronted in Westchester marble, included a temple-front portico, a massive carriage ramp and fountain, and indulgent, French-inspired interiors. The grandiose nature of the project began a trend of constructing summer cottages in the area, including the Breakers. Sadly for Mr. Vanderbilt, the couple would divorce three years later, and Alva would retain control over her birthday present, later adding a Chinese tea garden to the property and using the lavish setting to hold rallies for women’s right to vote.

596 Bellevue Ave
Newport, RI 02840

6. Biltmore Estate

1 Lodge St, Asheville, NC 28803

“Great in art and great in size” is how an early writer described America’s largest private home. George Washington Vanderbilt II spared no expense when constructing his 125,000-acre estate in Asheville, North Carolina, which features the work of Hunt and celebrated landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (in fact, it nearly ran through his sizable inheritance). Said to be modeled after three historic French chateaus in the Loire Valley, the sprawling estate may appear to be modeled after all of them, since the combined living space inside the numerous buildings totals 178,926 square feet (roughly four acres). The 200-plus rooms, including 34 master bedrooms, all arranged around a central iron chandelier, were wired for electricity and heated with a series of three massive boilers.Hunt placed the sprawling structure, with its 375-foot facade and pitched roofs, so as to blend in with the surrounding mountainous landscape. Decorated with trefoils, flowing tracery, rosettes and gargoyles, the effect is overwhelming, a massive monument to family wealth.

1 Lodge St
Asheville, NC 28803

7. Gymnasium at West Point

60 De Russy Loop, West Point, NY 10996

Finished in 1893, Hunt’s gymnasium, a Romanesque Revival design with two sizable towers, was used by cadets for decades before being replaced in the early ‘20s by Washington Hall. Constructed during a period of growth for the military academy, Hunt’s design was meant to be more stylistically consistent with the rest of the academy, and project an air of “toughness” fitting for a military school. It stood next to Pershing Barracks, the only Hunt-designed building still on campus.

60 De Russy Loop
West Point, NY 10996

8. Academic Building at West Point

60 De Russy Loop, West Point, NY 10996

Known as the West Academic building when it was completed in 1895, the structure was later converted into Pershing Barracks and still houses cadets today. Construction of the building was controversial at the time, as Hunt went over budget, and many at the academy felt his initial sketches were too grand for the school.

60 De Russy Loop
West Point, NY 10996

9. Columbian Exposition Administration Building

6401 S Stony Island Ave, Chicago, IL 60637

When Daniel Burnham began assigning architects to design different parts of the White City, it was only fitting that he would give Hunt the task of creating a grand Administration Building. Despite the functional title, this building had a key role to play in the layout of the Exposition. Situated near the train station, it was the entryway to the site and the Court of Honor, the foyer, so to speak, of the entire affair. Hunt didn’t disappoint, creating a massive white-and-gold gilded dome (higher and wider than the U.S. Capitol) with large arches and one of the more lavish interiors of any building in the Exposition, filled with sculptures and colorful decorations, with the names of participating countries inscribed on the dome’s interior. Generally met with enthusiastic praise—one correspondent called it "one of the finest achievements of modern architecture"—it was criticized by Louis Sullivan for being overdone and too ornate.

6401 S Stony Island Ave
Chicago, IL 60637

10. Beechwood

580 Bellevue Ave, Newport, RI 02840

Hunt wasn’t the initial architect of the Astor’s elaborate Italianate summer home, constructed in 1851 and designed Andrew Jackson Downing and Calvert Vaux, but his renovation work on the property, a $2 million project including the addition of a stately ballroom, wowed member of the social elite, leading many to add similar structures to their homes.

580 Bellevue Ave
Newport, RI 02840

11. The Breakers

44 Ochre Point Ave, Newport, RI 02840

The Vanderbilt summer home, named after the waves which crashed against the shore, stands as an exemplary Beaux Arts creation, featuring imported marble (including a blue marble fireplace), imported rooms (assembled by European craftsman and shipped overseas) and a massive central hall. Hunt used the Renaissance palaces of Genoa as his model for the mansion, a five-story icon which contains a series of open-air terraces looking out at the ocean. Before settling on a final design, Hunt played with numerous styles, going through drafts of Gothic and French Renaissance mansions before settling on a more Italian layout. Vanderbilt commissioned this home after another property on the site burned down, and requested the most fireproof structure possible, one built with steel trusses and a boiler located in a separate building on site.

44 Ochre Point Ave
Newport, RI 02840

12. Cathedral of all Souls

9 Swan St, Asheville, NC 28803

The only one of six Hunt-designed churches still standing, this cruciform structure drew inspiration from the Abbey churches of Northern England, and riffed off the Romanesque Revival style found at the nearby Biltmore complex. Topped in red terra cotta tile, the imposing structure, used as a wedding chapel for Cornelia Vanderbilt, still contains the same pews from when it was first built, filled with straw and horsehair stuffing. This was Hunt’s last design, finished posthumously in 1896, the year after he passed away.

9 Swan St
Asheville, NC 28803

13. Metropolitan Museum of Art

1000 5th Ave, New York, NY 10028

Hunt's designs for the central wing and Great Hall of the Met, finished after his death in 1902 by his son, remain perhaps his best-known work in New York. His initial sketch included a larger structure, but it was shrunk due to budget constraints.

1000 5th Ave
New York, NY 10028