Biography of Richard Morris Hunt
Richard Morris Hunt was born into a family of wealth and privilege. His father, Jonathan Hunt, a successful lawyer, was elected to a seat in Congress just weeks after Richard was born. Sadly, when Hunt was only four years old, his father contracted cholera and died. Left with five young children to raise, Hunt's mother, Jane Maria, left Washington, D.C. and moved first to New Haven. The loss of his father notwithstanding, Hunt's childhood was a happy one and his mother nurtured the creative interests in all her children (indeed, his brothers, William and Leavitt, became professional painters and photographers respectively).
During her own childhood, Hunt's mother had shown a great passion for drawing and painting but her efforts were cruely put down by her father. Once a mother herself, she resolved to encourage the artistic impulses of her own children. Shortly after her husband's death, an Italian artist and political refugee called Gambedella had arrived in New Haven bringing with him letters of distinction. Jane Maria Hunt offered him lodgings in the large family home. Having failed to find pupils for start his own art classes, Hunt's mother hired Gambedella as the personal tutor for her and her children. The Hunt's worked with zeal and at the end of their first term together, the Hunt family put on an impromptu exhibition which aroused great local interest. (Other locals expressed an interest in joining Gambedella's class but Hunt's mother declared "You are too late!" as she retained the Italian's services only for her own family). Jane Maria sent her children to the best schools with Richard attending the Latin School in Boston (from where he graduated in 1843). However (also in 1843) Hunt's elder brother, William, fell seriously ill. William's physician recommended warmer climes to aid his rehabilitation and, not wanting to break up her family, Jane Maria Hunt moved her entire family to Italy via Southern France. The Hunts were so taken with Europe they would remain on the continent for the next twelve years.
Shortly after arriving in Italy, Hunt and his younger brother were enrolled in a military school in Geneva (in neighboring Switzerland). At the time, the sixteen-year-old Hunt was planning on a military career but his plans changed having been awestruck by the great monuments and buildings of Europe and through an extracurricular course he had enrolled on with the architect Samuel Darier. Hunt wrote to his mother declaring that he wanted to study in Europe and then, "return to America where an architect of first quality would be much sought for ".
After finishing school in Geneva, Hunt joined his family in Paris and, in 1846, at the second attempt, was accepted into the École des Beaux-Arts, then the leading architectural school in the world. He was the first American to be enrolled in the architectural study program. In accordance with the school's policy, Hunt had to align himself with a professional atelier and was fortunate to benefit from the patronage of Hector Martin Lefuel. After six years at the École, Hunt's first professional job came in 1854 when Lefuel received a commission from Emperor Napoleon III to oversee extensions to the Louvre connecting it to the Tuileries Palace (Palais-Royal). Lefuel hired Hunt to be his Inspecteur des Travaux (Works Inspector); a prestigious position for a young American to receive so early in his career and, with Lefuel and Louis Visconti, designed the Pavillon de la Bibliothèque (Library Pavilion), situated opposite the Palais-Royal.
Once the Louvre project was completed, Hunt (who had by now also drawn inspiration on tours throughout Europe, Asia and Egypt) made the decision to return to America and set up his own architectural practice. It was not an easy decision. As Hunt biographer Baker explains, "the temptations for him to remain in France had been great. After a thorough training at the École des Beaux-Arts, he was recognized as a remarkably talented person. The opportunities for an interesting and successful career in France appeared excellent [...] But on the other hand, Richard was strongly drawn back to his native land. Here he recognized, there was great opportunities for an architect with skill, sound training, and good experience ".
A twenty-seven-year-old Hunt returned to New York City in September 1855 with the goal of bringing American building design into line with the best of Europe. He quickly began receiving commissions; the first of which was a townhouse for the artist Thomas Rossiter. This was soon followed by a commission for a building specifically designed to house artist studios and residences. Although it opened with only four students the Studio Building on West Tenth Street, brought Hunt his first taste of recognition in America. Hunt was so pleased with his design that he himself became one of the tenants and set up his own atelier in the building and filled it with an impressive art and book collection which he had amassed while living and training in Europe. Professor Sarah Bradford Landau explains, "Hunt's New York atelier, in existence from 1857 to 1860, is credited with transmitting to America the École rigorous system of training" and which was fully realized by his pupil William R. Ware ("who headed the first American school of architecture, founded at MIT in 1868, and went on to head the Columbia University School of Architecture"). Indeed, in addition to Ware, the studio also provided the early training ground for architectural luminaries Henry Van Brunt and Frank Furness, and the artist William Merritt Chase.
As Hunt's reputation grew, he received many important commissions and, with 12 other members, including the gothic architect Richard Upjohn, founded the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1857. The role of the AIA was to promote and regulate good practice in American architecture (Upjohn was elected the first AIA president and was succeeded by the Greek classicist Thomas Ustick Walter before Hunt became its third president). Hunt designed his first town house in 1857 for the artist Thomas P Rossiter who refused to pay Hunt a five percentage architect's fee. Hunt sued Rossiter with the court case setting a legal precedent for fixed charges for architectural services bringing the practice into line with other professions such as law and medicine.
In 1860 Hunt also began receiving jobs in Newport, Rhode Island, where his brother, William, had by now made his name as an artist. It was in Newport in fact that he met his future wife, Catharine Clinton Howard, fourteen years his junior. The couple married in April 1861 and would raise five children. In addition to their apartment in New York, the Hunt's purchased a home in Newport known as Hill Top Cottage. Falling comfortably into family life, Hunt established a pattern that would continue for the rest of his career: securing important commissions in America interspersed with extended periods of rest and renewal via trips abroad with his family. Hunt also enjoyed a thriving social life and as Baker explains, "their Sunday dinners became features of New York artistic and literary life. Hunt maintained a well-stocked wine and liquor cellar and collected recipes for burgundy and champagne punch for their larger receptions [...] Catharine's temperament was serene and gentle, providing a complement to Richard's fiery, exuberant nature ".
In addition to domestic projects, including houses and apartment buildings, Hunt worked on several notable public projects including the Presbyterian Hospital (1872), the Tribune Building (the tallest commercial building in the city and one of the earliest with an elevator (1876)) and several buildings on the Yale University campus. However, with a grand courtyard and two wings, and a Neo-Grec facade emphasized through proud columns and rounded arches, the two-stories Lennox Library is widely considered one of Hunt's most important designs of the 1870s and a masterpiece in the decorative French Beaux-Arts style. Baker described how the wealthy philanthropist James Lenox met Hunt in 1867 and "soon became Hunt's patron, employing him for some major projects ". The most important was a public library that would house Lenox's extensive book and art collections. In accepting this commission, Hunt grew his reputation by designing what would be one of New York's earliest public libraries and exhibition spaces. (The library was sadly demolished by another wealthy city figure, Henry Frick, who purchased the land in 1912 and is today the site for The Frick Collection art museum. However, following Hunt's death a memorial to him was erected in Central Park facing the site of the original Lenox Library.)
Unfortunately the intensity of his work during this period led to a weakening of Hunt's health and in 1868 he developed a serious case of gout, a painful condition he would have to battle for the rest of his life. He also suffered three other significant setbacks. The first two were personal losses with the deaths of brothers John and William due to suicide (or rather in William's case, suspected suicide). The third, which was perhaps his greatest professional disappointment of his career, came when he submitted his initial designs for the proposed gateway entrances to the newly developed Central Park in New York City. His plans were accepted by the committee overseeing the project however once they were presented to a larger audience they were met with widespread disapproval. According to professor Francis R. Kowsky, "all of Hunt's designs derived from the grand tradition of French civic planning " and proved just too far removed from the natural focus of Frederick Law Olmsted's original park design. It was, as Kowsky explains, a sentiment articulated at the time by the art critic Clarence Cook who wrote "Hunt's designs were as 'un-American as it would be possible to make them' and unsympathetic to the rural character of the park ".
While the sculptural elements of Hunt's Gateway designs did not garner public approval, he continued to advocate in favor of the connection between sculpture and architecture and often collaborated with sculptors on monument projects. Indeed, throughout his later career he was part of several projects that involved collaborations with two key artists, John Quincy Adams Ward and Karl Theodore Bitter. These involved commissions for monumental memorial sculptures including the Washington Statue in New York (1883), and the Yorktown Monument in Virginia (1884). But Hunt's most important monument commission would be the design for the base and pedestal for the Statue of Liberty (1886).
Despite complaints from some quarters that Hunt's designs were "too European" (and, by extension, "un-American"), the last decades of Hunt's career were very busy. As Baker explains, "as he advanced in age and as his reputation grew, more and more work came to him. He often complained that he had more work than he could conveniently take care of ". His eldest son, Richard, joined the family firm in 1887 having also studied at the École des Beaux-Arts. (A second son, Joseph Howland Hunt, would join the firm in 1901, after his father's death.)
Commissioned by George W. Vanderbilt, Biltmore House was one of Hunt's most grandiose designs and stands as a fine example of his Châteauesque style. It proved a massive undertaking for Hunt who spent a good six years on the project and worked once more with artist Karl Theodore Bitter who designed and created the sculptural elements for both the exterior and interior of the house (including a marble frieze and relief panels as well as a carved fireplace). The commission also saw Hunt collaborate with the renowned landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Biltmore's spectacular gardens. Indeed, the grounds surrounding the house and garden eventually grew to some 125,000 acres and was the first full-scale experiment in scientific forest management undertaken in the United States.
While Hunt received several late career commissions for public buildings, including the Administration Building for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893), his work at this time was largely focused on building elaborate houses for some of the East Coast's wealthiest citizens. According to Baker, "these great residences were among his most noteworthy work and contributed importantly to his subsequent historical reputation. By this time, Hunt was well known as the most fashionable architect in the country, and no doubt some clients sought his services to reinforce their claims for social position and acceptance ". Part of Hunt's success can be attributed to his flexibility and his willingness to adapt his designs to the wishes of his clients. As he said, "it's your clients' money you're spending. Your business is to get the best results you can, following their wishes. If they want you to build a house upside down, standing on its chimney, it is up to you to do it and still get the best possible result".
On March 22, 1893, Hunt established The Municipal Art Society (MAS) with the founding mission to beautify New York through public art. The organization (which still runs today) soon expanded its mission to include the city's architectural landscape and other public spaces. But the weight of Hunt's workload was taking its toll on his health and in July 1895 he was stricken with an intense attack of gout. While hoping to recover in his Newport home, his health quickly deteriorated and he died on the last day of the month. His final commission, one for which he is still remembered today, was the designs for the Fifth Avenue entrance for The Metropolitan Museum of Art. His two sons would oversee the completion of the project which was completed in 1902.
The Legacy of Richard Morris Hunt
Hunt had a profound impact on the development of architecture in America. According to Baker, "in the second half of the nineteenth century, architecture became a respected profession in the United States, and Hunt more than anyone else was instrumental in shaping its dimensions and standards. Moreover, he did significant work in establishing professional education in architecture [and for] many years, he was the best-known spokesman of his profession in the United States ". While he may be best be remembered today for the excessive New York and Rhode Island residences, the rich variety of his commissions are testament to his flexibility and reach of his architectural vision. As Baker adds, "in his commissions for clients of great wealth, he was able to shape and to fulfill dreams and ideals in a way that few other Americans ever have. And yet his output was immensely varied, and he designed buildings for many private, commercial, and public purposes. His designs for several monuments and memorials helped forward the renewed unifying nationalism which followed the Civil War and Reconstruction ".
Hunt's Beaux-Arts architectural style was quickly overtaken by the advent of modernism. This, coupled with the fact that many of his buildings have been demolished over time, has meant that he is not perhaps as widely appreciated today as some of his contemporaries. Nevertheless, he left an indelible mark on American architectural history, especially when one takes into account the role he played in architectural education which had until his intervention worked on the apprentice system. Indeed, Hunt left behind a library of design documents and educational sources that numbered in the thousands. The American Institute of Architects and the American Architectural Foundation became custodians of his educational legacy, expanding his original collection to amass a body of materials - known today as the "AIA/AAF Collection" - that has been housed at the Library of Congress since 2010.
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
First published on 14 Jul 2021. Updated and modified regularly