Author Archives: Mehwish Noreen

Introduction to the Gilded Age

Introduction to the gilded age

The Gilded Age. The name, popularized by American author Mark Twain, conjures images of gold and jewels, lavish palaces, and wealth beyond imagination. And indeed, during the period we know as the Gilded Age — the late 1800’s to the 1920’s — American business leaders amassed huge fortunes, creating a suddenly-rich baron class with a fondness for ostentatious displays of newfound wealth. Millionaires built palatial and often gaudy homes in New York City and summer “cottages” on Long Island and in Newport, Rhode Island. Before long, even refined families like the Astor’s, who had been wealthy for generations, joined in the whirlwind of architectural excesses.

In large cities and then in upscale resort communities, noted established architects like Stanford White and Richard Morris Hunt were designing enormous homes and elegant hotels that mimicked the castles and palaces of Europe. Renaissance, Romanesque, and Rococo styles merged with the opulent European style known as Fine Arts.

The Gilded Age of architecture usually refers to the opulent mansions of the super-wealthy in the United States. The well-to-do built elaborate second homes in the suburbs or in rural settings while at the same time many more people were living in urban tenements and the decaying farmlands of America. Twain was being ironic and satiric in naming this period of American history.

America’s Gilded Age

The Gilded Age is a time period, an era in history with no specific beginning or end. Families had accumulated wealth from generation to generation — profits from the Industrial Revolution, the building of the railroads, urbanization, the rise of Wall Street and the banking industry, financial gains from the Civil War and Reconstruction, the manufacturing of steel, and the discovery of American crude oil. The names of these families, such as John Jacob Astor, live on even today.

By the time the book The Gilded Age, A Tale of Today was published in 1873, authors Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner could easily describe what was behind the ostentation of wealth in post-Civil War America. “There is no country in the world, sir, that pursues corruption as inveterate as we do,” says one character in the book. “Now here you are with your railroad complete, and showing its continuation to Hallelujah and thence to city Corruption.” For some observers, the Gilded Age was a time of immorality, dishonesty, and graft. Money is said to have been made off the backs of an expanding immigrant population who found ready employment with men of industry. Men such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie are often considered “robber barons.” Political corruption was so pervasive that Twain’s 19th century book continues to be used as a reference for the 21st century U.S. Senate.

In European history this same time period is called the Belle time or the Beautiful Age.

Architects, too, jumped on the bandwagon of what is often called “conspicuous consumption.” Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895) and Henry Hob son Richardson(1838-1886) were professionally trained in Europe, leading the way to making architecture a valued American profession. Architects the like of Charles Follen McKim (1847-1909) and Stanford White (1853-1906) learned opulence and elegance by working under the leadership of Richardson. Philadelphia n Frank Furriness (1839-1912) studied under Hunt.

The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 put a damper on the boundless optimism and excessive spending of the era. Historians often mark the end of the Gilded Age with the stock market crash of 1929. The grand homes of the Gilded Age now stand as monuments to this time in American history. Many of them are open for tours, and a few have been converted to luxury inns.

The 21st Century Gilded Age

The great divide between the wealthy few and the poverty of many is not relegated to the end of the 19th century. In reviewing Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, economist Paul Krugman reminds us that “It has become a commonplace to say that we are living in a second Gilded Age — or, as Piketty likes to put it, a second Belle time — defined by the incredible rise of the ‘one percent.'”

So, where is the equivalent architecture? The Dakota was the first luxury apartment building in New York City during the first Gilded Age. Today’s luxury apartments are being designed all over New York City by the likes of Christian of Portzamparc, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Jean Novel, Herzog & de Meuron, Annabelle Selldorf, Richard Meier, and Rafael Viñoly — they are today’s Gilded Age architects.

Gilding the Lilly

Gilded Age architecture is not so much a type or style of architecture as it describes an extravagance that is not representative of the American population. It falsely characterizes the architecture of the time. “To gild” is to cover something with a thin layer of gold — to make something appear more worthy than it is or to attempt to improve that which needs no improvement, to overdo, like gilding a Lilly. Three centuries earlier than the Gilded Age, even British playwright William Shakespeare used the metaphor in several of his dramas:

“To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”

“All that glitters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.”
— The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 7

Architecture of the Gilded Age: Visual Elements

Many of the Gilded Age mansions have been taken over by historic societies or transformed by the hospitality industry. The Breakers Mansion is the largest and most elaborate of Newport’s Gilded Age cottages. It was commissioned by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, and built ocean side between 1892 and 1895. Across the waters from the Breakers you can live like a millionaire at Oheka Castle on Long Island in New York State. Built in 1919, the Châteauesque summer home was built by financier Otto Herman Kahn.

Biltmore Estate and Inn is another Gilded Age mansion that is both a tourist attraction and a place to rest your head in elegance. Constructed for George Washington Vanderbilt at the end of 19th century, Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina took hundreds of workers five years to complete. Architect Richard Morris Hunt modeled the house after a French Renaissance chateau.

Vanderbilt Marble House: Railroad baron William K. Vanderbilt spared no expense when he built a house for his wife’s birthday. Designed by Richard Morris Hunt, Vanderbilt’s grand “Marble House,” built between 1888 and 1892, cost $11 million, $7 million of which paid for 500,000 cubic feet of white marble. Much of the interior is gilt with gold.

The Vanderbilt Mansion on the Hudson River was designed for Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt. Designed by Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead & White, the Neoclassical Fine-Arts Gilded Age architecture is uniquely set in Hyde Park, New York.

Rose cliff Mansion was built for Nevada silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs — not a household American name like the Vanderbilt’s. Nevertheless, Stanford White of McKim, Mead & White designed and constructed the Newport, Rhode Island cottage between 1898 and 1902.

About Neoclassical Architecture

About Neoclassical Architecture

Neoclassical architecture describes buildings that are inspired by the classic architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. In the United States, it describes the important public buildings built after the American Revolution, well into the 1800’s. The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. is a good example of neoclassicism, a design chosen by the Founding Fathers in 1793.

The prefix Neo- means “new” and classical refers to ancient Greece and Rome.  If you look closely at anything called neoclassical, you’ll see art, music, theater, literature, governments, and visual arts that are derived from ancient Western European civilizations. Classical architecture was built from roughly 850 B.C. to A.D. 476, but the popularity of neoclassicism rose from 1730 to 1925.

The Western world has always returned to the first great civilizations of mankind. The Roman arch was a repeated characteristic of the medieval Romanesque period from approximately 800 to 1200. What we call the Renaissance from about 1400 to 1600 was a “rebirth” of classicism. Neoclassicism is the influence of Renaissance architecture from the 15th and 16th century Europe.

Neoclassicism was a European movement that dominated the 1700’s. Expressing the logic, order, and rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment, people again returned to neoclassical ideas.  For the United States after the American Revolution in 1783, these concepts profoundly shaped the new government not only in the writing of the U.S. Constitution, but also in the architecture built to express the ideals of the new nation. Even today in much of the public architecture in Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, you may see echoes of the Parthenon in Athens or the Pantheon in Rome.

The word.neoclassic (without a hyphen is the preferred spelling) has come to be a general term encompassing a variety influences, including Classical Revival, Greek Revival, Palladio, and Federal. Some people don’t even use the word neoclassical because they think it is useless in its generality. The word classic itself has changed in meaning over the centuries. At the time of the Mayflower Compact in 1620, the “classics” would have been the books written by Greek and Roman scholars — today we have classic rock, classic movies, and classic novels that have nothing to do with ancient classical times. The commonality is that anything called “classic” is considered superior or “first class.” In this sense, every generation has a “new classic,” or neoclassic.

Neoclassical Characteristics

During the 18th century, the written works of the Renaissance architects James from Vignola and Andrea Palladio were widely translated and read. These writings inspired appreciation for the Classical Orders of architecture and the beautifully proportioned architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. Neoclassical buildings have many (although not necessarily all) of four features: (1) symmetrical floor plan shape and fenestration (i.e., placement of windows); (2) tall columns, generally Doric but sometimes Ionic,that rise the full height of the building. In residential architecture, a double portico; (3) triangular pediments; and (4) a centered domed roof.

The Beginnings of Neoclassical Architecture

One important 18th century thinker, the French Jesuit priest Marc-Antoine Laugier, theorized that all architecture derives from three basic elements: the column, the table, and the pediment. In 1753, Laugier published a book-length essay that outlined his theory that all architecture grows from this shape, which he called the Primitive Hut. The general idea was that society was best when it was more primitive, that a purity is native in simplicity and symmetry.

The romanticize of simple forms and the Classical Orders spread to the American colonies. Symmetrical neoclassical buildings modeled after classical Greek and Roman temples were thought to symbolize principles of justice and democracy. One of the most influential Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, drew upon the ideas of Andrea Palladio when he drew architectural plans for the new nation, the United states. Jefferson’s neoclassical design for the Virginia State Capitol in 1788 started the ball rolling for the building of the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. The State House in Richmond has been called one of the Ten Buildings That Changed America.

Famous Neoclassical Buildings

After the Treaty of Paris in 1783 when the colonies were forming a more perfect Union and developing a constitution, the Founding Fathers turned to the ideals of ancient civilizations. Greek architecture and Roman government were nondenominational temples to democratic ideals. Jefferson’s Monticello, the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and the U.S. Supreme Court building are all variations of the neoclassical — some being more influenced by Palladio ideals and some more like Greek Revival temples. Architectural historian Leland M. Roth writes that “all of the architecture of the period from 1785 to 1890 (and even much of it up to 1930) adapted historic styles to create associations in the mind of the user or observer which would strengthen and enhance the functional purpose of the building.”

About Neoclassical Houses

The word neoclassical is often used to describe an architectural style, but neoclassicism is not actually any one distinct style. Neoclassicism is a trend, or approach to design, that can incorporate a variety of styles. As architects and designers became known for their work, their names became associated with a particular type of building — Palladio for Andrea Palladio, Jeffersonian for Thomas Jefferson, Adamesque for Robert Adams. Basically, it’s all neoclassical — Classical Revival, Roman Revival, and Greek Revival.

Although you may associate neoclassicism with grand public buildings, the neoclassical approach has also shaped the way we build private homes. A gallery of neoclassical private homes proves the point. Some residential architects break the neoclassic architectural style into distinct time periods — no doubt to assist the realtors who market these American home styles.

Transforming a built house into a neoclassical style can go very badly, but this is not always the case. Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) redesigned Ken-wood House in Hampstead, England from what was called a “double-pile” manor house into a neoclassical style. He remodeled Ken-wood’s north entrance in 1764, as outlined in History of Ken-wood on the English Heritage website.

Fast Facts

Time periods of when architectural styles flourished are often inexact, if not arbitrary. In the book American House Styles: A Concise Guide, architect John Milne Baker has given us his own concise guide to what he believes neoclassical-related periods to be:

  • Federal Style, 1780-1820, is named after the new U.S. government, although ideas come from the British Isles, including a continued interest in the Palladio window and the work of Robert Adams. A Federalist building does not always have imposing pillars, but its symmetry and decorative details are classically inspired.
  • Neoclassical, 1780-1825, is the period of America’s breaking away from European modifications of Classical ideas and ideals, adhering instead to strict classical orders of proportion. Baker says the Neoclassical “rarely presumed to distort the proportions of the classical orders except in the subtlest way.”
  • Greek Revival, 1820-1850, of-emphasized Roman architectural details, such as the dome and arch, and focused more on the Greek way. This was a favorite of Antebellum architecture, the stately plantation homes built before America’s Civil War.
  • Neoclassical Revival, 1895-1950, became a modernist’s interpretation of ancient Rome and Greece. “When well done,” writes Baker, “these houses had a certain dignity, but the line between dignity and pomposity was tenuous at best….Some of the most grotesque, tasteless, and new-rich buildings offered by speculative builders today are pale shadows of the Neoclassical Revival. One can often see the pretense carried to absurdity when a makeshift portico is slapped on the facade of a raised ranch or pseudo-colonial. Unfortunately it is not an uncommon sight.”


Discover the Beauty of Fine Arts

Beauty of fine arts

Fine Arts is an opulent subset of the Neoclassical and Greek Revival architectural styles. A dominant design during the Gilded Age, Fine Arts was popular but short-lived in the United States from roughly 1885-1925.

Also known as Fine-Arts Classicism, Academic Classicism, or Classical Revival, Fine Arts is a late and eclectic form of Neoclassicism. It combines classical architecture from ancient Greece and Rome with Renaissance ideas. Fine-Arts architecture became part of the American Renaissance movement.

Fine Arts is characterized by order, symmetry, formal design, grandiosity, and elaborate ornamentation. Architectural characteristics include balustrades, balconies, columns, cornices, pilasters and triangular pediments. Stone exteriors are massive and grandiose in their symmetry; interiors are typically polished and lavishly decorated with sculptures, swags, medallions, flowers, and shields. Interiors will often have a grand stairway and opulent ballroom. Large arches rival the ancient Roman arches.

In the United States, the Fine-Arts style led to planned neighborhoods with large, showy houses, wide boulevards, and vast parks. Because of the size and grandiosity of the buildings, the Fine-Arts style is most commonly used for public buildings like museums, railway stations, libraries, banks, courthouses, and government buildings.

In the US, Fine Arts was used in some of the public architecture in Washington, DC,most notably Union Station by architect Daniel H. Burn ham and the Library of Congress (LOC) Thomas Jefferson building on Capitol Hill. The Architect of the Capitol describes the LOC as “theatrical and heavily ornamented,” which is “perfectly suited to a young, wealthy and imperialistic nation in its Gilded Age.” In Newport, Rhode Island, the Vanderbilt Marble House and Rose cliff Mansion stand out as grand Fine-Arts cottages. In New York City, Grand Central Terminal, Carnegie Hall, the Waldorf, and the New York Public Library all express Fine-Arts grandeur. In San Francisco, California, the Palace of Fine Arts and the Asian Art Museum made the California Gold Rush a reality.

Besides Burn ham, other architects associated with the style include Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895), Henry Hob-son Richardson (1838-1886), Charles Foll en McKim(1847-1909), Raymond Hood (1881-1934), and George B. Post (1837-1913).

The popularity of the Fine-Arts style waned in the 1920’s, and within 25 years the buildings were considered ostentatious.

Today the phrase fine arts is used by English-speaking people to attach a dignity and even a frivolity to the ordinary, such as the volunteer fundraising group named Fine Arts in Miami, Florida. It’s been used to suggest luxury and sophistication, as the Marriott hotel chain expresses with its Hotel Fine Arts Miami. It’s also part of a famous poem, Museum of Fine Arts, by W.H. Auden.

French in Origin

In French, the term fine arts (pronounced cross) means fine arts or beautiful arts. The Fine-Arts “style” emanated from France, based on ideas taught at the legendary The school of Fine Arts (The School of Fine Arts), one of the oldest and most esteemed schools of architecture and design in Paris. The turn into the 20th century was a time of great growth throughout the world. It was a time after the American Civil War when the United States was truly becoming a country—and a world power. It was a time when architecture in the US was becoming a licensed profession requiring schooling. These French ideas of beauty were brought to America by American architects fortunate enough to have studied at the only internationally known school of architecture, The School of Fine Arts. European aesthetics spread to wealthy areas of the world that had profited from industrialization. It is found mostly in urban areas, where it can make a more public statement of prosperity or an embarrassment of riches.

In France, Fine-Arts design was most popular during what became known as the Belle time, or “the beautiful age.” Perhaps the most important if not best-known example of this French opulence within a logical design is the Paris Opera house by the French architect Charles Garnier.

Definitions of Fine-Arts Architecture

“Historical and eclectic design on a monumental scale, as taught at the School of Fine Arts in Paris in the 19th cent.”— Dictionary of Architecture and Construction, Cyril M. Harris, ed., McGraw-Hill, 1975, p. 48

“The Fine Arts is a classical style with the full range of Greek-Roman elements: the column, arch, vault and dome. It is the showy, almost operatic, manner in which these elements are composed that gives the style its characteristic flavor.”—Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation

To Hyphenate or Not

Generally, if fine arts is used alone, the words are not hyphenated. When used together as an adjective to describe a style or architecture, the words are often hyphenated. Some English dictionaries always hyphenate these non-English words.

About Museum of Fine Arts

The English poet W. H. Auden wrote a poem called Museum of Fine Arts in 1938. In it, Auden describes a scene from a painting by the artist Peter Bruegel, a piece of art that Auden observed while visiting the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, Belgium. The poem’s theme of the commonplace of suffering and tragedy—”how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”—is as relevant today as it ever was. Is it ironic or on purpose that the painting and the poem are paired with one of the most visibly ornate styles of architecture in an era of conspicuous consumption.



Inn, building that affords public lodging, and sometimes meals and entertainment, to travelers. The inn has been largely superseded by hotels and motels, though the term is often still used to suggest traditional hospitality.

Inns developed in the ancient world wherever there was traveling for trading purposes. Ancient Persia’s extensive highway system featured inns. Along caravan routes, caravansaries appeared. These were placed approximately eight miles apart and were often constructed as forts with watchtowers. A smaller-scale structure, the khan, developed in towns.

Roman inns apparently were laid out in the same manner as ancient villas. Stables and accommodations for sleeping and eating were placed around one or more centralized courtyards. Inns  are generally establishments or buildings where travelers can seek lodging  and usually food and drink. They are typically located in the country or along a highway. During the early Middle Ages, accommodations for travelers were usually to be found only in monasteries; but under the combined influence of the revival of commerce in the late medieval period, the Crusades, and an increase in the popularity of pilgrimages, lodging houses were built by monasteries, guilds, and private entrepreneurs.

In Great Britain inns numbered about 6,000 by the late 16th century. European inns of that period were planned around the sides of a courtyard, were several stories high, and featured arcade or balustrade galleries above the ground level.

Roman road system

Roman road system, outstanding transportation network of the ancient Mediterranean world, extending from Britain to the Tigris-Euphrates river system and from the Danube River to Spain and northern Africa. In all, the Romans built 50,000 miles (80,000 km) of hard-surfaced highway, primarily for military reasons.

Roman road

The first of the great Roman roads, the Via Apia (Apia Way), begun by the censor Appius Claudius Caecus in 312 BCE, originally ran southeast from Rome 162 miles (261 km) to Tarentum (now Taranto) and was later extended to the Adriatic coast at Brundisium (now Brindisi). The long branch running through Calabria to the Straits of Messina was known as the Via Popilia. By the beginning of the 2nd century BCE, four other great roads radiated from Rome: the Via Aurelia, extending northwest to Genua (Genoa); the Via Flaminia, running north to the Adriatic, where it joined the Via Aemilia, crossed the Rubicon, and led northwest; the Via Valeria, east across the peninsula by way of Lake Fucinus  and the Via Latina, running southeast and joining the Via Apia near Capua. Their numerous feeder roads extending far into the Roman provinces led to the proverb “All roads lead to Rome.”

The Roman roads were notable for their straightness, solid foundations, cambered surfaces facilitating drainage, and use of concrete made from pozzolana (volcanic ash) and lime. Though adapting their technique to materials locally available, the Roman engineers followed basically the same principles in building abroad as they had in Italy. In 145 BCE they began the Via Egnatia, an extension of the Via Apia beyond the Adriatic into Greece and Asia Minor, where it joined the ancient Persian Royal Road.

In northern Africa the Romans followed up their conquest of Carthage by building a road system that spanned the south shore of the Mediterranean. In Gaul they developed a system centered on Lyon, whence main roads extended to the Rhine, Bordeaux, and the English Channel. In Britain the purely strategic roads following the conquest were supplemented by a network radiating from London. In Spain, on the contrary, the topography of the country dictated a system of main roads around the periphery of the peninsula, with secondary roads developed into the central plateaus.

The Roman road system made possible Roman conquest and administration and later provided highways for the great migrations into the empire and a means for the diffusion of Christianity. Despite deterioration from neglect, it continued to serve Europe throughout the Middle Ages, and many fragments of the system survive today.