The Woolworth Building in New York City was the world's tallest building when it was built in 1913.
Cass Gilbert (November 29, 1859 – May 17, 1934) was a pioneering American architect. An early proponent of skyscrapers in works like the Woolworth Building, Gilbert was also responsible for numerous museums and libraries (Saint Louis Art Museum), state capitol buildings (the Minnesota, Arkansas and West Virginia State Capitols, for example) as well as public architectural icons like the United States Supreme Court building.
Gilbert was born in Zanesville, Ohio, the middle of three sons, and was named after the statesman Lewis Cass, to whom he was distantly related. Gilbert's father was a surveyor for what was then known as the United States Coast Survey. At the age of nine, Gilbert's family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota where he was raised by his mother after his father died. After attending preparatory school in nearby Minneapolis, Gilbert dropped out of Macalester College, before beginning his architectural career at age 17 by joining the Abraham M. Radcliffe office in St. Paul. In 1878 Gilbert enrolled in the architecture program at MIT.
Gilbert later worked for a time with the firm of McKim, Mead, and White before starting a practice in St. Paul with James Knox Taylor. He won a series of house and office-building commissions (the Endicott Building in St. Paul is still regarded as a gem, and many of his noteworthy houses still stand on St. Paul's Summit Avenue) in Minnesota before landing a career-breaking commission designing the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in New York City (now home to the George Gustav Heye Center). His public buildings in the Beaux Arts style reflect the optimistic American sense that the nation was the heir of Greek democracy, Roman law and Renaissance humanism.
Gilbert is considered a skyscraper pioneer; when designing the Woolworth Building he moved into unproven ground — though he certainly was aware of the ground-breaking work done by Chicago architects on skyscrapers and once discussed merging firms with the legendary Daniel Burnham — and his technique of cladding a steel frame became the model for decades. Modernists embraced his work: Alfred Stieglitz immortalized the Woolworth Building in a famous series of photographs and John Marin created several paintings of the same; even Frank Lloyd Wright praised the lines of the building, though he decried the ornamentation.
Gilbert was one of the first celebrity architects in America, designing skyscrapers in New York City and Cincinnati, college campuses at Oberlin College and the University of Texas, state capitols in Minnesota and West Virginia, the support towers of the George Washington Bridge, various railroad stations (including the New Haven Union Station), and the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. His reputation declined among some professionals during the age of Modernism, but he was on the design committee that guided and eventually approved the modernist design of Manhattan's groundbreaking Rockefeller Center: when considering Gilbert's body of works as whole, it is more eclectic than many critics admit.
US Supreme Court Building, Washington D.C., East Pediment, 1928–1935.
Saint Paul Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota. Cretin Hall, Loras Hall, the Service Center, a classroom building, the refectory building, the administration building in 1894, and Grace Hall in 1913 were commissioned by James J. Hill. Only Cretin, Loras, the Service Center, and Grace still stand.
Minnesota State Capitol, St. Paul, 1895–1905. Designed in High Renaissance style, the building is not merely a replica of the United States Capitol. Local newspapers made a fuss when Gilbert sent to Georgia for marble, but the result, in which a hemispherical dome caps a high drum not unlike that of Saint Peter's Basilica, crowning a building housing the bicameral legislature and the state supreme court, was so nobly handsome that West Virginia and Arkansas contracted for Gilbert capitols too. Its brick dome is held in hoops of steel.
The Broadway-Chambers Building (277 Broadway), 1899–1900. Gilbert's first building in New York City.
Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, facing Bowling Green park in Lower Manhattan, 1902–1907.
Saint Louis Art Museum, known as the Palace of the Fine Arts, built for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri. The Art Museum was the only major building of the fair built as a permanent structure.
90 West Street, New York City, 1905–1907. Severely damaged during the September 11, 2001 attacks, the building has since been completely restored.
A series of master plans for the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota, 1907.
The Spalding Building, Portland, 1911. A 12-story early skyscraper based on the construction principles of a classical column.
Central Library, St. Louis, 1912. The main library for the city's public library system, in a severe classicizing style, has an oval central pavilion surrounded by four light courts. The outer facades of the free-standing building are of lightly rusticated Maine granite. The Olive Street front is disposed like a colossal arcade, with contrasting marble bas-relief panels. A projecting three-bay central block, like a pared-down triumphal arch, provides a monumental entrance. At the rear the Central Library faced a sunken garden. The interiors feature some light-transmitting glass floors. The ceiling of the Periodicals Room is modified from Michelangelo's ceiling in the Laurentian Library.
Woolworth Building, New York City, 1913. A Gothic skyscraper clad in glazed terracotta panels, it was the tallest building in the world when built. Bas reliefs in the lobby depict Woolworth and Gilbert, Woolworth holding nickels and dimes.
Fountain in Ridgefield, Connecticut, at the intersection of Routes 35 and 33, 1914–16. This fountain was designed and donated to the town by Cass Gilbert, who lived there town for a period. In 2004, a drunk driver crashed into the fountain and completely destroyed it; a replica has since been completed.
Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, 1917.
Brooklyn Army Terminal, Sunset Park area of Brooklyn, NY, 1918.
The Detroit Public Library, main branch, 1921.
The First Division Monument, President's Park, Washington DC, 1924.
West Virginia State Capitol, Charleston, West Virginia, 1924–1932.
The James Scott Memorial Fountain, Belle Isle, Detroit, MI, 1925.
Plans for cladding the George Washington Bridge support towers, New York City, in masonry, 1926. Not carried out.
New York Life Insurance Building, 1926.
US Embassy Building, Ottowa, Ontario, 1932.
United States Supreme Court building, Washington, D.C., 1932–1935, Gilbert's last major project, guided to completion by his son, Cass Gilbert Jr. He died a year before it was completed. A vast Roman temple in the Corinthian order is penetrated by a cross range articulated with pilasters in very low relief. The central tablet in the richly sculpted frieze reads EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW. His design for the U.S. Supreme Court chambers was based upon his design for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in at the state capitol in Charleston. The pediment sculptures Liberty attended by order and Authority (great lawgivers Moses, Confucius, and Solon are on the West Portico) were executed by Hermon Atkins MacNeil.
^ abcd Christen, Barbara S.; Flanders, Steven (2001). Cass Gilbert, Life and Work: Architect of the Public Domain. W.W. Norton. ISBN 0393730654.
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