Richard Morris Hunt: Life and Works in Architecture Essay

Richard Morris Hunt: Life and Works in Architecture


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            It is both understandable and rather expected that there are quite a number of notable figures throughout American history that relates to the subject of architecture. However, it is quite true that some are made more known than others due to aspects of being a pioneer or simply being unique in style during one’s time. It is in these aspects that Richard Morris Hunt was made known. As a matter of fact, Hunt is often thought of when topics regarding the American renaissance are being discussed due to his approach in art and architecture (Craven 287).  Given the term renaissance, being directly associated with such an era immediately pertains to grand accomplishments. In relation to this, Hunt was often considered to be the prime figure in architecture that was wealthiest in America during the late 1800s to the early 1900s in terms of style (Craven 287). Therefore, given the importance and significance of Hunt in the field of architecture in America, it is only proper to assess Hunt in terms of his biography, especially in terms of education and training, as well as in terms of his most notable accomplishments.


            It is quite expected that these notable figures become well known because of how their lives were able to develop especially during the most formative years. As for Hunt, who was born in 1827, technically did not spend his earlier years in America; rather, he spent most of his life in foreign country (Craven 287). Given such circumstances, Hunt was able to pursue his study of Architecture in France. Specifically, the first notable event in relation to the development of Hunt’s skills as an architect was when he was admitted into the atelier of Hector Martin Lefuel through the initiative of his mother after they have moved from Italy to France (Craven 287). As mentioned, Hunt’s study and training under Hector Martin Lefuel was only the beginning in terms of his studies. After his study under the atelier of Hector Martin Lefuel, Hunt entered a school known as the Ecole des Beaux-Arts; not only was entering Ecole des Beaux-Arts quite a considerable feat due to the wide renown for it especially in France, but it was made even more historical since the first American architecture student to be accepted was Hunt (Smith 103).

            After having completed his education, Hunt did not immediately return to America. In truth, it took a while before Hunt returned as signified by the projects that Hunt worked on while exploring Europe further (Smith 103). Finally though, after completing his works and having been initially satisfied of his travels, Hunt eventually returned to America. Specifically, it was in 1855 that Hunt arrived at New York, wherein his attempts at becoming a significant figure in Architecture began (Smith 103). As discussed, Hunt was most associated with his grand works of architecture; however, it is also quite easily conceived that his beginnings were simpler in nature and had much in contrast with the production of grand homes. In fact, Hunt began his stay at New York by serving as an instructor while still accomplishing real life projects in architecture (Smith 103). Years after his arrival, Hunt eventually became known and the projects which he worked upon became greater in scale. Aside from buildings, Hunt was able to design apartments, mansions, museums, and other notable structures throughout his career with his distinct style that encompassed the essence of neo-gothic, neo-grec, and neo-classical designs (Smith 103).

Studio Building

            As mentioned, Hunt’s first pursuit in America was that of teaching. In relation to this, the year 1858 marked the completion of the studio building in West Tenth Street, New York, designed by Hunt himself which served the main purpose of housing artists including his potential students (Harris 120). Although currently, the construction of a similar building might not gather much attention, it is rather important to understand why Hunt’s studio building was so groundbreaking during his time. The most important aspect to take into consideration during Hunt’s time was that art, as well as architecture, was still quite new as a career or as a field of study to focus upon (Harris 121). In this sense, the completion of the studio building may arguably be considered as a hallmark or a defining point in the development of art and architecture in America. To attest to its popularity, artists did in fact flow in after the completion of the studio, which included Hunt himself who later continued to teach architecture at the said location (Harris 121).

            After having established the importance of the studio building, it is only appropriate to discuss its physical features which make it even more unique and suitable for its purpose. The exterior of the studio building was basically composed of red bricks which established the French theme used by Hunt in designing it (Harris 120). Having designed the studio using a style highly related to French art and architecture is rather expectable for Hunt. The simple reason for such was that as one may recall from previous points in the discussion that Hunt gained most of his knowledge in architecture from Europe, more specifically in France. In addition to the notable exterior design, more than 20 separate studios are contained inside the building while still having areas for other functions such as meetings and even exhibitions (Harris 120).  In this sense, the functional aspect of the studio building has indeed been proven to be well planned and completely taken into consideration by Hunt. In fact, events have been conducted throughout the building while not affecting the living areas of the residents due to Hunt’s efficient compartmentalization different areas in the building (Harris 120).

Stuyvesant Apartment

            Following the success of the studio building, Hunt took on the challenge of designing another first in American architecture. As a matter of fact, prior to the development of the apartment building which was called Stuyvesant, it has been argued by experts that real apartments were still lacking in New York (Kowsky 95). In producing a design for apartments, it may be perceived that the main challenge that Hunt faced was in terms of working with the limited space allotted for the structure while maximizing it at the same time.  In relation to this, Hunt considered two main options in terms of the basic design to be used. The first plan was to create something that followed the structure of a courtyard, while the second plan which was used for the final design was not entirely made by Hunt but was suggested by Calvert Vaux who was another well known architect during Hunt’s time (Kowsky 96). Hunt chose to comply with the idea of Vaux due to several reasons. The main reason though, was that through the design suggested by Vaux, an enhanced view of the streets was made possible for those in the apartment (Kowsky 96).

            The completion of the Stuyvesant apartment was well received due to the effectiveness of the completed structure in allowing multiple living spaces at a single allocated space. To expound, the completed apartment was composed of five levels in total, wherein the first four levels were assigned for the flats (Kowsky 96). Again, such a building that contained more than a single living space for use by groups or families while still having separation between each space was a new concept during Hunt’s time. In addition, studio spaces composed the final and topmost level of the apartment; also, in order to provide an efficient way of moving between spaces, public stairs have also been included into the design (Kowsky 96). It can definitely be said that through the efforts of Hunt, the completion of the first apartment in New York was successful. In fact, its success has initiated the production of other apartments since it has been proven that the limitation of standard space allocation and the rectangular shaped lots may be solved (Cromley 78); as an additional note though, the French influence in Hunt’s design may also be seen in this case since flats are considered to be a French concept (Cromley 78).

Roosevelt Building

            Although not necessarily as ground breaking as Hunt’s other works, it is still important to point out that Hunt was not always associated with high profile creations. In relation to this, even though not as extravagant his other creations it has in fact lasted through time at its location on Broome Street (Gillon and Reed 15). As expected from a rather modest creation, the overall structure and materials used in its development were also aimed at being functional. However, Hunt’s architectural studies in France, specifically his familiarity with Neo-Grec, was also reflected through the appearance of the Roosevelt Building which although composed of glass and metal were made distinct by both shape and extent of use throughout the building (Gillon and Reed 15).  Therefore, through the creation of the Roosevelt Building, it is apparent that Hunt was able to infuse his preference in style with projects which were more focused upon utility rather than luxury.

New York Tribune Building

            The New York Tribute building is another accomplishment placed under Hunt’s name. Obviously, the creation of a skyscraper was the greatest project of Hunt in terms of size and visibility. Although built as a skyscraper, experts have pointed out the by being a symbol of influence and established renown of the New York Tribune and also by being the tallest during its time, the New York Tribune building served more as a monument or a symbol of New York than simply being an office building (Korom 66). The completion of the project required years of labor and of course hundreds of laborers, attesting to the scale of the project. Specifically, a million dollars was required in order to pay for the costs including around 300 laborers that worked on the project from its initial phases until its completion for 23 months (Korom 66). During its completion, just like the other works of Hunt that was previously discussed, great attention and positive public reception. In fact, the public did not merely wait for its completion but rather watched closely even during its phases of construction (Korom 69).

            The New York Tribune building, being a skyscraper of great structure and scale, required heavy fortifications especially on its base to ensure stability. In this sense, a deep excavation was made in order to establish the stability of the skyscraper, and in it concrete, along with granite slabs and thick walls were placed to end up with a base that may effectively hold the structures to be placed on top (Korom 68). As for the said structures, stability was definitely a concern as well. Hence, brick walls, and iron beams and columns were integrated into each floor while using terra-cotta tiles which was also aimed at constructing a fire-proof office building (Korom 68). Of course, in line with Hunt’s other accomplishments, the external features of the building were certainly not left out. The building was fitted with bricks of varying kinds and colors which resulted in a striking contrast of colors along with the placement of other ornamental structures especially along its front area (Korom 69).

Biltmore House

            As previously pointed out, although Hunt was of various accomplishments, the ones most often considered to be his prime works are those in the form of mansions for the elites in America. Some even claim that this was due to the fact that through the construction of such sites for the elites, Hunt was able to completely utilize his preferred style and was able to completely apply his creativity (Craven 288). The overall structure of Biltmore was planned in consideration of a very wide land area. Because of this, the basic structure of Biltmore was said to be patterned by Hunt after a palace at Fontainebleau, which of course was representative of the French renaissance in terms of design (Craven 288). Hence, the general structure of Biltmore along with its appearance at a quick glance really does reflect European design, which also adds to how grand it appears from the outside. Other features of Biltmore which are characteristic of its exterior and general layout are the use of lightly colored limestone and slate which complemented the parts of the symmetrical yet irregular design (Craven 288).

            Hunt was also responsible for providing and planning the aspects of the interior design of Biltmore. Expectedly, the interior design was also reflective of French renaissance style. As a matter of fact, the banquet hall which was already massive in scale was designed after the appearance of a grand hall taken from sixteenth-century Europe through the use of a massive fireplace along with other ornaments even including well placed flags throughout the area (Craven 289). Although the banquet hall is most often the most discussed interior aspect of Biltmore, other notable areas within the house are present as well which also symbolizes Hunt’s artistic tendencies. In this sense, the library in Biltmore is also characteristic of European art and design, albeit a significant reason for this was that the owner of the house was also a European art collector and thus was able to use his collections for further improving the aesthetics of Biltmore (Craven 290).

The Breakers

            While George Vanderbilt’s home being a successful representation of what Hunt was capable of, other individuals of the same financial capabilities took notice of Hunt’s work and was expectedly drawn in to employ Hunt. As a matter of fact, the brother of George Vanderbilt, Cornelius, asked Hunt to make him a grand house as well (Craven 291). Although Cornelius did not necessarily ask Hunt to accomplish something to replicate what his brother George asked Hunt to build, what was accomplished was still reflective of their wealth. Specifically, the house built for Cornelius, named as The Breakers, was no longer innately similar to the other works of Hunt in terms of style since the theme used for its design and construction was derived from the Italian renaissance (Craven 291). In this sense though, even though The Breakers and Biltmore House were based upon different specific styles or themes, it is still apparent that Hunt still worked around classical themes in general. Hence, as with all the other works of Hunt previously discussed, it is evident that Hunt does not attempt to move away from his area of specialization in terms of design even though he was tasked to accomplish highly different projects throughout his career.

            Moving on to more detailed information regarding The Breakers, it is again of importance to point out its most notable features. Modern experts have often expressed approval regarding the way in which Hunt used Italian renaissance in designing every detail of the mansion; in fact, every detail of the mansion including the massive pillars and even each corner and each arch throughout the mansion has been defined with a classical approach in mind (Craven 291). In addition, the general structure of the mansion has been designed with the aforementioned theme as well. The overall form of the mansion included parameters such as mass and proportion was made with classical style and influence associated with Hunt’s works (Craven 291). Aside from such details, other parts of the mansion were also designed in a similar fashion, which is only required if a unison in terms of overall feel and appearance is to be achieved. Hence, even the ballroom area and the dining rooms were designed by Hunt to emulate European appearances of such areas (Craven 291).

Fogg Museum

            Aside from creating works of art through his architecture, Hunt was also able to design buildings aimed for exhibiting other pieces of artwork. One of the three museums at Harvard, the Fogg Museum, was designed by Hunt. And possibly this was the reason as to why the Fogg museum became widely known and popular (Marshall 134). In designing the museum, Hunt was able to design it according to a specific set of pieces or types of works which were expected to occupy the halls and galleries. In relation to this though, due to the design made by Hunt, limitations were identified especially since the museum was originally aimed at containing photographs and casts (Marshall 134). In this sense, this might seem to be a rather negative outcome in comparison to the other works of Hunt, although of course it is most probable that Hunt was not to blame since it is highly possible that Hunt followed the original plans as to what was to be contained at the museum and it is quite impossible for him to simply assume which types of artwork would have been displayed. Therefore, even though eventually reconstructed, the Fogg Museum at Harvard has become more popularly known as Hunt Hall most probably to acknowledge its original designer (Miller and Cheek 44). As implicated though by the inadequacy of the original interior design and functionality of the museum, changes were made to Hunt’s design. Instead of having it mainly capable of housing photographs and casts, it was altered so as to be able to adapt to the view of the head of the museum to redesign the area as an educational facility for students (Marshall 134).

Academic Building and Gymnasium

            The Fogg Museum that was designed by Hunt may not have been a proof of Hunt’s limitations and possible failures in some aspects of architecture, but some of his works for the military may be perceived to be examples of such. As for both the academic building and the gymnasium at the West Point U.S. Military Academy, the first obstacle regarding development was budget constraint, which was even worsened due to the fee allocated for Hunt as well as the presence of miscellaneous costs (Miller and Cheek 45). This is quite a point of contrast when comparing two of Hunt’s most well known accomplishments which were both funded by the elites of America, implying that concerns regarding costs were possibly not much of a concern. In addition to problems and limitations regarding the budget, which only amounted to roughly half a million dollars in total, concerns regarding the reliability of Hunt’s computations were present as well. To expound, upon close scrutiny by military officials it has been determined that the computations presented by Hunt contained several mathematical errors which of course translated into problems (Miller and Cheek 45). Since the problems were mainly focused on money, further complications were seen. Due to disagreements in the estimates, the original contractor even withdrew itself from the project (Miller and Cheek 45).

Even with all the problems and even delays, both the academic building and the gymnasium were completed eventually. Specifically though, the year of completion was increased by a few years (Miller and Cheek 45), which further underscores the problems that may have been experienced during planning, design, and construction. Of course, the main design of the two buildings were still reflective of Hunt’s preferences in design based upon his European influences. In this sense, it may have been possible that the relatively high costs associated with the construction and completion of both the Academic Building and Gymnasium was due to Hunt’s preferences in making the structure as aesthetically prominent as possible even with the presence of strict limitations regarding the allowed costs.


            In general, there are a few trends that may be assessed from the accomplishments of Hunt. For one, it is apparent that Hunt’s training and studies in Europe, specifically at the atelier of Hector Martin Lefuel and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts were reflected consistently throughout his works. As a matter of fact, Hunt never detached himself from European influences since his works were never purely American in (Craven 291). Aside from his design preference, it is also notable that although his career may be considered as highly successful, was not completely rid of problems and shortcomings. Therefore, it may be said that the potential reason as to why Hunt became an icon in the world of architecture is that by maintaining his own class and preference in style, as reflected by the fact that Hunt never moved away from what he has learned in Europe (Miller and Cheek 44), Hunt created a distinction in his works around America; and also, despite the difficulties brought about by highly different projects, he still achieved overall success in all his works.

Works Cited

Craven, Wayne. American Art: History and Culture. Great Russell Street, London: Laurence King Publishing – McGraw-Hill Companies, 2003.

Cromley, Elizabeth Collins. Alone Together: a History of New York’s Early Apartments. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Gillon, Edmund V. and Henry Hope Reed. Beaux-Arts Architecture in New York: a Photographic Guide. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Incorporated, 1988.

Harris, Luther S. Around Washington Square: an Illustrated History of Greenwich Village. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Korom, Joseph J. The American Skyscraper, 1850 – 1940: a Celebration of Height. Wellesley, MA: Branden Books Publishing, 2008.

Kowsky, Francis R. Country, Park, and City: the Architecture and Life of Calvert Vaux. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Marshall, Traute M. Art Museums: Cultural Excursions in New England. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2009.

Miller, Rod and Richard Cheek. The Campus Guide: West Point U.S. Military Academy. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.

Smith, Kendra Schank. Architect’s Drawings: A Selection of Sketches by World Famous Architects through History. Burlington, MA: Architectural Press – Elsevier, 2005.