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Beaux Arts New York

by

David Garrard Lowe

Watson-Guptill Publications, 1998, pp. 128,

more than 145 illustrations. $19.95.

By Carter B. Horsley

This slim volume covers familiar territory but is a delightfully enchanting and very well written overview of the elegant architectural style that helped make New York the international capital of the world.

The author, who is the president of the Beaux Arts Alliance, an organization in New York that "celebrates the cultural links between the United States and France," notes that it "was the Beaux Arts that found New York a city of sooty brownstone and left it one of bright marble, furnished it with palaces and galleries, caravansaries and public monuments."

"It was the Beaux Arts style that made New York dare to be extravagant and also to be beautiful," Lowe maintained.

Extravagant, yes, for that is part of the essence of the Beaux Arts style.

Beautiful? Well, quite often. New Yorkers had embraced some quite beautiful Federal and Greek Revival styles before as well as a few historical ones such as Gothic and had not been immune or unattracted to their virtues, and beauties. Furthermore, the Beaux Arts Style was often grand, but also often grandiose and to some eyes even a bit too robust. If one closely examines many of the marvelous old photographs in this book, one can see that some of the more famous Beaux Arts structures in New York are not always graceful, or true architectural masterpieces.

The proportions of the exteriors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see The City Review article) and Grand Central Terminal (see The City Review article), two of the city’s more celebrated Beaux Arts buildings, for example, are a bit chunky and not really graceful from all aspects. Puffed-up pomposity, of course, can pass as imposing, even impressive, even if not uniformly masterful.

The Beaux Arts style had as its "dictum that the ultimate expression of beauty was the classical...and...the professors of the École meant not only the buildings of ancient Greece and Rome, but also the architecture of the Italian and French Renaissance. In a typically French appeal to reason, the École proclaimed that it could be demonstrated by logic that the proportion and forms of the classical, such as the five orders - Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite - were the eternal norms of architectural design....The liberating result of this belief was that the École never advocated copying the structures of the past....If in aesthetic theory the École looked back to the classical for inspiration, on its practical side it boldly embraced the future, accepting every new material and technique of construction: iron, steel, plate glass, rivets, the elevator. There was no sense of the fusty or the retrograde about Laloux’s Gare d’Orsay or Garnier’s Opera. Indeed, it is this taut combination of state-of-the-art construction clothed in forms perfected by the architects of the temples of the Acropolis in Athens and of the palaces of Rome that give Beaux Arts buildings their structural vitality and their aesthetic magnetism. It is this very combination that sparks the frisson felt by the commuter beneath the electric stars in Grand Central Terminal’s colossal concourse, and that makes the aerial terra cotta-clad Woolworth Building a thing of perennial beauty."

Lowe traces French influences in America to early Huguenot settlers, beginning with Peter Minuit, who became governor in 1926 of New Amsterdam and would be followed by deForests and Jays, Lorillards and Goelets. The first American student to become a serious art student in Paris was John Vanderlyn who upon "his return to New York in 1815 constructed the city’s first public art gallery, a rotunda in which to display his enormous panorama of the chateau and gardens of Versailles," Lowe noted, although he does not mention that that panorama is now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Pierre L’Enfant designed the reredos behind the altar of St. Paul’s Chapel on Broadway and City Hall’s "sophisticated style reveals the familiarity of its co-architect, Joseph-Francois Mangin, with the private houses of Paris," Lowe wrote, adding that the high mansard roofs of Arnold Constable and Lord & Taylor on Ladies’ Mile "reflected New Yorkers’ fascination with the Second Empire opulence of Napoleon III and his Empress, Eugenie.

The grandest and most visible evidence of French influence was the Statue of Liberty sculpted by Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi to commemorate the centennial of the Declaration of Independence.

"Thus, when in 1883 the new house that Richard Morris Hunt designed for the William K. Vanderbilts at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street introduced the full panoply of Beaux Arts architecture into New York, the ground had been well prepared for it. A four-story French Renaissance chateau echoing Chenonceau and Blois, the pale limestone edifice was like a blazing lantern set down amid the somber brownstone of old New York. With its graceful ogee moldings, slender turret embellished with fleur-de-lis, and high blue-slate roof, the Vanderbilt mansion signified a sea change in Gotham’s taste. The Beaux Arts style would dominate the architecture of New York until the epoch it exemplified died in the trenches of the First World War, in the mud of Ypres and upon the barbed wire of Verdun," Loew wrote.

Hunt, Lowe continued, had been admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1845 and was the first American student to enter the architectural section of the famed school that had been formed in 1819 from the Academie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture and the Academie Royal d’Architecture....To understand the full significance of Hunt’s matriculation at the École, one has only to remember that the second American to enter was Henry Hobson Richardson, from whose hand came such Romanesque Revival monuments as Boston’s Trinity Church, and that the third was Charles F. McKim, creator of that marvel of the Age of Steam, Pennsylvania Station."

Indeed, the impact of Paris and the school on American architects was profound. "The presence of the City of Light is palpable in the work of Americans who studied there like Whitney Warren, Ernest Flagg, and John Carrère, and also of those Beaux Arts architects, like Stanford White, who did not attend the school, but grew to love the city. Their dream was to transfer to New York on the Hudson the shimmering world of Paris on the Seine."

Interestingly, Lowe goes on to write that Paris was the gateway to Rome for Americans: "The ultimate prize at the École was the Prix de Rome, which allowed students to study for three years at the French Academy in the Villa Medici. It is of profound significance that Hunt and McKim strove to establish an American Academy in the Eternal City. Added to the wonders of Paris, the art and opulence of Rome - of the Sistine Chapel, the Piazzo Navona, and the Palazzo Farnese - taught Americans that less was not more, but that indeed more was more."

Lowe does not note that the American Academy in Rome would in the late 1990’s open a major facility in the Italian Palazzo-style Metropolitan Club, designed by McKim, Mead & White, on Fifth Avenue and 60th Street. (See The City Review article on the club.)

Lowe breaks his book up into chapters devoted to building types. In the chapter entitled "Grand Entrances," he wrote that "stepping into Pennsylvania Station or Grand Central Terminal, the traveler knew that this was not a hamlet in Kansas, but a metropolis of unquestioned consequence." Indeed, he reproduces a splendid photograph, shown above, of Pennsylvania Station’s "travertine-sheathed general waiting room" that "was inspired by the tepidarium - the chamber between the hot and cold rooms - of Rome’s Baths of Caracalla and was as large as the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica," adding that "below the waiting room’s thermal windows were maps of the Pennsylvania rail network by the artist Jules Guerin."

While the exterior of Pennsylvania Station was not as impressive as that at Grand Central Terminal, its interiors were incredible. The scale of the main concourse, identified as a waiting room by Lowe, room was stupendous, but handled with great grace and restraint. Eight giant Corinthian columns supported the great coffered vault ceiling over enormous five-part, multi-paned windows with curved tops. The huge arch at the right of the picture led up a flight of stairs to the huge entrance hall flanked by very large restaurants with very high ceilings on Seventh Avenue while the huge art at the left led to the more spectacular, although less formal waiting room with its enormous skylights and exposed girders.

Of the main concourse at Grand Central Terminal whose renovation was completed in the fall of 1998, Lowe wrote that "the power of this great room derives from Whitney Warren’s brilliant Beaux Arts stratagem of creating the sense of a column-enclosed classical hall, when, in fact, its piers have a startling, almost Art Deco spareness about them. They soar, without capitals, 125 feet to a restrained entablature form which springs a vaulted ceiling decorated with electrically lit constellations of the zodiac conceived by the French painter, Paul Helleu." Lowe, like many other writers and critics, appears to approve of the Helleu suspended ceiling, although some critics, such as myself, have found it insipid and not as attractive as the skylights above it.

In the chapter entitled "Magnificent Caravansaries," Lowe says that the "railroad station and the hotel were the two most important new building types developed in the 19th Century." While noting that the city had several major hotels earlier in the 19th Century, "it was left to the Beaux Arts," he wrote, "to create a truly sensational palace hotel with Henry J. Hardenberg's 530-room Waldorf at Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street, which opened in 1893." "It was joined four years later by the even larger Astoria." he continued, "to complete the creation of what old New Yorkers always called 'The Hyphen.'" Although Lowe does not dwell much on the celebrated Waldorf-Astoria (see The City Review article) and its interesting history, he does include two photographs of the skylight over the Palm Court in Hardenbergh's Plaza Hotel (see The City Review article) that opened in 1907. The domed skylight has unfortunately been hidden beneath a suspended ceiling for many decades.

"The emphatic massing and daringly high mansard roof - which echoed that of the older Plaza across Fifth Avenue - of McKim, Mead & White's Savoy Plaza proclaimed the continuing vitality of Beaux Arts design in the 1920's. This wonderfully urbane structure was destroyed in 1967 and replaced by the General Motors Building," Lowe wrote. (See The City Review article on the General Motors Building.) His book includes a fine photograph of the Savoy Plaza, shown below, although it does not mention that it was the first home in the city for Trader Vic's Restaurant, one of the first successful "theme" restaurants, that subsequently moved to the Plaza Hotel. Lowe's affection for the hotel is well-placed, although it is surprising that he did not discuss its importance to the ambiance of the Plaza district more since it was a perfect foil not only to the Plaza, but also to the Sherry Netherland Hotel to the north (see The City Review article) and the Bergdorf Goodman store (see The City Review article) diagonally across the avenue. The hotel's imposing massing and nice detailing are handsomer than the Plaza's, although its interiors were not as sumptuous.

In the chapter entitled "Civic Pride," Lowe remarks that with few exceptions "almost all of New York's memorable civic buildings are Beaux Arts. Towards the end of the 19th Century, New Yorkers "were stung by the all too frequent references to the palpable impermanence of America's cities" and quotes a character from an Edith Wharton novel as commenting that Americans come "from towns as flimsy as paper." "There is nothing flimsy about Cass Gilbert's statue-bedecked Custom House on Bowling Green or James Brown Lord's crystalline marble Appellate Court on Madison Square or Hoppin & Koen's Renaissance-domed old Police Headquarters on Centre Street. All deftly employ Beaux Arts stratagems of peerless materials, dazzling craftsmanship, and ageless classical details to express permanence and civic continuity. They strive to make New York upon the Hudson, like Rome upon the Tiber, an eternal city," Lowe wrote. Lowe also cites, and illustrates, McKim, Mead & White's Municipal Building and the Surrogate's Court directly across from it that was designed by John R. Thomas and Hogan & Slattery.

Lowe does not try to rank these buildings, but most critics would probably say that the Customs House and the Surrogate's Court are the city's two finest Beaux Arts structures.

The book's photographs, however, are very fine and include many that have not appeared in other popular books on the city. One of the best shows the great Siegel-Cooper department store building on the east side of the Avenue of the Americas between 18th and 19th Streets along "Ladies' Mile." The photograph, from a private collection, shows its large center tower, now gone, and the elevated line in front of it, which has long since gone as well.

In the chapter entitled "Commercial Grace," Lowe extols many of the city's notable office and retail buildings: "These edifices signified Gotham's ambitions and pride. These were the true palaces of its heart." He includes a superb picture of the top of the Singer Building on Lower Broadway that was probably the city's most distinctive skyscraper silhouette before the Chrysler Building (see The City Review article on the Chrysler Building). Another fine photograph shows the great building designed in 1904 by Eidlitz & MacKenzie for the New York Times at the base of Times Square, a building sold by the newspaper and later reclad banally. Among other "lost" landmarks depicted is the Brooklyn Savings Bank on the northeast corner of Pierrepont and Clinton Streets that was completed in 1894 and designed by Frank Freeman. Lowe also includes an early photograph of the Chamber of Commerce Building on Liberty Street that was designed by James B. Baker and built in 1901. The chamber subsequently relocated and great sculptural groups on the facade by Philip Martiny, Daniel Chester French and Karl Bitter, Lowe notes, "have all disappeared." Lowe also includes a dramatic photograph of the building's great interior.

Another excellent photograph is a close-up of the top of Madison Square Garden's tower on Madison Avenue. "When Madison Square Garden, filling the entire block bounded by Madison and Fourth avenues and 26th and 27th streets, opened its vast 10,000-seat amphitheater in the spring of 1890," Lowe wrote, "it instantly made Stanford White the most famous architect in New York. The yellow brick and terra cotta edifice also held a 1,500-seat concert hall and a theater and was topped by a tower rising 341 feet from the pavement. The tower contained seven floors of apartments and was crowned by Augustus Saint-Gaudens's graceful 13-foot statue of Diana. Following the Garden's demolition in 1925, Diana went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art."

This section of the book is full of excellent pictures that show several of the celebrated "roof gardens" of the era.

The most beautiful photograph in the book a detail of which is used as one of the cover's illustrations, shows a woman in a broad hat standing at the balustrade in front of the New York Public Library overlooking Fifth Avenue at night.

Other sections of the book have very good pictures of the interiors of the Century Association, the Metropolitan Club and the New York Yacht Club and of several prominent mansions, including Mrs. William B. Astor's famous ballroom, which was very impressive with many paintings and sculpture by Karl Bitter, and the "Gold Room," shown below, in the Villard Houses at the New York Palace Hotel that is now part of Le Cirque 2000 restaurant.

This is not the definitive book on the subject, but it is well-written and contains many excellent photographs, enough to make it a source of pleasure to all New Yorkers with an interest in its legendary past.

While Beaux Arts architecture was not always splendid, the intentions of its designers, patrons and supporters have been. Some Classicists are sometimes a bit rigid in their antipathy towards modernity, a reflection of their justifiable outrage at the loss of many magnificent buildings that never should have been demolished.

This book is an important reminder that cities should be grand and New York the grandest.

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