Beaux Arts: A Capital Idea

The Beaux-Arts style, also called the American Renaissance, is about as formal as architecture can get.

For many years the embassy of Indonesia, this 1903 French-inspired mansion was built for Thomas Walsh, who made his fortune in gold mining.

Based on classical European precedents—primarily French and Italian palaces and palazzos of the 16th to the 18th century—this grandly formal style transformed America’s major cities between the 1880s and the 1920s after being introduced at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago to an eager nation that had begun to tire of Victorian excesses. Soon, Beaux-Arts architecture was swept along by the turn-of-the-20th-century City Beautiful Movement, which left in its wake a sea of magnificent public buildings of polished stone, from state capitols, courthouses, and city halls to train stations, libraries, and museums.

Beaux Arts also produced some of the most costly and beautiful private homes ever seen in the United States—not only in cities, but also in resort towns and on country estates. Newly minted millionaires in Newport and San Francisco—and virtually all points in between—celebrated a prosperous new century by hiring the finest architects to build eye-popping mansions in the best of taste.

Take Washington, D.C., for instance. Washington emerged from a swampy marshland dominated by frumpy Victorian red brick and brownstone to become a sparkling city of white marble and limestone, its classically inspired buildings set among broad, axial avenues studded with monuments and reflecting pools. Under the leadership of Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham, who had created the fabulous “White City” of the Chicago exposition, City Beautiful principles and Beaux-Arts architecture brought forth a capital city worthy of a great nation. More than a century after Pierre L’Enfant laid out his plan for Washington, his ambitious scheme finally moved toward reality.

This 1909 mansion, home to the International Eastern Star Temple, was designed by Eugène Sanson and Horace Trumbauer.

Formal Notes

In addition to French and Italian palaces and palazzos of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, Beaux-Arts inspiration came, albeit less frequently, from English Georgian or Classical Revival homes. But Beaux-Arts designs were never (well, almost never) direct copies of earlier buildings. Instead, they were original, creative interpretations of Renaissance ideals and prototypes.

The essence of a Beaux-Arts building lay in its attention to classical forms and perfection of finish details. Beaux-Arts design was relentlessly logical, demanding rigorous symmetry, sophisticated use of axis and cross axis, and exquisite proportions.

In other words, it was the exact opposite of the fussy, rambling, picturesque, High Victorian styles that had preceded it. And civic America was more than ready to embrace it.

Building Beaux

Since wooden buildings lack the gravitas the style required, Beaux-Arts structures were invariably constructed of masonry, usually a light-colored, smooth-surfaced, ashlar-cut stone. Some buildings—such as those based on the English Georgian Revival style—were made of brick with stone decoration.

But the term “stone” needs to be qualified. Decorative exterior elements on these stone buildings weren’t necessarily carved out of solid limestone or marble. They might very well have been made from cast stone (a composite of ground stone and cement, much like some of today’s engineered stone countertops), or from molded terracotta, or even from pressed tin painted to look like stone. When used atop a large building, these substitute materials were almost indistinguishable from ground level. They were also much lighter and easier to work with—not to mention infinitely cheaper—than the real thing.

These French-inspired mansions are now the embassies of Pakistan, left, and Haiti, right.

Earmarks of the style were symmetrical facades, pedimented porticos, and columns and engaged pilasters with capitals, bases, and fluted or plain shafts in correct Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian orders from ancient Rome and Greece. There were often colonnades and columned entryways, which sometimes were elevated a full story above ground level and frequently had cast-iron-and-glass marquees and ornate wrought-iron decoration. Porte-cocheres and rounded pavilions also could be featured at the ends of buildings. Porches replaced formal terraces and conservatories. Buildings in the French idiom might feature mansard roofs, French doors, and curved window tops above fancy casement windows.

Architecture, landscape, and art were essential components of good Beaux-Arts design. Beautiful, formal grounds and gardens with vistas and sculptural accents abounded.

Interiors were heavily decorated with classical ornament. Decorative plaster ceilings, frescoed walls, and marble and tile-mosaic floors completed the décor, while collections of paintings, sculpture, tapestries, and ancient objects proclaimed their owners’ cultivated tastes.

Powerful as the appeal of Beaux-Arts’ “splendid excess” had been to the American imagination, it could not hold on in the face of the Great Depression. By 1930, it had lost its appeal for residential building, and even the federal government was having second thoughts about building such expensive real estate. Washington, D.C.’s Federal Triangle, the cluster of Neoclassical-style government buildings located between the White House and the Capitol and built between 1926 and 1938, became the last hurrah for the grand old style.

Tags: Beaux Arts James C. Massey & Shirley Maxwell OHJ November/December 2009 Old-House Journal Washington D.C.

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