American Architecture Series
Cass Gilbert

Biography of American Beaux-Arts Architect.
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Minnesota State Capitol (1895-1905)
Designed by Cass Gilbert,
one of the greatest architects in
19th century America.

BUILDING DESIGNS
To see how Beaux-Arts design fits
into the classification of the arts,
see: Definition of Art.
For more about different design
disciplines, see: Types of Art.

Cass Gilbert (1859-1934)

Contents

Biography
Training as an Architect
Early Projects and Style of Architecture
Design for the Minnesota State Capitol
East Coast Architect
Woolworth Building
Other Architectural Projects
United States Supreme Court Building
Leader of the American Architects Profession
Legacy

American Architecture Series
• For a general guide, see: American Architecture (1600-present).
• For tower design, see: Skyscraper Architecture (1850-present).


BOOKS ON BEAUX-ARTS
If you are looking for a source
of rare books on Cass Gilbert's
neo-Renaissance architecture,
see: Rare Art Books.

AMERICAN MODERNISM
Photography was an important
medium of modern art in the
United States, whose urban
practitioners included
Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) and
Edward Steichen (1879-1973).

Biography

One of the first celebrity American architects, the old-school Cass Gilbert ranks alongside Richard Morris Hunt (1827-95) as one of the great pioneers of Beaux-Arts architecture, a lavish combination of Renaissance and Baroque. In addition, his high-rise buildings injected great vitality into early skyscraper design. After success in Minnesota and Missouri, with award-winning designs for buildings like the Minnesota State Capitol (1895-1905) in St Paul - probably the last Neo-Renaissance structure of 19th century architecture - and the Saint Louis Art Museum (1904), Gilbert received commissions from Boston and New York, where he designed masterpieces like the Beaux-Arts style Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, New York (1901-1907), as well as skyscrapers like the Brazer Building, Boston (1896-1899), Broadway Chambers Building, New York (1899-1900), and the Gothic-style Woolworth Building, New York (1910-13). Other famous buildings designed by Gilbert include the Renaissance-style Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio (1917), the Detroit Public Library (1921), the US Supreme Court Building, Washington DC (1928-35), and the striking Gothic Revival New York Life Insurance Building (1926-28), with its gilded pyramidal roof made from 25,000 gold-leaf tiles. A significant contributor to American art, his creative reputation has waxed in the postmodernist age. His style of architecture reflected his respect for the history of art, as well as his view that public art should reflect the established social order. While his younger contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) preferred to develop a midwestern type of architecture, Gilbert was quite content with the great styles of Europe.

 

Training as an Architect

Cass Gilbert was born in Zanesville, Ohio, and came to St. Paul with his family in 1868. He began his architectural career working for a St Paul architect, Abraham M. Radcliffe, and then studied architecture for one year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1878), a new program established by William Robert Ware (1832-1915). On his return from a European Grand Tour in 1880, Gilbert went to work for the prestigious New York firm of architects McKim, Mead and White - run by Charles McKim (1847-1909), William Rutherford Mead (1846-1928) and Stanford White (1853-1906) - and worked in the firm's New York and Baltimore offices until 1883, when he returned to St. Paul as a fully trained architect.

Early Projects and Style of Architecture

From 1884 to 1892 Gilbert went into partnership with James Knox Taylor, a fellow MIT classmate, and the firm quickly became popular locally, designing depots, hospitals and other buildings for the Northern Pacific Railway, including some projects done in conjunction with McKim, Mead and White, as well as designs for houses, warehouses, retail stores, churches and clubhouses, and office buildings like the celebrated Endicott Building in St Paul. Many of Gilbert's imaginative designs recalled and reinterpreted details of European buildings seen on his Grand Tour and typified the popular styles of the era: the Romanesque art of Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-86), Shingle Style designs and other types of American Colonial art (St. Clement's Episcopal Church, 1895), the Gothic Revival style championed by Richard Upjohn (1802-78) and James Renwick (1818-95), as well as the lavish Beaux-Arts idiom, popularized by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Gilbert's early work attracted the attention of prominent architects in New York and Chicago, including Daniel H. Burnham (1846-1912), head of Burnham and Root - one of the leading firms of the Chicago School of architecture - and in 1892 he was chosen to serve on the national jury to select architects for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Design for the Minnesota State Capitol

In 1894 Gilbert won the competition to design the Minnesota State Capitol, in St Paul, with an elegant, Beaux-Arts fusion of High Renaissance art and Baroque architecture, topped with a dome reminiscent of Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome; paintings, murals and sculptures were executed by a host of nationally prominent artists. This notable success paved the way for a prominent New York career designing monumental Beaux-Arts buildings, although he remained in Minnesota until 1898.

For biographical details of European architects active at the turn of the century, see the Art Nouveau designers: Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867-1908); Victor Horta (1861-1947); Hector Guimard (1867-1942) and the German modernist Peter Behrens (1868-1940).

East Coast Architect

On foot of his award-winning Minnesota design, Gilbert received commissions for several high-rise buildings, now all the fashion following the efforts of William Le Baron Jenney (1832-1907) and other members of the Chicago School. The first was in Boston for the Brazer Building (1896), a steel frame, Renaissance-style office block; after this came Broadway Chambers Building, New York (1899-1900). Both structures were immensely harmonious renderings of classical neo-Renaissance architecture. In 1899, Gilbert won the prestigious competition to design the US Custom House in New York (1901-1907) - now the Alexander Hamilton US Custom House - beating his mentors, McKim, Mead and White, in the process. His final design featured mural paintings in the rotunda dome by the New York artist Reginald Marsh (1898–1954). He also designed the classical-style 12-floor Spalding Building, Portland, Oregon (1910-11), and then won his most famous commission - the Woolworth Building.

Woolworth Building

The 57-story Woolworth Building (1910-13) in Lower Manhattan, designed by architect Cass Gilbert in a 20th century interpretation of Gothic architecture, became the tallest building in the world when it was completed in 1913, overtaking the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower. It remained the tallest building 1930, when the title passed to the Chrysler Building, also in New York. Marked by detailed ornamentation, its high-ceilinged, cruciform lobby is decorated with Skyros marble, mosaics, stained-glass and bronze furnishings. Its architectural engineering was also ground-breaking: Gilbert's technique of cladding a steel frame became the standard model for decades.

Other Architectural Projects

Gilbert received commissions to design two other state capitols - the Arkansas State Capitol, Little Rock (1900-1917, with George R. Mann), and the West Virginia State Capitol, Charleston (1924-32), as well as other public buildings mostly in the Beaux-Arts style. Some also featured colonial revival elements, reminiscent of earlier American designers like Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), William Thornton (1759-1828), Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844) and Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820).

Other works included the Union Club (1902), New York, modelled after an Italian Renaissance palazzo, the US Treasury Annex (1918-19), and the Renaissance-style public libraries of St Louis and Hartford (both 1908) and Detroit (1921). His Palace of Fine Arts, built as part of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, later became the magnificent Beaux-Arts-style St Louis Art Museum, whose design was influenced by the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.

He executed elaborate plans for the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis (1908); the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio (1917) and the University of Texas, Austin. His two buildings for the Austin campus, Battle Hall (1911), and Sutton Hall (1918), designed in a Spanish-Mediterranean Revival idiom, are both widely regarded by architectural historians as among the finest works of architecture in the state.

Another of Gilbert's important projects was the Chase Headquarters Building, Waterbury, Connecticut (1917-1919), part of the Waterbury Municipal Center Complex, a unique cluster of Gilbert's architecture which also includes the City Hall, the Chase Bank Building, Chase's house, and Lincoln House, a centre for local charities.

United States Supreme Court Building

Gilbert's last significant project was his design for the 4-story US Supreme Court Building (1928-35), Washington DC, a wonderful example of his neoclassical architecture, whose construction was completed after his death by his son, Cass Gilbert, Jr. Consisting of a huge Roman temple, complete with Corinthian columns and a facade made of Vermont marble - the interior is lined with Alabama or Spanish ivory vein marble - the highly imposing building is decorated throughout with a series of statues and friezes.

Leader of the American Architects Profession

Gilbert was one of several architects who founded the Architectural League of New York in 1881, and he served as its president in 1913 and 1914. He was also the president of the American Institute of Architects (1908-9) and the National Academy of Design (1926-33) and was a member of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts from its founding in 1910 until 1916. He died on a trip to England in 1934.

Legacy

Gilbert was prolific, prominent and successful and left his mark on the architecture of many American cities. Although his early work in Minnesota includes many imaginative and picturesque designs, by the early 20th century he can perhaps best be classified as an old-school, East Coast establishment architect whose academically correct and convincing designs were firmly rooted in the American Beaux-Arts tradition. This style was a tangible expression of the optimistic American feeling that the country was the legitimate heir and champion of Greek democracy, Roman law and Renaissance humanist philosophy.

A collection of Gilbert's drawings and other papers is preserved at the Minnesota Historical Society, the New-York Historical Society, and the Library of Congress.

Twentieth Century Architecture

For more about 20th century building designs, see 20th century architecture, and also Second Chicago School of Architecture (c.1940-75)

• For more about Beaux-Arts architecture in the United States, see: Homepage.


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