New York Architecture Images-New York Architects

Cass Gilbert (1859–1934)

  New York works;
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004-George Washington Bridge 020 New York Life Insurance Company 012 ALEXANDER HAMILTON CUSTOM HOUSE

066 New York County Lawyers Assoc.


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084 130 West 57th Street   019 Woolworth Building 021 United States Courthouse 028 Broadway-Chambers Building  
Cass Gilbert moved to New York in 1899 after a successful career in St. Paul, Minnesota, that included the design of the Minnesota State Capital. His earliest building in New York was the Broadway-Chambers Building (1899–1900), a skyscraper with significant polychromatic terra-cotta, which still stands on the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street. Gilbert designed several other major skyscrapers, including two major buildings clad in Gothic-inspired terra-cotta, the West Street Building (1905–07; seriously damaged by the collapse of the World Trade Center towers) and the Woolworth Building (1910–13). For many years, the Woolworth was the world's tallest building and remains one of the most prominent features on the city's skyline. Gilbert also designed one of the city's great Beaux-Arts public buildings, the U.S. Custom House at Bowling Green (1899–1907) with its ornate sculptural exterior. Both the Custom House and the Woolworth Building retain their sumptuous interiors. 

(b. Zanesville, Ohio 1859; d. New York, N.Y. 1934)

Cass Gilbert was born in Zanesville, Ohio in 1859. Introduced to architecture as a draughtsman and carpenter's assistant, Gilbert enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1878 as a pupil of William Ware. After studying for two years, he took a European tour. Upon his return he joined the firm of McKim, Mead & White. In 1882 he established a partnership with James Knox Taylor in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Works designed by the firm during the early 1930s were competent Classical buildings which lack the originality of such contemporary Modernists as Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Cass Gilbert was highly regarded by politicians and other luminaries of the day. President Theodore Roosevelt made him chairman of the Council of Fine Arts, and President Wilson reappointed him. Gilbert received many gold metals in the United States and Europe. The Society of Arts and Sciences awarded him for inaugurating the age of skyscrapers. He served as president of the American Institute of Architects in 1908 and 1909, and helped found the Architectural League of New York, serving as its president for two years. 

By the 1950s, Gilbert's name slipped into obscurity. Modernism, which idealized sleek, unornamented forms, became fashionable and Gilbert's buildings were often dismissed or ridiculed. Today, however, a new appreciation for architecture based on historic themes has reawakened interest in the work of Cass Gilbert. 

Dennis Sharp. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Architects and Architecture. New York: Quatro Publishing, 1991. ISBN 0-8230-2539-X. NA40.I45. p65.

Selected Projects 

1900: Broadway Chambers Building, New York City
1902: Essex County Courthouse, Newark, New Jersey
1904: Festival Hall and Art Building, St. Louis, Missouri
1905: Minnesota State Capitol, St. Paul
1907: US Custom House
1908: Finney Chapel, Oberlin College, Ohio
1913: F.W. Woolworth Company Building, New York City
1921: Detroit Public Library
1926: Plans for George Washington Bridge, New York
1928: New York Life Insurance Building
1935: U.S. Supreme Court Building, Washington D.C.

According to the National Register Nomination statement, the U.S. Courthouse at Foley Square (1932-1936) is architecturally and historically significant as one of the largest and most distinctive examples of the Federal architecture erected by the U.S. Treasury Department during the expanded public buildings programs of the 1930s. One of the last commissions executed by nationally prominent architect Cass Gilbert, the design of the courthouse embodies the restrained Neoclassicism that had become the preferred idiom for federal buildings during the 1920s. The building reflects a shift in Gilbert's work at the end of his long career, as more conservative designs replaced the more imaginative and richly decorated compositions (such as the U.S. Customs House at Bowling Green and the Woolworth Building) that had established his reputation several decades earlier. Gilbert's design for the Foley Square Courthouse - particularly the monumental six-story base articulated by a Corinthian colonnade on the principal elevation (itself remarkably similar to McKim, Mead and White's General Post Office of 1914) - maintains its link to the public architecture of the earlier twentieth century and harmonizes in style and scale with the buildings in the surrounding neighborhood. These include the New York County Courthouse (1926) and the Municipal Building (1912-14), both classical in inspiration, which flank the courthouse. At the time, the 31-story "modern" office tower component of the courthouse, believed to have been inspired by the form of the campanile in St. Mark's Square in Venice, reflects Gilbert's interest in and proficiency with, steel frame skyscraper construction, as well as his concern with satisfying the practical needs of his clients within the limits of the site. One of the last Neoclassical style office buildings erected in New York as well as one of the earlier skyscrapers built by the federal goverment, the U.S. Courthouse at Foley Square illustrates an important turning point in American architectural history.

The Foley Square Courthouse was designed by Cass Gilbert, one of the most prominent architects of his day. Gilbert (1859-1934) was born in Zanesville, Ohio and began his architectural career as an apprentice in the office of Abraham Radcliff of St. Paul. In 1878, he enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he spent a year studying architecture. In 1880, he spent several months travelling and studying in England, France and Italy before returning to New York and joining the prestigious firm of McKim, Mead and White as Stanford White's personal assistant.

During the 1890s, Gilbert established a national reputation, designing residences, churches, commercial buildings, government buildings, railway stations and bridges. Around 1900, Gilbert moved his office to New York. His most important early commissions in that city include the Broadway Chambers Building (1899), an early steel-frame skyscraper that exhibited a traditional three-part classical composition, and the U.S. Customs House at Bowling Green (completed 1907), a monumental, richly decorated Beaux-Arts building (NHL) that epitomized the ideal federal style as conceived by James Knox Taylor.

Gilbert reached the height of his popularity with the completion of the Woolworth Building in 1913. This slender 742-foot-tall skyscraper, a romantic interpretation of the Gothic Revival clad in light-weight, fire resistant terra cotta, was the tallest building in the world for the next quarter century.

Gilbert's early designs for the federal government, particularly Bowling Green Customs House, are imbued with the Beaux-Arts spirit that he and Taylor had embraced as ideal for federal architecture. His later work, however, is characterized by a more restrained classicism, reflecting a similar shift in federal design ideals during the 1920s under the leadership of Louis A. Simon, who served in the Treasury Department as Superintendent of Architects from 1915 to 1933. During this period, Gilbert is credited with three federal buildings in Washington, D.C.: the U.S. Treasury Annex (1918), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (1925), and the U.S. Supreme Court Building (1933-35); completed after his death), all in a restrained Neoclassical idiom, as well as the U.S. Courthouse at Foley Square.

Gilbert died in England on May 8, 1934, with the Supreme Court Building and the Foley Square Courthouse under construction. Both projects were brought to completion by his son, Cass Gilbert, Jr.

The use of a skyscraper form for a federal building was a significant departure from the accepted norm for federal architecture, which favored horizontal forms. Only in Boston had the skyscraper form appeared in federal architecture earlier, with the tower that was added to the U.S. Custom House in 1915. By the time the Foley Square Courthouse was designed and constructed, hwoever, modern forms and decoration had already significantly changed the appearance of much public and private architecture and were beginning to influence federal architecture as well. Construction was begun nearby on the Church Street F.O.B. (designed by Cross and Cross and Pennington, Lewis and Mills) only about a year after the Foley Square Courthouse, yet the Church Street building features stylized forms and decoration that clearly reflect the influence of modernism.