Chateau Builder To Fifth Avenue


Another observer was less sure of what the White City meant to America. “One sat down to ponder on the steps beneath Richard Hunt’s dome,” wrote Henry Adams in his autobiography, “almost as deeply as on the steps of Ara Coeli and much to the same purpose. Here was a breach of continuity—a rupture in historical sequence! Was it real, or only apparent? One’s personal universe hung on the answer for, if the rupture was real and the new American world could take this sharp and conscious twist towards ideals, one’s personal friends would come in, at last, as winners in the great American chariot-race for fame. If the people of the Northwest actually knew what was good when they saw it, they would some day talk about Hunt and Richardson, LaFarge and Saint-Gaudens, Burnham and McKim, and Stanford White when their politicians and millionaires were otherwise forgotten. The artists and architects who had done the work offered little encouragement to hope it; they talked freely enough, but not in terms that one cared to quote; and to them the Northwest refused to look artistic. They talked as though they worked only for themselves; as though art, to the Western people, was a stage decoration; a diamond shirt-stud; a paper collar; but possibly the architects of Paestum and Girgenti had talked in the same way, and the Greek had said the same thing of Semitic Carthage two thousand years ago.”

In Hunt’s mind there could have been little of the kind of concern that we now associate with the idea of an architecture for the people. Architecture to him meant grandeur in the classic tradition, something to look upon with awe and, if possible, with reverence, as one looked upon the possessors of vast fortunes with awe, even if reverence for most Americans was impossible to summon. Hunt’s career, his artistic ambitions, and his aesthetic creed were inextricably interwoven with the emergence of a new aristocracy in this country, an aristocracy of wealth which, like Hunt’s architecture, was ephemeral. A few of the houses he built for the rich still stand but the spirit that inspired them like the fortunes that built them has dwindled. Some, like Biltmore and The Breakers, are now open to tourists; some, like the William K. Vanderbilt house on Fifth Avenue, have disappeared; others stand empty with their lawns gone to hay and their gardens to brambles. The American Renaissance, the age of elegant eclecticism, passed from Private Taste to Public Taste and then to limbo.

Hunt was readying The Breakers for the arrival of the Vanderbilts at Newport when he died. “Upon his deathbed,” his first pupil, Henry Van Brunt, told a gathering of the members of the American Institute of Architects in a final tribute to the most distinguished of its founders, “he was seen to raise his hand and, with the fine gesture of the artist, to trace as with a pencil in the air a line of beauty, delicately but firmly fitting the act of grace to the unconscious study of his imagination.”