One of the first celebrity American architects Cass Gilbert ranks alongside Richard Morris Hunt (1827-95) as one of the great pioneers of Beaux-Arts architecture, a lavish combination of Renaissance and Baroque. His high-rise buildings injected great vitality into early skyscraper design. After success in Minnesota and Missouri, with award-winning designs for buildings like the Minnesota State Capitol (1895-1905) in St Paul, probably the last Neo-Renaissance structure of 19th century architecture, and the Saint Louis Art Museum (1904), Gilbert received commissions from Boston and New York, where he designed masterpieces like the Beaux-Arts style Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, New York (1901-1907), as well as skyscrapers like the Brazer Building, Boston (1896-1899), Broadway Chambers Building, New York (1899-1900), and the Gothic-style Woolworth Building, New York (1910-13). Other famous buildings designed by Gilbert include the Renaissance-style Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio (1917), the Detroit Public Library (1921), the US Supreme Court Building, Washington DC (1928-35), and the striking Gothic Revival New York Life Insurance Building (1926-28), with its gilded pyramidal roof made from 25,000 gold-leaf tiles.
Training as an Architect
Cass Gilbert was born in Zanesville, Ohio, and came to St. Paul with his family in 1868. He began his architectural career working for a St Paul architect, Abraham M. Radcliffe, and then studied architecture for one year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1878), a new program established by William Robert Ware (1832-1915). On his return from a European Grand Tour in 1880, Gilbert went to work for the prestigious New York firm of architects McKim, Mead and White - run by Charles McKim (1847-1909), William Rutherford Mead (1846-1928) and Stanford White (1853-1906) and worked in the firm's New York and Baltimore offices until 1883, when he returned to St. Paul as a fully trained architect.
Early Projects and Style of Architecture
From 1884 to 1892 Gilbert went into partnership with James Knox Taylor, a fellow MIT classmate, and the firm quickly became popular locally, designing depots, hospitals and other buildings for the Northern Pacific Railway, including some projects done in conjunction with McKim, Mead and White, as well as designs for houses, warehouses, retail stores, churches and clubhouses, and office buildings like the celebrated Endicott Building in St Paul. Many of Gilbert's imaginative designs recalled and reinterpreted details of European buildings seen on his Grand Tour and typified the popular styles of the era: the Romanesque art of Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-86), Shingle Style designs and other types of American Colonial art (St. Clement's Episcopal Church, 1895), the Gothic Revival style championed by Richard Upjohn (1802-78) and James Renwick (1818-95), as well as the lavish Beaux-Arts idiom, popularized by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Gilbert's early work attracted the attention of prominent architects in New York and Chicago, including Daniel H. Burnham (1846-1912), head of Burnham and Root - one of the leading firms of the Chicago School of architecture - and in 1892 he was chosen to serve on the national jury to select architects for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
The Woolworth Building, the interpretation of Gothic architecture, became the tallest building in the World in 1913. It remained the tallest building until 1930 when the title passed to the Chrysler Building in New York. Marked by detailed ornamentation, its high-ceilinged, cruciform lobby is decorated with Skyros marble, mosaics, stained-glass and bronze furnishings. Its architectural engineering was also ground-breaking, Gilbert's technique of cladding a steel frame became the standard model for decades.
Other Architectural Projects
Gilbert received commissions to design two other state capitols - the Arkansas State Capitol, Little Rock (1900-1917, with George R. Mann), and the West Virginia State Capitol, Charleston (1924-32), as well as other public buildings mostly in the Beaux-Arts style. Some also featured colonial revival elements, reminiscent of earlier American designers like Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), William Thornton (1759-1828), Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844) and Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820). Other works included the Union Club (1902), New York, modelled after an Italian Renaissance palazzo, the US Treasury Annex (1918-19), and the Renaissance-style public libraries of St Louis and Hartford (both 1908) and Detroit (1921). His Palace of Fine Arts, built as part of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, later became the magnificent Beaux-Arts-style St Louis Art Museum, whose design was influenced by the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. He executed elaborate plans for the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis (1908); the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio (1917) and the University of Texas, Austin. His two buildings for the Austin campus, Battle Hall (1911), and Sutton Hall (1918), designed in a Spanish-Mediterranean Revival idiom, are both widely regarded by architectural historians as among the finest works of architecture in the state. Another of Gilbert's important projects was the Chase Headquarters Building, Waterbury, Connecticut (1917-1919), part of the Waterbury Municipal Center Complex, a unique cluster of Gilbert's architecture which also includes the City Hall, the Chase Bank Building, Chase's house, and Lincoln House, a centre for local charities.
Gilbert was prolific, prominent and successful and left his mark on the architecture of many American cities. Although his early work in Minnesota includes many imaginative and picturesque designs, by the early 20th century he can perhaps best be classified as an old-school, East Coast establishment architect whose academically correct and convincing designs were firmly rooted in the American Beaux-Arts tradition. This style was a tangible expression of the optimistic American feeling that the country was the legitimate heir and champion of Greek democracy, Roman law and Renaissance humanist philosophy.
A collection of Gilbert's drawings and other papers is preserved at the Minnesota Historical Society, the New-York Historical Society, and the Library of Congress.
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