Usually a work of art inspires you only if you agree with the artist's view of the world. (See Booth and the Columbus Monument, OMOM #17, 35.) The Hunt Memorial illustrates a different kind of benefit: the pleasure of seeing a top-notch mind tackle a difficult problem.
Years before he executed the Continents (OMOM #4), French was commissioned to design a memorial for Hunt, one of America's leading architects. Merely displaying models of Hunt's most famous buildings would have been a singularly ineffective way to commemorate Hunt's contributions to American architecture and the respect his colleagues felt for him.
French resolved the problem by placing an over life-size bust of Hunt within an architectural framework. As a reminder that one of Hunt's notable accomplishments was reintegrating sculpture into American architecture, an allegorical statue punctuates each end of the colonnade.
The figure on the left is Painting and Sculpture. In her right hand she holds a sculptor's mallet. In her left, she holds a palette and a statuette.
The statuette reproduces the reclining Dionysus from the Parthenon pediment, reminding us that Hunt was thoroughly familiar with the history of art and architecture, having been the first American architect to train at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. The Dionysus is also a notable example of sculpture incorporated into architecture.
On the right end of the colonnade stands Architecture, holding a replica of Hunt's Administration Building for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. (See Columbus, OMOM #36.)
The Administration Building, with its gleaming gold dome, ranks as one of Hunt's major achievements, and exerted an enormous impact on fellow architects. Look closely at the model and you can see tiny replicas of the sculptural decoration by Karl Bitter, who did the Carl Schurz Monument (OMOM #51) and sculptures for Hunt's Metropolitan Museum of Art. (For Bitter's description of sixty-five-year-old Hunt, see below.)
Consider these two allegorical figures for a moment longer. If they were in motion like Athena on the Bennett Memorial (OMOM # 21), they would distract attention from the portrait bust at the center. If they were larger, they'd overpower the bust, in spite of its heroic proportions. Instead, French has made them stand still, looking straight ahead, wearing drapery that falls in loose vertical folds like the fluted columns Hunt used so often in his Beaux-Arts designs.
The combination of bust, allegorical figures and colonnade that French and architect Bruce Price designed to honor Hunt almost seems inevitable. Of course, it's not: it required hard work as well as ingenuity to create such an effective combination. Even someone who doesn't admire Hunt's architecture can admire French's memorial to him.
Richard Morris Hunt (10/31/1827-7/31/1895) was the favored architect for Astors, Vanderbilts and other New York millionaires. The first American architect trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he produced mansions in neo-Renaissance and neo-Gothic styles. Among his public commissions were such Beaux-Arts icons as the Fifth-Avenue facade of the Metropolitan Museum. He once said, "Your goal is to achieve the best results by following [the clients'] wishes. If they want you to build a house upside down standing on its chimney, it's up to you to do it."
Hunt should also be remembered, however, for building what was - or wasn't - one of New York's first skyscrapers. The ten-story Tribune Building stood for almost a hundred years on Nassau Street, at the western end of the Brooklyn Bridge. Begun in 1873, it was in part a monument to eccentric journalist and politician Horace Greeley, founder of the Tribune, who had died the previous year. In accordance with his belief that sculpture should be incorporated into architecture, Hunt commissioned Ward's Greeley (OMOM #7) for the Tribune Building.
The Tribune Building's facade was a motley combination of styles and colors. A heavy granite base and oversized granite window frames contrasted with deep-red brick walls. Atop the three-story mansard roof hovered a clock-tower reminiscent of Florence's Palazzo Vecchio. Behind the eclectic facade, however, was a structure noteworthy for its practical elements.
Acknowledging the increasing value of real estate in lower Manhattan, Hunt made the Tribune Building twice as tall as any previous commercial building in New York. In fact, it was taller than any other structure in the City except Trinity Church's spire. Occupation of such a tall building had only recently been made feasible by Otis's safety elevator. The Tribune Building also boasted the latest technology in fireproof construction - hollow terracotta tiles over iron beams. (Compare the Cooper Union, OMOM #10.)
Many architectural historians list the Tribune Building as one of the world's earliest skyscrapers. Those who dispute the title point out that the Tribune Building had load-bearing masonry walls rather than a steel skeleton. If one accepts steel-frame construction as a requisite for classification as a skyscraper, then the Tribune Building wasn't one of the first. Yet in fairness to Hunt, one can't blame him for not using resources that were still exceedingly scarce. Mass production of steel had barely begun when the Tribune Building went up in the early 1870s. (See Holley, OMOM #11.)