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Index by Medium

Chateaux & Beaux Arts

Up until now, we've only discussed the English influences on American architecture, and with good reason. Except for some French colonial structures in the deep South there was very little French influence on American architecture, at least until one Mr. Richard Morris Hunt came upon the scene. He was the first American to study architecture at Paris' Ecole des Beaux-arts. He hit town around 1843 and spent the next twelve years soaking up everything French he could find. Then he brought so much of it back to the U.S. he might well have needed an export license. At the time, the prevailing style in France was called Francis I. The same thing here we call the Chateau style or sometimes Chateauesque. And running parallel with this, was a somewhat more restrained, boxier style most often referred to in this country as Beaux Arts.

Although they differ considerably in appearance, it's fitting these two style should be discussed together in that, first of all, they came from the same country, second, they were popular during roughly the same era in this country, and third, in both cases only the wealthiest could afford them (and sometimes just barely even at that). I think it was Mark Twain who referred to the 1870s through to 1910 as the "Gilded Age." Richard Morris Hunt was the architect of the Gilded Age. He was the architect of the Vanderbilts, and the...well, when you have the Vanderbilt family as clients, who needs anyone else. Both the Chateauesque and Beaux Arts styles would be quite minor ripples in the mainstream of late nineteenth, early twentieth century architecture except for Newport, Rhode Island and a couple other east coast venues where costly, exuberant, megalithic examples have been preserved as tourist attractions and architectural oddities. Richard Morris Hunt designed several of them. He didn't, however, design for the "man on the street." Thus, you'd have to live in some pretty ritzy neighbourhoods to walk up and down the street and spot anything more than one or two.

In picturing the Chateauesque style, think French chateau, with its mixture of Renaissance Italian and Gothic influences. Since they were exclusively architect designed, they are surprisingly pure in their translation to the American architectural idiom. Unlike other styles we've discussed, it would be quite difficult to craft a cheap rip-off of either of these French styles. Seldom, in fact, do you even see one made of brick, and never of wood. Sizes varied somewhat from the merely large to huge. Rarely, in fact, do you see an example of a house to small for this style's larger-than-life masonry and decorative details. And once you acclimate yourself to the style and accept that overbearing, over-decorated, and pretentious are "good," in fact the hallmarks of the style; and get used to the mindset that more really is better, then they can be really quite beautiful. Biltmore, in Asheville North Carolina, the home of the youngest of the three Vanderbilt brothers, is the perfect example of this style.

The Chateauesque style has a country look to it, as indeed, most of them both here and in France are located in the country. The Beaux-Arts style though is thoroughly citified. In certain parts of Paris, you can see block after block of them, culminating in the glorious Paris Opera House. In this country, today at least, you'd have to go to Newport to see that many Beaux-Arts homes and even then, they are set spaciously amidst acres of grass and gardens. Picture a turn-of-the-century bank building in nearly any major or minor city in this country and you'll get a pretty good idea of the Beaux Arts style. Roofs are usually low-pitched or flat. Porticoes feature arches at least as often as columns, and there is as much an Italian Renaissance flavour to them as French. Decoration is more restrained than in the Chateauesque and tends toward the lower, heavier, levels of the structure. Mansard roofs and dormers are quite common; and even though they occasionally rise to as much as four stories, insofar as homes are concerned, the tendency is for horizontal lines to predominate. Marble or limestone is the favoured architectural medium with symmetricality a must. In cities often the style is limited to the street fašades of the buildings to save costs. And although curves are occasionally seen, in window groupings, most other aspects are severely rectilinear.

Hunt died in 1895, and neither the Chateauesque nor the Beaux-Arts style lived long after that. With the advent of the automobile, electricity, telephones, and all the other "modern" conveniences that came with the twentieth century, lifestyles, even those of the rich and famous, changed quite rapidly with them. People tired of the starchy formality this style of architecture suggested, even demanded. Informality became the rule. But the real culprit in killing off these French follies was the Income Tax. Once these houses, grand as they were, passed to the second generation by the 1920s and 30s, even the Vanderbilt heirs couldn't afford to keep them up, much less build their own. They weren't even inclined to live in such manmade stone quarries. Many were torn down to free up valuable real estate. Others were turned into apartments, office buildings, museums, sold to colleges and universities, or became banks, which is what they most resembled in the first place. The rest became tourist attractions, reminding us that the "gilded age" with their "gilded cages" make a nice place to visit, but you really wouldn't want to live in either one.

contributed by Lane, Jim

30 September 2000

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