Times are tough. Let the Beaux-Arts buildings of St. Louis remind you of an era of optimism
The beginning of the 20th century brought new optimism to America and St. Louis. The economy of the city and the nation flourished. The most recent 1900 census found that the population of St. Louis had risen to 572,238, an increase of nearly 125,000 from 1890. Theodore Link’s massive Union Station quickly became one of the busiest train terminals in the world. The new century demanded a new monumentality in architecture that the revival styles of 19th century Romanticism could no longer offer.
As I have described in previous articles, American architects have borrowed heavily from European models such as the Italian, Second Empire, Romanesque, and Gothic. However, by the early days of the United States, Americans had first adopted the Neoclassical and Greek Revival styles through the writings of theorists such as Thomas Jefferson, who is himself an amateur architect. Our own old courthouse and cathedral are excellent examples of buildings whose architectural inspiration dates back to ancient times. But Greek and Roman temples had no windows, an obstacle to life in them, as a 19th-century architect joked, and the influence of antiquity fell out of favor before the Civil War when more “practical” later styles gained importance.
Around 1900, however, antiquity came back into fashion with the French École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where the leading architects of the time were trained. While a love of the influence of the ancient Greeks and Romans was a critical part of this new Beaux Arts style, another critical element, the architecture of the Italian Renaissance, was heavily considered. No wonder then that the role of drawing, so strongly emphasized by the Italian Renaissance artist and theorist Leon Battista Alberti, whose architecture book I have already discussed, led to a golden era of drawings and watercolors of some of Europe’s most famous buildings. Cass Gilbert, who would leave his own mark on St. Louis, captures this elegant era of drawing in one of the great archetypes of the ancient Romans, the Caracalla Baths.
The end of any student’s education at the École des Beaux-Arts would consist of a residence in Italy where they would study the great buildings of the ancient past and the Renaissance. For a kind of “final project” he selected a Roman ruin and “reconstructed” the building in its original appearance. The Italian Renaissance had emphasized the importance of genius, or the artist’s ability to use his imagination, and this final test asked him to do just that, using only ruins in front of him as a guide. After all, on his return home, he would be awarded contracts for new types of buildings, such as train stations, which the Romans and the Renaissance never imagined, and he had to find modern solutions. There are a multitude of Beaux Arts buildings in St. Louis that remind us of that era of optimism.
Former St. John’s Methodist Church / Link Auction Galleries
For one of the anchors of Holy Corners in the Central West End, Theodore Link demonstrated in 1901 that he could adapt to changing tastes by turning away from the Romanesque revival of Union Station or the nearby Second Presbyterian Church and doing the Beaux Arts style worked. Link faced an interesting challenge: St. John’s Methodist Church was located near two major arteries, Washington Boulevard to the north and Kingshighway to the east. He was inspired by the Erechtheion on the Athens Acropolis to create a building with two temple gables. Essentially, the church has two public entrances and there is no uncomfortable side of the church across from either of the two main thoroughfares. But he also invented: In ancient Greece there were no bell towers of the church. That is why he created a gable bell tower that visually connects the temple fronts with one another.
The Saint Louis Art Museum
Today’s Saint Louis Art Museum was commissioned by Cass Gilbert as the Palace of Fine Arts for the World’s Fair and was originally part of a four-building ensemble that opened in 1904. The other three buildings were made of bricks to be fireproof. were only temporary. Gilbert faced a challenge: although there were art galleries in the ancient world, none were as large as what was needed for the World’s Fair. He chose a logical monumental building for inspiration and turned to the Baths of Caracalla, the vast public bath complex on Caelian Hill in Rome. The soaring vaults were the inspiration for the sculpture hall, while the expansive corridors were the model for the two wings of the art museum’s galleries. Gilbert’s plans even included a gigantic expansion with a huge pantheon-like dome and other wings, but they never came to fruition.
Gilbert’s next assignment came from a session in a courtroom; The architect had sued the World’s Fair Committee, arguing that he should have been paid for four orders in 1904, not one, since the Palace of Fine Arts contained four buildings. Even so, the leaders of St. Louis felt they couldn’t find a better architect to design the new Central Library, which would be a new Palace of Knowledge, completed in 1912 on Gilbert, the Capitoline Hill with the Renaissance design of Michelangelo’s Palazzo Farnese, decorated the interior with elaborate materials. The ceilings of the reading rooms light up with intricate carvings, alabaster torches illuminate passages and polished stone walls reflect the light through spacious windows. Gilbert and St. Louis had made a great reconciliation.
Missouri History Museum / Jefferson Memorial
The Jefferson Memorial, later the home of the Missouri History Museum, is an expression of the Beaux Arts style. Designed in 1913 by architect Louis Taylor in St. Louis, the museum is reminiscent of Propylaia, the ceremonial gate that guarded the entrance to the Acropolis. Much like its St. Louis counterpart, the Athens Gate contained a picture gallery on its side known as the Pinacoteca. The museum’s central loggia also takes inspiration from the open breezes popular in Italian Renaissance architecture.
After all, our final Beaux Arts building is a Synagogue for the Temple of Israel designed by Tom P. Barnett, the son of the famous early St. Louis architect George I. Barnett, whom I looked at last year. The giant columns of the Corinthian Order that form the main entrance were designed in 1908 to look like an imposing Roman temple one would expect to find in one of the imperial forums. They are perhaps the most beautiful sculptures in town. And despite complaints from nineteenth-century critics, Barnett managed to find a way to put windows in the synagogue.