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,"
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
"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,"
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
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
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
"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 &
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
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
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.