History of Beaux-Arts Architecture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

American architecture has gone through several movements, each of which reflects something about people of that era. In this lesson, we'll explore the Beaux-Arts movement and see what this shows us about Americans of that era.

Beaux-Arts Architecture

What makes good architecture? Is it an abundance of fancy decorations? Is it a restrained use of geometric forms? Is it the size or stability of a structure? This question has been answered in many ways across history. Generally, people embrace styles of architecture that reflect something about themselves- their political affiliation, national identity, etc. Well, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans' ideas about themselves were changing. As a result, their architecture changed too, and they found a perfect fit in the style of Beaux-Arts.

Background: 19th Century American Architecture

To understand the rise of Beaux-Arts architecture, we need to head back to the beginning of the 19th century. The United States was a very young nation in 1800, and was searching for a national style of architecture to represent the new republic. The government settled on the Neoclassical style for federal buildings. It was formal, refined, austere, and based on the architecture of ancient Rome, which the founding figures felt created a nice symbolic parallel between the Roman and American republics.

Fast-forward a few decades. The United States entered its industrial revolution, fought a Civil War, and committed itself to westward expansion. By 1880, we were a completely different nation, stretching from coast to coast and entering into international markets as one of the world's fastest-growing capitalist powers. Throughout the middle century, Americans largely embraced the architectural styles of Victorian England. Victorian architecture was ornate, elaborate, and detailed- proudly displaying the wealth of industrial capitalists. While many Americans liked the Victorian styles, it had its limitations. For one, it was very English. Rather than reflecting the virtues of republic citizenship, it flaunted the wealth of the upper class.

The Rise of Beaux-Arts Architecture

In the late 19th century, Americans were getting tired of Victorian lavishness and looking for a new architectural style. The answer to this problem came from a series of American architects who had travelled to Paris to study at the highly esteemed Ecole des Beaux Arts, the most respected school of fine arts in the world at that time. Victorian styles had not permeated as widely into France, and the Ecole des Beaux Arts was still mostly focused on the formal and rigid neoclassical styles, making new use of ancient architectural forms. Specifically, they taught a heavily ornamented variation of the normally austere neoclassicism. The Beaux Arts style was rational, extremely devoted to symmetry, and serious, but also featured highly detailed decorations and adornments on walls and other surfaces.

Classical arcade in a Beaux-Arts building
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The first American to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts (ever) was Richard Morris Hunt in the mid 19th century. He was followed by H. H. Richardson and Charles McKim. Together, these three brought the Beaux-Arts style from France back to the United States and began adapting it to American tastes. Their structures were large and imposing, formal and rational, yet covered in lavish and detailed designs. Despite both styles being defined by a high amount of ornamentation, the Beaux Arts and Victorian decorations were very different. While Victorian styles embraced industrially-produced designs, celebrating the advent of the industrial age, the new Bueax-Arts architecture celebrated individual craftsmanship, especially in monumental ornaments like statues.

Beux-Arts building in Washington D.C.
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Spread of Beaux-Arts Architecture

The American style of Beaux-Arts architecture was first developed in the 1850s, when Richard Morris Hunt graduated from the Ecole des Beaux Arts and opened his own architectural firm in the United States. It grew slowly at first, but started to gain notoriety over time. The big break for the Beaux-Arts style came in the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, hosted in Chicago. The Columbian Expositions, a type of world fair, was an international expo where the leading industrial nations came together to show off their technology. It was a chance to show the world where America was in terms of development. To give you a clue as to the importance of this event, it was at the 1893 exposition that the Ferris Wheel was invented and where American academic Frederick Jackson Turner announced to the world that the American frontier was formally closed.

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