Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Cass Gilbert Connection

I am by no means an architecture buff.  I enjoy a beautiful building as much as the next person, but am typically more interested in why it was built than how.  I've learned to discern the Federalist and Queen Anne brownstones in my neighborhood from the Victorian brownstones of Park Slope, and to identify some other large trends in architecture through time, but this again is because of their historical context.

Still, I find myself gravitating toward the Beaux-Arts and Neo-Gothic architectural styles, and to one of that era's star architects Cass Gilbert.  There's something about the optimism inherent in these grand structures, as if upstart America really could contribute to the vast architectural heritage of the world, that keeps drawing my eye.

It's through this that the Woolworth Tower has always been my favorite skyscraper in New York.  Completed in 1913 by Cass Gilbert, and paid for in cash by Frank Woolworth (all $13.5 million), it has always struck me as the most beautiful of of the major skyscrapers in New York.  And in a show of levity typical of Gilbert, there are little details hidden in plain site on the tower. There's a gecko scaling one face high up on the tower, for example, only visible with a good pair of binoculars and just the right viewing angle. Gilbert made beautiful buildings, and found a way to keep them fun as well.

When I first moved to 90 West Street, a stunning neo-Gothic building in its own right, one of the best features of my apartment was the view east to the Woolworth Tower.  I was surprised and excited to learn that 90 West was also one of Cass Gilbert's buildings.  Built it 1907, it was actually the precursor to the Woolworth Tower, Gilbert used it to test some of his Gothic stylings.  Like the Woolworth Tower after it, Gilbert played with the design of 90 West,  adding Gargoyles with his relatives' faces.  It was really through living in this building that I begun to learn more about Gilbert, and to appreciate his style.

I've since learned more random connections with Gilbert.  He was named for an ancestor of his, Lewis Cass.  Cass was governor of the Michigan territory (before it became a state), American Ambassador to France, US Senator for Michigan, and Secretary of State.  To understand his impact, I need only consider that my own mother lives just off of Cass Boulevard, and for many years worked in the Lewis Cass Building in Michigan's state capitol.  (In fact, there are a myriad of places named after him.)

In my travels, I've begun to pay more attention to buildings in particular.  And I still find myself drawn to Cass Gilbert's buildings across the country even without knowing about them.   The US Supreme Court Building, the state capitol of Minnesota, and many buildings around New York have all drawn my eye.  They are all Gilbert's.

Recently, I flew to Saint Louis to help launch a new Chapter of Mu Beta Psi.  One day, we went to the Saint Louis Zoo, which sits in Forest Park just down a hill from the Museum of Art.  I enjoyed the zoo, but kept looking up at the Museum.  My last day in the city I had some time to myself, so I went back to the park and walked around the Museum.  It felt so familiar.  I asked the gentleman at the information desk if he knew much about the building itself.  He replied, oh yes, it was built in 1904 for the World's Fair by Cass Gilbert.

Of course.

Now I find myself looking for them.  There are quite a few, but I will see as many as I can.

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