The Influential Career Of The Dean Of American Architecture, Richard Morris Hunt

Monday, January 25, 2016, by Patrick Sisson
Clockwise from top left: The Biltmore Estate, the
Columbian Exposition Administration Building, the Stuyvesant Apartments, The New York Tribune Building.

“The first thing you’;ve got to remember is that it’;s your client’;s money you’;re spending. Your goal is to achieve the best results by following their wishes. If they want you to built a house upside down standing on its chimney, it’;s up to you to do it.”

Not surprisingly, one of the men most associated with Gilded Age mansions and design, Richard Morris Hunt, made that observation about the role of an architect. And while that quote may be interpreted as deference to the whims of wealthy clients, Hunt, and his very eclectic body of work, was about much, much more than merely ostentatious homes. One of the best known architects of his era, “his renown almost worldwide,” according to his 1895 obituary, Hunt helped establish the primacy of his profession in the United States as a starchitect of his times, one who earned the praise of figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. And while mansions and homes for the wealthy remain his best-known works, his breadth of styles, as well as range of projects, make him an important contributor to urban design as well as some of the country’;s best-loved landmarks.

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Portrait of Hunt from his obituary in The New York Times


It’;s hard to overstate the impact Hunt had on architecture, and his role in advancing the profession in the United States. The first American to study at the École des Beaux-Arts, Hunt so impressed his teachers in the 1840s that he was given the task of supervising the construction of the Louvre for Napoleon III (an experience he’;d later relay to a young Louis Sullivan). He founded the American Institute of Architects in 1888 as well as one of the country’;s first architecture schools, and would design some of the first apartment buildings and skyscrapers in Manhattan (the now-demolished Stuyvesant Apartments and New York Tribune building, for example) and contribute his time to the construction of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., his first job after school, and design the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. Hunt also influenced or helped with the careers of other giants in the field, such as Stanford White and Frederick Law Olmstead, and a statue of the stately architect by Chester French can be found in Central Park near the Frick Museum, blocks from the site where he had proposed adding an arched entryway to Manhattan’;s backyard. His career can perhaps be best summed up by the inscription he added above the entrance to his library: “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis Est,” or “Art is long, life is brief.”

· Map: Grand Estates and Lost Mansions of Gilded Age Architect Horace Trumbauer [Curbed]
· Map: Extravagant U.S. Estates of the Gilded Age & Roaring ’;20s [Curbed]

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