November 24: “public buildings best serve the public by being beautiful”

2012/11/24 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1859 Cass Gilbert was born.

Gilbert began his life in architecture as son of a surveyor and an apprentice draughtsman in an architect’s office.  After one year of study in MIT’s Ecole-influenced program under Robert Ware, he worked as a surveyor and saved his money for a  year-long tour in Europe.  Upon his return to New York in 1880 he put his experiences in England, France and Italy to use, scoring a job with McKim, Mead and White–surely an education in and of itself.  Returning to St. Paul a few years later, Gilbert built a respectable practice.  In the 1890s he won national attention with his designs for the Minnesota state capitol (1895) and US Customs House in New York (1899).  Lots of work across the country followed, maybe most significantly the 1913 design for the Woolworth Building.

The Woolworth Building is one of the greatest American buildings.  At the time, the tallest building in the country, its Gothic styling struck an elegant note on the New York skyline, holding its own against later, more overtly modern-styled, and taller newcomers like Chrysler and the Empire State.  Unlike those Deco towers, Woolworth was consciously styled in a historic language, claiming the heritage of soaring pinnacles for the new religion of American business; indeed the building was nicknamed the Cathedral of Commerce.  Unlike those other shinier towers, Woolworth was paid for in cash–an astonishing symbol bought by the proceeds of Woolworth’s amazing five-and-dime empire.

Plenty of critics have disparaged the historicism of the Woolworth (and its distant cousin, the Tribune Tower), for failing to embrace a more overt symbolism of modernity.  Gilbert was hardly a simpering nostalgic Luddite; indeed it is he who uttered the best definition of the skyscraper: “a machine that makes the land pay.”  He was well aware of his clients’ values, but tempered that modernity with a regard for public opinion and the character of what the ideal city ought to be.  His belief that “Public buildings best serve the public by being beautiful” is not a sentiment for an earlier day, but one that should guide all architects who have the privilege to contribute a lasting monuments wherever they may build.

More great Cass Gilbert words-to-live-by right here!

Image: the Woolworth Building soars over everything in the neighborhood, including City Hall at its feet (from this source)

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You are currently reading November 24: “public buildings best serve the public by being beautiful” at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.

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