Chateau Builder To Fifth Avenue
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
To most critics of architecture today Hunt is anathema. Though he may have been a more expert designer and a man of more refined tastes and greater knowledge than most of his contemporaries, his influence on American building is looked upon darkly. It is not that his own buildings are considered to be any more ridiculous than those of his fellow architects, but the style that he played so large a part in setting has, in many expert opinions, been a disastrous backwater in the progress of our architecture.
Actually Hunt was in no sense an innovator; he was a sail that caught the ambitious breeze that blew off the great fortunes of the Seventies and Eighties and drove the ship of taste into luxurious and splendid harbors. He was the artistic conscience of men and women of great wealth to whom display and ostentation were a highly competitive game. For the most part his clients were the scions of the men who established the great fortunes; it was the second, third, and even fourth generations of wealth who represented a new leisure class such as America had never known before. The founders of the fortunes were too interested in amassing wealth, too occupied with playing the great industrial game, to devote the same ingenuity and inventiveness that their sons and daughters did to spending their fortunes. There is no easier or more pretentious way to spend money than on building palaces.
More than any architect of his time, more than MrKim, or Mead, or White, and more than H. H. Richardson, the designer of Trinity Church in Boston and one of America’s most inspired architects, Hunt epitomizes the rich and official taste of the decades following the Centennial. It will pay us to consider the career of this handsome, humorous, hard-working man upon whom wealth was heaped by the wealthy and to whom honors were accorded by the world.
Hunt was born in Brattleboro, Vermont, in 1827, the year Mrs. Trollope came to America. His father, who was a prominent jurist and a congressman, died in Washington when Richard was only five, and he was brought up by his maternal grandmother and by his mother. Mrs. Hunt was woman of somewhat uncommon talents as a painter and, according to Henry Van Brunt, one of Hunt’s first pupils, was “fortunately for the future of Art in America ... a woman of high spirit, great force of character, and of accomplishments far in advance of her time.” In her two sons (Richard’s brother was William Morris Hunt, who became one of America’s most distinguished painters and was the man who introduced a taste for French painting to Boston) Mrs. Hunt realized the artistic ambitions that it was almost impossible for a woman in her day to attain for herself. She took her sons to Europe in 1843, and while William pursued the art of painting in the studios in Munich and Paris, Richard, who had thought that he wanted to be a soldier, went to work in the atelier of a prominent Parisian architect named Hector Martin Lefuel. In 1846, when he was nineteen, Richard enrolled at the …cole des Beaux Arts. He was the first American architect ever to get his training there, and he was the first of hundreds; it was largely through his influence that later in the century it was the ambition of every young American architect to study at the Beaux Arts, and a great many of them realized their ambition. Eight years later, he went to work for his first architectural instructor, Lefuel, who had quite recently been appointed to the august position of supervising the design and construction of the additions to the Louvre by which Napoleon III intended to memorialize his reign. Young Hunt, who was by this time, to all outward appearances—in speech, mannerisms, and dress—a complete Frenchman, was put in charge of the construction of the Pavillon de la BibliothÀque. “There is a certain picturesque surprise,” one of his contemporaries recalled many years later, “in the spectacle of a Yankee lad giving form and character to one of the imperial monuments of France.”
The Frenchified Yankee lad decided, however, that though Lefuel assured him that a great career lay before him in France his responsibility and his future were in America. “It has been represented to me,” he wrote to his mother at Christmas time in 1855, “that America was not ready for the Fine Arts, but I think they are mistaken. There is no place in the world where they are more needed, or where they should be more encouraged. Why, there are more luxurious houses put up in New York than in Paris! At any rate the desire is evinced and the money spent and if the object is not attained, it is the fault of the architects.…There are no greater fools in America than in any other part of the world; the only thing is that the professional man has got to make his own standing.”