Beaux Arts Structure in Brooklyn | Braunsteiner

Beaux-Arts architecture was tailor-made for the gilded age: it is large, eye-catching, opulent and shiny, with many of its features carved from high-quality materials such as marble, limestone and granite. But how did such a big thing come about? In short: educational prestige.

Arch of the Grand Army Plaza. Photo by Mary Hautman

Architecture – like many professions – has its educational hierarchy. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Brooklyn had rugged, self-taught people like the great Montrose Morris and trained architects like James Naughton, who participated in the Cooper Union.

But then there was the crème de la crème: those who learned architecture at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The school was legendary among architects of the time and gave birth to the elegant architectural movement that bears its name: Beaux-Arts.

The Beaux Arts style (pronounced Bowz-arr) had a major influence on American architecture between 1880 and 1920. Since most aspiring architects who went to Paris to study were wealthy or were sponsored by the wealthy, they naturally went to work designing for the wealthy.

Brooklyn Architecture Beaux-Arts

Brooklyn Museum. Photo by Mary Hautman

Beaux Arts architecture mixes Roman bones and Baroque decoration

The look is a combination of classic Imperial Roman architecture with Italian Renaissance, French and Italian Baroque and classic Greek architectural elements. To put it simply, it is Roman architecture with a lot of sculptural baroque ornaments.

Figures, faces, swags, cartouches, wall paintings, mosaics and bas-reliefs were combined with classic elements such as column capitals, pilasters, consoles and balustrades. These designs aren’t subtle and work best when built large. Most of our best Beaux Arts architecture can be found in public buildings.

Brooklyn Architecture Beaux-Arts

Grand Army Plaza in 1894. Photo via Wikipedia

How Beaux-Arts became popular in the United States

In America, the fashion trend of Beaux Arts architecture began with the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The exhibition structures were large, classical-style buildings, almost all of which were painted white. Urban planners left the exhibit inspired to build gleaming new cities across America – magnificent buildings whose beauty, symmetry, and grandeur would evoke pride and civic unity.

Beaux Arts architecture is nothing more than symmetrical and grand. And architects trained in the style were ready to produce. Some of the most famous names in New York architecture at the turn of the century were educated at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts: Daniel Burnham; McKim, Mead & White; and Park Slopes own CPH Gilbert, among many others.

For many wealthy Americans of the time, beaux-arts was the architectural style that gave the American nouveau riche European legitimacy. The ornate structures were a symbol that America had arrived.

Beaux-arts masterpieces can be found all over New York City: Grand Central Station, Old Penn Station, the main New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Washington Square Arch, to name a few.

Brooklyn Architecture Beaux-Arts

123-129 8th Avenue in Park Slope. The two red-roofed houses in the middle are Beaux-Arts. Photo via Wikipedia

Beaux-Arts in Brooklyn

We have a number of massive Beaux Arts buildings here in our trade fair district. McKim, Mead & Whites Institute of Arts and Sciences – now called the Brooklyn Museum – is the largest, and Grand Army Plaza is one of the finest examples of the Beaux-Arts and City Beautiful movement in all of New York. The fountain, arch and park entrance of the square are textbook.

Rudolph Daus, the architect of the Beaux-Arts telephone and telegraph building on Willoughby Street, was also trained at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The Manhattan side of the Manhattan Bridge is a classic Beaux Arts style, and it was originally the Brooklyn side as well.

Brooklyn Architecture Beaux-Arts

81 Willoughby Street. Photo by Carl Forster via LPC

The smaller scale of the residential buildings is such that a full-blown Beaux Arts style is rare to find, but there are examples here in Brooklyn. In Crown Heights North, architect Peter J. Lauritzen designed a Beaux Arts townhouse on St. Marks Avenue, the wealthiest street. The house has been heavily rebuilt, but remains the only surviving example of Crown Heights Beaux Arts architecture.

In addition to the Grand Army Plaza, Park Slope is also home to several homes on the Gold Coast that can be classified as Beaux-Arts – including 123A and 125 8th Avenue, which were designed by Peter Collins in 1902.

Bedford Stuyvesant boasts the French Beaux-Arts apartment buildings on MacDonough Street in Throop, designed by William Debus, and the beautiful townhouses, also by Debus, on Stuyvesant Avenue. There are other examples in many parts of the city.

Brooklyn Architecture Beaux-Arts

Row house styles via LPC

The difference between Beaux-Arts, Neoclassic and Renaissance Revival

All of these architectural styles come from the World’s Fair and fall under the so-called White Cities Movement from the 1890s to 1920s. The styles all include light stone buildings and they all incorporate classical Greek or Roman elements such as columns, colonets, and decorative capitals.

Neoclassical is the easiest to separate because it is the purest interpretation of the movement’s Greek and Roman roots. Courthouses, temples, banks, churches, and libraries are often classified as Neoclassical or Classicist.

Renaissance Revival and Beaux-Arts share the use of carved stone ornaments; Garlands, swags, faces and figures, flora and fauna. But which is which?

Brooklyn Architecture Beaux-Arts

St. Marks Avenue in Crown Heights North. Photo by Suzanne Spellen

Renaissance buildings generally have more two-dimensional ornaments – carved garlands, wreaths, floral motifs, fantastic animals and beings, all more or less in relief. The Renaissance style, inspired by the Middle Ages, is also a little more playful and grotesque and refers to the ornamentation of different regions, like the French or German Renaissance.

Beaux-Arts, on the other hand, is much more three-dimensional. It has larger, heavier ornament shapes – regardless of the size of the building. Decorative elements are usually grouped above windows and doors and near the roof. Classical motifs abound, but are hyper-accented with statues, balustrades, columns, capitals, large shield-like cartouches and medallions, garlands and wreaths.

Renaissance Revival refers to the very decorative but lighter touch of the Renaissance. Beaux-Arts encompasses the much more exaggerated, heavier grip of the Baroque.

All of these styles represent the self-confidence of a wealthy nation emerging as a world power in the 20th century. Rome and the Empire have something that will always attract. Yet this bold and public architecture defines New York in many ways, and the Beaux Arts style retains its power to this day.

Brooklyn Architecture Beaux-Arts

81 Willoughby Street detail. Photo by Carl Forster via LPC

Editor’s note: This post is an update from one that was originally published in 2011. Read it here.

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