- Historic Sites
Chateau Builder To Fifth Avenue
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
When Hunt arrived in New York, a tall young man of twenty-seven, with deep-set eyes and a splendid mustache (he had been called “the handsomest American in Paris”), the profession of architecture was scarcely considered a profession at all. But Hunt brought with him the most extensive training that any American architect had ever received, an intensely industrious temperament, a devotion to academic detail, and—almost as important as any of these—a considerable architectural library. He had collected it at some sacrifice of the expensive pleasures of Parisian gaiety, and it was an investment that paid him rich returns, for as the architect Henry Ives Cobb, Jr., has observed, “Those were the days when to be original meant having an architectural book that none of the other fellows had.” Shortly after he reached New York he was offered a job by Thomas U. Walter, who was in charge of the dome that was being added to the Capitol in Washington. He was gratified to receive a salary of $50 a week, which, next to that received by Mr. Walter himself, was the largest paid to anyone on the project.
Hunt was a natural teacher—demanding, enthusiastic, generous, and concerned. Shortly after he had set himself up in practice in New York he was approached by three young men who aspired to be architects. They pleaded with him to take one of the studios in the Tenth Street Studio Building, which he had just completed, and instruct them in the manner of the Beaux Arts; there was no university in America at that time that thought architecture worth teaching. Henry Van Brunt, George B. Post, and Charles D. Gambrill were his first pupils, and they were joined later by Frank Furness and William R. Ware, who became one of the founders of the school of architecture at Columbia University. the first in this country. Hunt was a taskmaster, insistent on “plans on rigidly scholastic lines” and “strict classic forms” and a proper study of all styles of all ages. His criticisms were, Van Brunt says, “pungent and severe…genial and picturesque” and given with “inexhaustible humor.” The pupils worked at a long table in a large room whose walls were covered with plaster casts, and Hunt encouraged them to “draw, draw, draw, sketch, sketch, sketch!” “If you can’t draw anything else,” Furness recalls his exhorting them, “draw your boots, it doesn’t matter, it will ultimately give you control of your pencil so that you can more readily express on paper your thoughts in designing.”
In the early Sixties Hunt went back to Europe, where he stayed for several years. If he had done no important work, built no splendid buildings before he left, he had accomplished something more important. He had implanted in a group of young architects an enthusiasm for what were considered in those days sound classic architectural principles. He had, indeed, laid the foundations of what was later in the century to be hailed with almost euphoric self-adulation by the architects as the American Renaissance.
Without patrons, which means without a great deal of wealth seeking to be used for personal gratification, there could be no Renaissance. No one, not even the Astors or the Belmonts, was as rich as the Vanderbilts with their vast railroad holdings, but all across the land were millionaires. In Chicago the Potter Palmers had made a fortune in real estate and hotelkeeping, in San Francisco the Crockers and the Huntingtons and the Floods and the Leland Stanfords had amassed fortunes in railroads and real estate and other bonanzas of the Gold Rush. Social competition was acute among the rich, and standing was determined, to some extent, not only by the lavishness with which one entertained but by the size and magnificence of one’s house and by the richness of its collections of paintings and tapestries and tiger rugs and chandeliers and by the number of such houses one owned and where they were situated. The most spectacular cluster of palaces (they were called “cottages” by their owners) was, of course, at fashionable Newport, a resort that Bostonians had looked upon as their own until New Yorkers such as the Astors and the Belmonts and the Vanderbilts had spotted it with their ostentatious summer homes. “There comes back to me a phrase uttered by Charles Eliot Norton…” wrote Van Wyck Brooks in speaking of the man who introduced the History of Art to Harvard. “It was to the effect that the picture of heaven in the Book of Revelation—with its excess of precious stones—was such as might have been conceived ‘by a New York woman.’ What a phrase was that for expressing how Boston and Cambridge felt about the gaudy New York splendor that had vulgarized their beloved Newport.”