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The Making of the Monumental Metropolis: New York and the École des Beaux Arts

My mission in writing about New York in the late nineteenth century has been to underscore the changes wrought in Old New York with the arrival of the 20th century and the radical remaking of its built environment, and to wonder, of course, about the parallels with our own time. Charles Hemstreet's Nooks and Corners of Old New York (1899), which I wrote about in a couple of posts, is the work of an antiquarian, a person with a deep connection to the past and an unease with the present. With such rich real estate below, it's easy to be anxious about the knocking down of familiar landmarks and the erasure of the past. The building boom of the present, with its many tall blue condo-ized buildings of vague modernist architectural heritage, oblivious to the city's narrative arc of historic neighborhoods, and the slow and often imperceptible disappearance of the flavor of certain streets can undermine one's necessary sense of place. We can all start feeling like antiquarians.

The novelist Henry James spent his first ten years in New York but had been living in Europe for twenty years before returning to the city in 1904. Much had changed. The overall color palette of the "brown decades," Lewis Mumford's phrase for the years 1865-1895 with their somber autumnal brownstones, gave way to a new city in granite, stone, and marble. Viewing the New York skyline from the harbor, James describes the overall effect "of summer dawns and winter frosts, of sea-foam, of bleached sails and stretched awnings, of blanched hulls, of scoured decks, of new ropes, of polished brasses, of steamers clear in the blue air" ("New York Revisited"). James was particular stunned by the sight of the "towers of marble, " the new skyscrapers that dotted the view of New York "like extravagant pins in a cushion already overplanted."

Nothing contributed more to the overall new shimmering appearance of New York's urban landscape in the years 1885 to 1920 than the construction of monumental buildings in the Beaux-Arts style. The École des Beaux Arts emphasized a rigorous education in the arts of Imperial Rome, the Italian Renaissance, and the Baroque. Symmetrical, detailed and hierarchical, the New York buildings in the Beaux-Arts style share an unmistakable visual agenda. The cumulative effect of these buildings of white stone or marble, many constructed simultaneously and several designed by McKim, Mead, and White, still shapes the perception of everyday life in the big city. A partial list:

• Grand Central Terminal, 1903-1913, Reed and Stem and Warren and Wetmore (Warren and Wetmore added architectural details and the Beaux-Arts style) The new terminal opened on February 2, 1913.
• New York Public Library, 1897-1911. A Beaux-Arts design by Carrère and Hastings, was the largest marble structure up to that time in the United States.
• Alexander Hamilton Custom House, 1899-1913. Cass Gilbert, who later would design the world's tallest building (at the time), the Woolworth Building, when it opened in 1913.
• Siegel-Cooper Dry Goods Store (currently Bed, Bath and Beyond), 1896. by Delemos and Cordes.
• The Metropolitan Museum of Art, additions in 1902 with Richard Morris Hunt designing the central pavilion and the neoclassical facade, and 1911, the north and south wings by McKim, Mead and White.
• Appellate Court, 1900-02. architect James Brown Lord. 27 Madison Avenue. 35 East 25th Street.
• Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York, 1901. architect James B. Baker. 66 Liberty Street, between Nassau Street and Broadway.
• Algonquin Hotel, 1902. Goldwin Starrett. 59-61 W44, bet. Fifth and Sixth Aves.
• The Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (Brooklyn Museum), 1890s to 1920s, and surrounding buildings. 200 Eastern Parkway. Brooklyn became part of New York City in 1898 and launched an ambitious centralized building program.
• Farley Post Office Building, 1912. William Mitchell Kendall of McKim, Mead and White. Eighth Ave., bet. W31 & W33.
• Washington Arch, 1895. McKim, Mead and White.

Next up: Henry James revisits Washington Square, hates on NYU and makes fun of the new Arch.

See New York 1900: Edith Wharton and The House of Mirth, A Walk and a Map for the several related posts.

Comments

Anonymous said…
My husband and I recently visited NYC to try and see the architecture of the Gilded Age and all things pertaining to Edith Wharton. Your chronological postings were a great help to us, and one of the highlights of our trip, thanks to you, was visiting the impressive Customs House at Bowling Green! thank you! Of all the travel books I consulted your info. was by far the most helpful! Cynthia Lyons

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