- Historic Sites
Chateau Builder To Fifth Avenue
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
Hunt’s fortunes increased. He built town houses for the Elbridge T. Gerrys and the John Jacob Astors on Fifth Avenue and “cottages” for the Ogden Goelets, several for the O. H. P. Belmonts and for the Vanderbilts at Newport. If they inspired awe and envy by the massiveness of their fa¡ades, they bedazzled by the glitter and sumptuousness of their interiors. Entrance halls were two or three stories high, layer upon rich layer of balconies and balustrades, of carving and wrought iron, of chandeliers and sculptured nymphs and graces, of tremendous allegorical ceiling paintings and friezes. With a lavish hand he used white marble and pink marble and green marble and gold and still more gold. Hunt gave his clients Moorish rooms and Byzantine rooms and Palm Courts and Jacobean suites; bowls of orchids ornamented the marble-topped tables he helped his clients to select, exotic birds sang in Oriental cages he had suggested for their solariums, and the grand staircases would have been fit setting for a princess in train and coronet to descend to meet her courtiers. No wonder Hunt was the trusted darling of the New York rich. He was their taste and their sense of fitness.
By 1890 there was no question that Hunt, now sixty-three, was to most of his contemporaries the grand old master of American architecture. He had designed the base for the Statue of Liberty on Bedloes Island; he had put a new fa¡ade on the Metropolitan Museum and had built the Astor Library. He was at work on the plans for Biltmore and was soon to remodel Cornelius Vanderbilt’s cottage at Newport, “The Breakers,” a matter of alteration that cost its owner $3,000,000. There were those, to be sure, who preferred the kind of elegance that McKim, Mead, and White produced; their eclecticism was somehow less archaeological than Hunt’s and seemed fresher and less ponderous. There were those who thought that Richardson was the greatest architectural genius that America had produced, but by the Nineties he was dead at a tragically early age, his great promise only half-fulfilled. In the Middle West Louis Sullivan was immersed in the new aesthetic suggested to him by the use of steel construction and plate glass and there was a promising young draftsman named Frank Lloyd Wright working in his Chicago office. But when the Columbian Exposition was planned it was Hunt who was given the Administration Hall, the most prominent of all the buildings, to design.
“It was the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893,” wrote Henry Stcele Commager in The American Mind just a few years ago, “that condemned American architecture to the imitative and the derivative for another generation.” But to the architects who planned it and the sculptors and painters who ornamented it, nothing so glorious had ever been offered to the American people. It was “The White City,” gleaming with plaster of Paris. Every one of its tremendous structures was bedecked by heroic sculpture and fluttering flags and was reflected in Lake Michigan or in the lagoons or in the artificial pools. “As a scenic display,” wrote Henry Adams, “Paris has never approached it,” and no wonder. Frederick Law Olmsted and his young assistant Henry Codman had chosen the site and brought order out of a chaos of wasteland along the lake shore. The Chicago architects John Wellborn Root and Daniel H. Burnham, the most famous practitioners in the city, were given supervision over the architectural plans, but they felt that the exposition should represent the architects not merely of the Middle West but of the whole nation. Hunt’s old pupil Henry Van Brunt and his partner, Frank M. Howe, were summoned from Kansas City; McKim, Mead, and White from New York; Peabody and Stearns from Boston. “When…in 1893,” wrote Van Brunt in his eulogy of Hunt, “several of us were summoned to act together again with him on the great national arena at Chicago, the natural dominance of the master again asserted itself without pretension, and we once more became his willing and happy pupils.”
The result of this was an array of Beaux Arts classicism as white and richly ornamented as a congregation of royal brides. The hundreds of thousands of mustachioed men in bowlers and women in leg-ofmutton sleeves who wandered on foot, or were pushed in wicker “rolling chairs,” or were wafted in the gondolas on the lagoons and reflecting pools, gazed up at domes and lofty columns capped with acanthus leaves, at ranked arches and sculptures symbolizing every virtue known to man. Taller than all the rest was Daniel Chester French’s colossal statue of The Republic, sixty-five feet from the hem of her dress to the laurel wreath that crowned her tresses.
“In the choice of the classic style,” wrote Talbot Hamlin, a devoted admirer of the American Rennaissance, “the consulting architects only symbolized popular taste; in the actual creation of the tremendously impressive group of buildings…they did more; they astonished, delighted, and fixed popular taste.” To him the Exposition was “the symbol of the arrival at full birth of that which may be called modern American architecture.”