When you hear an architectural historian refer to the “Beaux Arts” buildings, they are referring to the style taught at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris in the 19th century. Some notable alumni of the school include Renoir, Monet, Degas and many more; it was the most esteemed institution for art education and in many ways the artists that trained there set the standards for their respective fields.
In general, the Ecole taught artists to draw from western historical sources for inspiration: Roman antiquity, the Italian Rennaissance, French/Italian Baroque and the list goes on and on. But while many of these buildings have very familiar visual forms, the Beaux Arts style isn’t simply a recapitulation of old styles-it takes old styles to a whole new extreme. The Beaux Arts style is flamboyant beyond compare. It is unapologetically theatrical and this manifests both in terms of intricate detailing on the buildings or monumental scale. The most iconic example of Beaux-Arts architecture in Paris is the Paris Opera house, completed in 1875 under the direction of Charles Garnier. Not only is the building huge (it seats 1979 people in the main theatre), there is an absolutely astounding amount of iron detailing and marble sculpture adorning every surface imaginable, even the highest part of the roof.
But what about in the United States? As alluded to before, attending the Ecole des Beaux Arts was a tremendous honor and the first American architect to do so was Richard Morris Hunt, the master architect behind many of the Newport mansions. Once the style reached America, it was used for buildings in both the private and public sector. Why was it so popular here? Remember that at this point in time, the United States was still a fairly young country. And while the US certainly was garnering the financial power needed to establish itself as a global power, it lacked cultural cache. Europe, with its several centuries of history and art, would carry prestige simply by default. But utilizing the Beaux-Arts style in American buildings helped to create the feeling of old world gravitas in the New World.
(Author’s note: sometimes families would steal more than just the style-they would steal whole rooms from European castles-but that’s a can of worms for another time).