THE VISUAL ARTS
Richard Morris Hunt (1827-95)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
One of the most prominent American architects of his day, Richard Morris Hunt is often called the "Dean of American architecture" for his contribution to the profession and for his statesmanlike behaviour. His own architecture ranged widely in style and in building types. Probably best remembered for his public buildings such as the pedestal supporting the Statue of Liberty (1886), and for his design of the facade and Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he was also well known for his sumptuous Beaux-Arts houses, such as the French chateau-style William K. Vanderbilt Mansion (1882); a 70-room Italianate cottage called The Breakers (1895); and Biltmore House (1895), a 225-room structure for George W Vanderbilt. By the close of the 19th century, Hunt was the best known and most fashionable architect in America. His contribution to American art also included his important role in early American architectural education, and his foundation of the Municipal Art Society, an offshoot of the City Beautiful Movement. In addition, along with Richard Upjohn and others, he was a founder member (first secretary and third president) of the American Institute of Architects, for whom he became a highly effective spokesman, and probably did more than anyone else to advance the developing profession in the United States.
Hugely well-connected, Hunt was born in Brattleboro, Vermont, the son of Jonathan Hunt a prosperous lawyer and US congressman. He was the brother of the Boston painter William Morris Hunt, and the photographer Leavitt Hunt. After a childhood mostly spent in Europe, in the wake of his father's early death, Hunt attended the Boston Latin School until 1843, when he returned to Europe to study art and architecture. In 1846, he became the first American to enter the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris - the finest school of architecture in the world - where he worked in the atelier of Hector Martin Lefuel. Several years later he worked alongside Lefuel and Louis Visconti on the Pavilion de la Bibliotheque at the Louvre (1854-55).
In 1855 Hunt settled in New York; knowledgeable, energetic and self-assured, he committed himself to attempt to raise the standards of American building design. To this end he founded the first American architectural school, located at his Tenth Street Studio Building, a structure erected exclusively for artists. Although it opened with only four students, it achieved great success, and one of his earliest pupils - the architect William Robert Ware (1832-1915) who became a leading exponent of collegiate Gothic architecture - was so impressed by Hunt's teaching that he later established the first two university courses in architecture: the first at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1866), the second at Columbia University (1881). Another American artist, the painter William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), was an early tenant of Hunt's Tenth Street Studio Building.
In 1857, Hunt - along with Richard Upjohn (1802-78) and twelve others - co-founded the American Institute of Architects (AIA), to help regulate and promote the profession. Upjohn - himself a keen advocate of Gothic Revival architecture - was elected the first AIA president (1857-76), and was succeeded by Thomas Ustick Walter (1804-87), who preferred the forms and values of Greek art. Hunt later became the Institute's third president.
Hunt's first New York town house (1857), was designed for Thomas P Rossiter, a painter, who refused to pay the 5 percent architect's fee. Hunt sued, and the resulting court case became an important legal precedent in helping to establish fixed charges for professional architectural services. It was the first tangible example of Hunt's belief that architects be accorded parity with other professions like lawyers and doctors. Hunt married in 1861, after which he returned to France for a spell, the first of several long sojourns in Europe.
Greatly influenced by his Parisian architectural training, as well as the established design styles of Europe - notably Renaissance art - Hunt became a champion of the Beaux-Arts idiom in America. Over the next decades, in addition to a range of public and private commercial buildings, Hunt established a new style in ostentatious architecture for the grand mansions of the era's eccentric billionaires.
He began in the late 1860s and 1870s by designing numerous domestic buildings in Newport, New York, Chicago and Boston. In addition, he was responsible for the Fogg Museum of Art at Harvard, and the Scroll and Key Building (1869) at Yale University, New Haven. In New York he designed the large Presbyterian Hospital (1872) and the nearby Lenox Library (1877), two iron-front stores (1872-74), the Tribune Building (1876) - for a time the tallest commercial building in the city and one of the earliest with an elevator - and the Stuyvesant (1870), the earliest important American multifamily residence. Another project was the red-brick Charity Hospital (1883) on Amsterdam Avenue, Manhattan, which included dormer windows and a mansard roof. He also designed the Jackson Square Branch of the New York Free Circulating Library (1887), a small Flemish-style building.
Aware of the intimate connection between fine art and architecture, Hunt often collaborated with sculptors, notably on the Washington Statue (1883), New York, and the Yorktown Monument (1884), Virginia. His most important monumental work was the base and pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, dedicated in 1886. The statue figure itself - Liberty Enlightening the World - was designed by the French artist Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904), and engineered by Maurice Koechlin, while its internal architecture was designed by Viollet-le-Duc, the French medievalist architect. Made of pure copper sheathing, over a steel structure, it was 151 feet tall. When placed upon Hunt's granite pedestal - whose neoclassical architecture featured a series of Doric columns, derived from Greek architecture, deliberately muted so as not to divert attention from the statue itself - the structure was about 305 feet in height.
From the 1880s, Hunt designed numerous mansions and private buildings for the super-rich, including several for the wealthy Vanderbilt family, such as St. Mark's Church (1880), Islip, New York; a huge mausoleum (1889) on Staten Island; and the much-admired chateau-like William K. Vanderbilt Mansion (1882), New York. In Newport he created the Busk House (1891), on a rocky coastal site; Ochre Court (1892), with French Gothic and early Renaissance elements, Marble House (1892), a neoclassical structure with luxurious interiors; Belcourt Castle (1894), in an eclectic style,- and The Breakers (1895), a 70-room cottage in a Genoese style. The most splendid of Hunt's mansions, Biltmore House (1895), a 225-room chateau, was created for George W Vanderbilt in Asheville, North Carolina, on 125,000 acres of grounds.
Heading the board of architects for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Hunt designed the Administration Building, complete with a dome larger than that of the US Capitol in Washington DC. The dominant architectural feature of the fair, it won the Royal Institute of British Architects' gold medal. Work for Harvard University and the US Military Academy added to his several earlier academic commissions at Yale and Princeton universities and elsewhere. His final commission was the monumental entrance wing (1895), including the front and Great Hall, of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, when it relocated to Central Park, although a limestone facade was substituted for his choice of marble.
After Hunt's death in 1895, the Municipal Art Society, along with other art associations erected the Richard Morris Hunt Memorial, created by sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) - who later sculpted the marble figure of Abraham Lincoln (1920) at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC - and architect Bruce Price. The memorial is situated in the wall of Central Park opposite the Frick Collection at 70th Street, New York.
Other 19th Century American Architects
Organic Style, Prairie Houses
Twentieth Century Buildings
For more about Beaux-Arts architecture in the United States, see: Homepage.