If you walk along Fifth Avenue in New York today, you'll pass one of the most imposing structures in the entire city. It's the elegant Beaux-arts limestone facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's one of the last examples of a dying breed of architectural monuments which once lined this stylish thoroughfare. Completed several years after the death of its architect, sadly, it is today, the last New York vestige of his work, which at one time decorated both sides of the richest street in America. Richard Morris Hunt had the misfortune of having designed some of the most beautiful homes of his day on some of the most prestigious and valuable real estate of his day. Known as the Vanderbilt's architect, that family was only one of many who hired him to create elegant stone mansions to celebrate their riches and social prominence. Unfortunately, as the city grew and matured, the same valuable real estate that guaranteed a showcase for Gilded Age wealth proved TOO valuable for that purpose. The magnificent homes of the rich and famous of the day, one by one, gave way to the wrecking ball, their land to host equally magnificent hotels, stores, and office buildings. The irony is that within decades, many of THESE buildings met the same fate, to be replace by the steel and glass towers we see along Fifth Avenue today.
Richard Morris Hunt was born in 1827, the fourth of five children whose father was, for a time, a Massachusetts Congressman. Art ran in the family. His mother, Jane, was an accomplished painter, and his brother, William Morris Hunt, became to painting the equivalent of what his younger brother was to architecture. Following the death of their father in 1832, their mother moved to Boston to prepare her sons for Harvard. The oldest, William actually attended classes for a year, but more interested in the campus social world than his studies, he flunked out. Whereupon, in 1843, Jane Hunt packed up the whole family for a summer trip to Europe. It ended up lasting TWELVE YEARS. These years were to have a profound effect on her brood. John Hunt became a Paris doctor and spent the rest of his life there. William and Richard studied at the Ecol des Beaux-arts while their sister married and divorced a Frenchman. Richard's architectural studies during this time were not just confined to the atelier of the noted Parisian architect, Hector Martin Lefuel. He sketched his way through the French countryside, then drew Italy, Egypt, Greece, Germany, Norway, and the low countries. Before he finally left Paris, he was working as an architect in the expansion of the Louvre.
When he finally returned to America in 1855, he was undoubtedly the most uniquely and thoroughly trained architect in the whole country. He never was the best or greatest of his time, but then architecture as a profession in this country was in its infancy, having to compete for ascendency with skilled carpenters, contractors, stone cutters, and engineers. However, more than any other single individual, and as one of the three founders of the American Institute of Architects (also it's third president), he MADE architecture a respected profession on this side of the sea. His early work included a five-story block of "French Flats" which made apartment living in New York a socially acceptable way of life for the upper middle classes. His 1876 Tribune Building, modeled after the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, and then his Fifth Avenue "mansion period" which followed, added body and prestige to his career. Unlike his massive, yet surprisingly "temporary" Fifth Avenue monuments to Victorian excess, Hunt's Vanderbilt "Newport period," his so-called "cottages," still reign over their Bellevue Avenue lawns and gardens as important monuments to the triumph of good taste over stupendous excess. Add to this the Met, the base of the Statue of Liberty, the numerous young architects whose studies he guided, and his final crown jewel, the 253-room Biltmore Estate in North Carolina (another Vanderbilt white elephant), and you have the career of an architect whose influence far exceeded that of any other of his century.