ARC 331: The Gilded Age & American Renaissance

week of

March 1-14

note: this timeframe includes spring break


Introductory comment or great big question

Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, the North emerged with industrial might through the work of individuals like Carnegie and Vanderbilt and others who were responsible for the rapid expansion of the steel industry, trans-continental railroads, shipping enterprises, and other generators of vast wealth for the elite running America's quickly growing businesses and industries. Sometimes called "robber barons" for their rapid increase of wealth at the expense of low-paid workers and the environment, they were also sometimes the great patrons of public institutions like libraries, museums, and theatres. This dual definition, based largely on shifting interpretations based in personal values, gives rise to the decades around the turn of the century, and a class of architecture in the United States that drew directly from overt historical precedents, as either the Gilded Age, the American Renaissance, or both.

learning objectives

At the conclusion of this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Identify main modern monuments in the period by name, date, designer/client and location (KNOWLEDGE)
  • Define terminology specific to technique, style and structure (KNOWLEDGE)
  • Describe integration of technology (material and non-material) in individual monuments (KNOWLEDGE)
  • Explain stylistic/technical changes in design as they relate to cultural context (COMPREHENSION)
  • Summarize the main concepts in important works of theory by key writers (COMPREHENSION)
  • Explain the development of the vocation/profession of building designers from (comprehension)
  • Visually analyze buildings from this period to suggest date, place, and designer (ANALYSIS)
  • Recognize change in architectural styles by comparing their formal and technical characteristic (ANALYSIS)
  • Critique the agency of people and technology w/in the process of design (EVALUATE)
  • Evaluate different theoretical and design approaches and defend personal preference for one or more (EVALUATE)

part 1

The Gilded Age

Influence drawn from Europe: old traditions and modern innovations, especially in city planning.

  • Read: Bergdoll, chap. 8 (especially pp. 241-61)
  • Read: Gelernter, chap. 7 (pp. 190-207)
  • Read: Colquhoun, chap. 2 (pp. 43-49)

The term coined by Mark Twain, the "Gilded Age" was one of exceptional wealth, and display of that wealth, among an elite class of nouveau riche. Meet the leading family, the Vanderbilts of New York, here:

  • Read: Colquhoun, chap. 2 (skim all; read pp. 43-49)

A dozen or so of the greatest works by the Vanderbilt's favorite architect, Richard Morris Hunt, are captured in a great interactive map.


part 2

The American Renaissance

The public face of the period was the American Renaissance: the idea that in this period architecture, painting, and sculpture were joined in grandiose public displays as in the time of Michelangelo, but also the sense of America having risen to equally great cultural and economic heights as sixteenth-century Italy--with equally fine patrons as the Farnese at its head. (The spiritual connotations and celebration of the Church apparent in the Italian Renaissance was overlooked.)

Libraries were some of the great projects of the era:  representing cultural and intellectual achievement in a building ostensibly open to all for their improvement.

In their efforts to shape American cities to rival or surpass European centers of commerce and culture, architects and their clients leveraged the images of antiquity as well as the smart planning of their major public buildings, as in the design of Penn Station by McKim, Mead, and White.

Planning at the urban scale: visit the Columbian Exposition.

part 3

Ecole Method

The architects engaged in the most profound Gilded Age/American Renaissance work were almost always associated with the École des Beaux-Arts, either having enrolled in the school at some point, or having learned their method from someone else, usually during their apprenticeship in architectural design. The major civic projects of the period show the wisdom of the École's method of planning, based on the principles of symmetry and axiality witnessed in great projects of the ancients. For example, consider the following plans (Penn Station and the Boston Public Library) and the design strategies they have in common:



It's important to remember that the École was more about method than style, and while there was a clear preference for Classically-inspired forms and motifs, the system allowed for architects to draw from a broad variety of possible sources, combining them into something new. Because of this, architects as stylistically diverse as Frank Furness, Richard Morris Hunt, Henry Hobson Richardson, Julia Morgan and Bernard Maybeck may have a lot in common in terms of design strategy and planning devices, but almost nothing in common with their stylistic and even technical preferences.

part 3

The Great City

Cities were in need of restoration and reconsideration, to be more proper settings for great buildings, to better act as backdrop to business , shopping, and other urban activities, and with some indication of need for amelioration of the environment of the poor.

The original example of urban planning for modern metropolises, based on traditions of Imperial and Renaissance Rome as well as French academic planning (both at Versailles and the new modernization of Paris), was the temporary project planned for Chicago in 1893.

The head planner for the Exposition, Daniel H. Burnham, soon made a name for himself in the realm of urban planning, making important interventions in places like Philadelphia, Cleveland, Washington, and again in Chicago.

See the actual plan (in published form) here.

part 4

Professional Profile

Meet Julia Morgan


part 5

Student Projects


additional resources

Additional Resources

The Opera

Meet Daniel H. Burnham