It’s a fitting irony that New York City’s crowning architectural idiom bears not an English name but a French one. No one could argue, though, that the Beaux-Arts style—which was imported by students of the Parisian école of the same name and reigned in the then nascent American metropolis for nearly half a century, until about 1920—belongs to New York any less than it does to Paris.
Everywhere you look in Gotham, there’s a Beaux-Arts building: Grand Central Terminal, the Pierpont Morgan Library (now called the Morgan Library & Museum), the Frick Collection, the Woolworth Building, and so forth. The effect of spotting one is something akin to déjà vu as one begins to piece together the eclectic historical references—Renaissance, neoclassical, Baroque—that combine to approximate the feeling of something that’s at once ancient and thoroughly modern.
In Phillip James Dodd’s glorious new book, An American Renaissance: Beaux-Arts Architecture in New York City, you’ll find buildings whose own names were serially preceded by their architect’s in common conversation—not out of some formal, Gilded Age sense of obligation but because they deserved to be.
Put simply, the period’s architects and underwriters found in the style a formula for diversity that was worthy of the city itself. This fact is reaffirmed on the frieze of one of the Beaux-Arts’ nonpareil monuments—the Washington Square Arch, designed by Stanford White. Its inscription, taken from the lips of George Washington and suspended over Greenwich Village since 1891, reads, “Let Us Raise a Standard to Which the Wise and Honest Can Repair.” More than 100 years later, that standard endures. —Nathan King
Nathan King is a Deputy Editor for AIR MAIL