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Beaux Arts

Approximate dates 1885-1920
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031 Grand Central Terminal

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Beaux-Arts Classicism in New York State 

From the 1890s until the First World War, American architects trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris created grand classical structures — including many houses of worship — that brought high drama, monumental scale, and gleaming marble to the nation. 

In the late 19th century, the opulence and sophisticated urbanity of Paris and its famous École des Beaux-Arts attracted young Americans who became leaders of the architectural profession. Their work is reflected throughout New York State, where numerous churches and synagogues were built according to standards of the Beaux-Arts design philosphy. 

The first architect to attend the École was Richard Morris Hunt, followed by Henry Hobson Richardson, Charles F. McKim, and scores of others. Studies in architectural theory, engineering, materials, and urban planning were complemented by challenging exercises in sketching and production of presentation drawings by students in studios supervised by practicing architects. As David Garrard Lowe explains in his introduction to Beaux Arts New York, Classicism was the supreme ideal at the École – not only the buildings of ancient Greece and Rome, but also the architecture of the Italian and French Renaissance. The École produced highly competent architects who incorporated rational planning and state-of-the-art construction with the potent symbolism of classical imagery. American architects brought back the skills and ambition to design monumental civic and institutional buildings for growing cities. 

Many of New York's most prominent landmarks exemplify Beaux-Arts Classicism: the Statue of Liberty, the central pavilion of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Richard Morris Hunt, 1895), the New York Public Library (Carrère and Hastings, 1895-1902), Grand Central Terminal (Warren and Wetmore, 1903-1913), and the U.S. Custom House at Bowling Green (Cass Gilbert, 1907), to name a few. In John J.-G. Blumenson's guidebook Identifying American Architecture, characteristics of these grandiose compositions include: 

* projecting façades or pavilions

* colossal columns often grouped in pairs 

* pronounced cornices 

* enriched moldings

* free-standing statuary projecting above the cornice

* tall parapets, balustrades, or attic stories windows enframed by free-standing columns, balustraded sills, and pedimented entablatures on top. 

Clear, symmetrical, and orderly plans based on movement through spatial sequences are important Beaux-Arts precepts. Dramatic spaces were paramount, with clear organization of the building program and responsiveness to the site. The planning discipline was applied to ecclesiastical complexes, which in the late 19th and early 20th century encompassed multiple liturgical, educational, and social-service functions.

Favored materials in Beaux-Arts Classicism were light-colored stone and brick, especially marble, limestone, and granite. The widespread use of these light materials changed the color of a city that had been dark with brick and brownstone at mid-century. Glazed architectural terra-cotta offered new possibilities for embellishment. Structural steel made possible huge spaces like the waiting room of Pennsylvania Station (McKim, Mead & White, 1902-11, demolished 1963), modeled on the Roman Baths of Caracalla. Steel frames clad in masonry were also the structural system of choice for urban houses of worship. Ceilings of structural Guastavino tile were effective for domes and groin vaults such as those found in the Immigration Hall on Ellis Island.

Perhaps the most surprising full realization of the Beaux Arts spirit in New York's places of worship is the First Church of Christ, Scientist, at Central Park West and 96th Street (Carrère and Hastings, 1899-1903). The city's oldest Christian Science congregation erected this striking church, which combines English Baroque massing and Mannerist details with French Renaissance. The façade has an entrance tower with a four-sided lantern and truncated polygonal spire. The roof shelters various rooms above the auditorium, which seats 2,000. Arching steel girders behind a richly ornamented plaster ceiling frame the auditorium and its balconies. 

In Lackawanna, just outside of Buffalo, Our Lady of Victory Basilica (Emile Uhlrich, 1922-26) is an ornate Italian Baroque-inspired structure clad in white marble with twin towers 165 feet high and a soaring dome. Although a late example of the high Beaux-Arts style, its lacks nothing in ambition, stylistic expression, and richness of materials. 


The training received by American architects at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the late 19th century had a profound effect on American religious architecture. It resulted in a formalized architectural profession that employed its mastery of the classical language of architecture with urban planning, the allied arts, and state-of-the-art building technology. Although monumental public buildings represent the fullest realizations of Beaux-Arts Classicism, for houses of worship architects delved deeply into Classical antiquity, the Italian and French Renaissance, and later Baroque and Mannerist expressions of the Classical language for models. 

Named after the Êcole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, this style is a subset of neo-classicism with several refinements: paired columns, nested forms (large motifs enclosing smaller ones), tall parapets or balustrades, and strong central features such as domes, projecting façades, and pavilions. The rich decoration may include garlands, wreaths, cartouches, and human statuary.

The style ranges from picturesque Second Empire buildings to monumental structures with columns and arches several stories high.

Drawn from the architecture of 15th- through 17th-century Italy, France and England. On this side of the Atlantic, Italian palazzi, French chateaux, and English clubs became the stylistic image for banking institutions, super town houses, clubs and government buildings, and even mercantile establishments (cf. the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and many of SoHo s cast-iron loft buildings). Proselytized through the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the Beaux Arts style, from about 1890 to 1920, inflated classical allusions to truly supergrandiose proportions, as at Grand Central Terminal, the Custom House at Bowling Green, and the New York Public Library.

Introduction to Beaux-Arts Architecture

The term Beaux-Arts is French for “Fine Arts” and has come to define the architecture that emerged roughly between 1880 and 1930. The advent of Beaux-Arts coincided with similar movements of the time, such as the Progressive Era, the City Beautiful Movement, the Edwardian Era, and the Belle Epoque. Though Beaux-Arts may often be recognized as an architectural style imitating the classic forms of the Ancient and Renaissance worlds, many would argue that it is more of a manner of architectural execution and finish. (Due to this confusion over nomenclature, the word style will be placed in quotations.)

One often hears the “style” dubbed the “Ecole des Beaux-Arts.” This denotation actually refers to a school in Paris called the “Ecole Nationale Supérieure Des Beaux-Arts.” This school, formed in 1819, was nothing more than a government-run school of the arts. However, its significance reached far beyond the walls of the school, as the architects trained there would be responsible for the creation of an architectural style/era/manner of execution named after the school.

Historically, New York City has always shared connections with Paris. The Huguenots immigrated in the early 17th century, and later, with the French Revolution and rise to power of Napoleon, great Roman Catholic families would also become New Yorkers. As such, French style and culture have always been the aspirations of the upper and middle class city dwellers. And so, what more appropriate architecture could have dominated New York other than Beaux-Arts?

Also, during the Beaux-Arts era, New York City was aiming to elevate itself to the same level as other great cities in the world, such as London and Paris; however, it was competing with cities that had hundreds of year more of established history. Beaux-Arts provided the perfect means to demonstrate that New York was as important as any other city. Great Beaux-Arts banks and skyscrapers would attract investors by showing their stability, while museums, libraries, theaters, and other buildings would validate New York’s established culture.


Lowe, David Garrard. Beaux Arts New York. Whitney Library of Design: New York (1998).

Reed, Henry Hope; Gillon, Edmund V. Jr. Beaux-Arts Architecture in New York: A Photographic Guide.
Dover Publications: Mineola (1988).

Ecole des Beaux-Arts   

School of arts founded in 1648 by Cardinal Mazarin developed studies in architecture, drawing, painting, sculpture, engraving, modeling, and gem cutting. The school was brought under control of the government by Louis XIV originally to guarantee a pool of artists available to decorate the palaces and paint the Royalty but was made independent by Napoléon III in 1863. 

The Ecole keyed on classical arts – Greek and Roman architecture and studying and imitating the Great Masters.  Emphasis was placed on drawing before any of the students were allowed to advance to painting and each had to go through a rigorous progression of advancement. They first drew from engravings, also called drawing “from the flat”. Only when they mastered that, could they begin drawing from plaster casts or what was called drawing “from the round” or the “antique”; and then, and only then, were they allowed to progress and draw “from the live” (nude models).  

When Sargent arrived in Paris in 1874, the art world was made up of three very separate bodies which coexisted symbiotically in a triangle with a fourth filling the center. At the top of this triangle was the dignified Ecole, steeped in tradition and hopelessly stiff, designed to produce classical painters in an emerging world that was excited by new artists pushing at the fringes (Manet and others). Still, the Ecole was the apex of recognized achievement, with established levels of exams deemed so difficult that it was considered the best in the world. To be accepted by the Ecole was to be considered the best; and although a revolution in art was taking place – it wouldn’t hit the mainstream until much later. Every year the Ecole held a contest for the Grand Prix de Rome. The winner would get a full-ride scholarship to study in Rome. 

The second point in this triangle was the small independent ateliers where students learned directly under the tutelage of an established “Master” who were not part of the Ecole. Students not in the Ecole trained in these ateliers with the hopes of passing the entrance exam, as well as students already in the Ecole wanting to get recognized by their association with a known "practicing Master". 

The Masters ran their ateliers as a status symbol of their greatness. The success their students had at the Ecole and the Salon only reflected back on them as to how great they truly were. In turn, their student's success and status only brought more commissions. Success bred success. The greater the Master, the more talented students wanted to associate and align themselves to a proven track record -- both at the Ecole and the Salon. The competition between the independent ateliers meant the Ecole could raise the bar even higher guarantying they would get only the best of the best. 

The third point in the triangle was the annual Paris Salon, the show everyone wanted to succeed at, and from which the public often commissioned their favorite artists.  It was the place to be seen, get known, and paintings shown at the Salon often posted not only the artist who did the work, but what atelier they came from and whom they studied under. It was the Paris Salon that was the culmination of a full years worth of work, both at the Ecole and the ateliers.  Not every painting was accepted. You had to submit to a jury to get the paintings shown. Over the summer break, the Masters, teachers, and students were almost all expected to leave the city, travel and paint in plein air. 

In the middle of these three bodies was the lively Parisian life of the cafés which all came together to discuss art. They literally lived, breathed, and drank art -- twenty-four seven. The cafés were but informal extensions of the ateliers and the Ecole, and the Masters would hold court at a table of their followers to argue and discuss theories and technique -- and when the Salon was going -- critique art. It would be the cafés that the vanguard of art flourished and from which the Impressionists came. 

Wholly aside from the discipline of painting, was the discipline of Architecture and was one of the most important studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and would  influence a whole school of thought. From America came some of the best students to study and it would the Beaux-Arts that buildings such as the Boston Public Library, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Grand Central Station, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and many of the Great public buildings in America of the late 1800's through the 1930's were built. 

Today, the Ecole still exists although the Architectural school was split off after the student riots of 1968.  

Here are some OUTSTANDING links to further reading and viewing. 

The Paris art-world was made up of a triangle 
  • The Ecole des Beaux-Arts
  • The Independent Ateliers
  • The Annual Paris Salon
and in the middle was always the Café life


 Ecole des Beaux-Arts

Drawing from the “antique”
John Singer Sargent

The Dancing Faun, after the Antique
c. 1873-1874
Drawing from "The Live"  
Photo: Students painting  "from the live" at the Ecole 
Date: unknown appears to be late 1800's 
Source: History of the Ecole des  Beaux-arts

Café Life  Café-Concert 
Edouard Manet  
(French Painter) 
Annual Paris Salon 
Charles X Distributing Awards to Artists Exhibiting at the Salon of 1824 at the Louvre 
Heim, Francois-Joseph (French Painter, 1787-1865) 
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Independent Ateliers 
Carolus-Duran 2nd painting 
John Singer Sargent 

with special thanks to Natasha Wallace