Beaux Arts Architecture: Toward a Classical Metropolis

Eldis Sula
Print Friendly

Grounds of the Columbian Exposition, Chicago , 1893, a Beaux-Arts extravaganza.

One in a series of articles completed by BiLLY BoY Enteprises, the division of William Green Architecture that focuses on self-generated creative projects. This investigation was inspired by a project with which the firm is currently engaged, influenced in part by Beaux Arts architecture.


Beaux Arts architecture was very much a style of its time, an architectural reflection of imperial ambitions and an embodiment of formal opportunities given birth by technological advances in the building industry. With its origins in the École des Beaux-Arts, France’s leading art academy in the nineteenth century, the style was informed by a strong scholarly tradition in the architectural orders of ancient Greece and Rome. The erudite heritage of the Beaux Arts style was balanced by its unique response to the rapidly evolving industrialism of the nineteenth century. Architects of the period made increasing use of iron, a material that became more available as new manufacturing methods significantly reduced production costs. An extremely malleable material that could be mass produced and quickly assembled like no other material previously employed, iron allowed for the proliferation of grand buildings designed as celebrations of national pride. Unique in its attempts to negotiate the old with the new, Beaux Arts architecture culminated in the early twentieth century, when its strong Classicist streak was superseded by the industrial forms dear to the metropolis which it had come to define. xxxxxx

Distinction Between Architecture and Engineering in the École des Beaux-Arts

The École Impériale et Spéciale des Beaux-Arts (Imperial Specialty Academy of Arts), Paris, 1850.

The Beaux Arts school in early nineteenth-century France was defined by its conventional attitude towards architecture and architectural history. The term is coined after its progenitors, the academic architects who attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The École Impériale et Spéciale des Beaux-Arts was officially established in 1807.[1]  The school united the educational institutions made disparate by the French Revolution, which dissolved the royal Academies in 1793, and with them the official academic tradition of France. [2] In 1819, the École was divided in two sections: architecture, and painting and sculpture.[3] The consolidation of France’s major art schools into one great institution renewed the French academic heritage in the arts.

Painting Studio (permitting men only) at the École Impériale des Beaux-Arts (c. 1870).

In general, the architectural division of the École was guided by Classicist ideals and the traditional methodology that came to define the practice of architecture of its time. Using models from ancient Greece and Rome, the program held that monuments designed for kings and the state are the highest form in the architectural hierarchy, ranking above buildings built for the aristocracy, the middle classes, and the lower classes, as well as utilitarian structures intended for commerce or industry.[4]  Similarly, the curriculum also asserted that authentic monumental architecture could only be constructed of masonry, and in particular, stone-cut masonry.[5] As a result, the scope of the program at the Beaux Arts school regarded architecture purely in terms of the Classical principles of hierarchical order, beauty, and the use of the traditionally monumental material of stone.

Adolf von Menzel, ‘The Rolling Mill’ (1875)

This traditionalist view of architecture was at odds with the rapid technological advancement occurring during the Industrial Revolution in Western Europe and the United States of America. Iron, which previously was too expensive to employ on a large scale, was made widely available through a new production method which substituted coke for coal. Coke, a coal-derived fuel with a higher carbon content than coal, sped up the process and reduced the cost of iron-making. As a result, the material was used throughout the nineteenth century in a range of utilitarian construction that responded to the needs of a changing economic and mercantile climate. The low cost and far-ranging utility of iron made its use widespread throughout the nineteenth century. Its application in the construction of a variety of practical structures such as bridges and railroads established it as a highly utilitarian material.

The Classically-derived preference for an architectural hierarchy, coupled with the emergence of green image 13.jpg.pngthe highly applicable material of iron, led to a distinction in the Beaux Arts school between architects and engineers.[6] Whereas the goal of academic architecture in France was to achieve beauty of form using the rational principles of proportion and the medium of masonry, the goal of the newly emerging field of military and civil engineering was to design buildings which provided utility, efficiency, and structural economy using new building materials.

Above: Modern interpretation of Brunelleschi’s axiomatic drawing of the dome of the Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore (1420-1434) [See interactive link, footnote 8]

Prior to the development of iron in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the roles of architects and engineers were synonymous and assumed by single individuals. During the early Renaissance, for example, Filippo Brunelleschi was charged with solving both aesthetic and structural problems in order to realize one of the most famous domes of the Renaissance.[7] An axonometric plan of the Santa Maria Cathedral reveals the architectural engineer’s preoccupation with the structural logistics required to make the construction of his famous dome possible.

In France, these traditionally complementary roles began to diverge as early as the late seventeenth century, when a special corps of military engineering was established in the French army under Louis XIV. This group of engineers performed functions previously addressed by architects, such as building fortresses and siege works.[9] Additionally, an increasing number of specialized technical schools were being established in France. By the end of the nineteenth century, the use of iron was reserved for technical specialists. [10] The development of iron and the general utilitarianism of the Industrial Revolution precipitated structural requirements which demanded the specialization of the field of engineering in order to be addressed.

Beaux Arts, Iron and the Rise of French Nationalism

The progression of the nineteenth century in France yielded an openness to experiment with material and form in Beaux Arts architecture. Some of the most progressive projects of the period were completed by Jacques-Félix Duban and Henri Labrouste. Both rationalists who spoke out against conservative academicism which discouraged the use of non-traditional materials,[11] Duban and Labrouste worked to ingratiate iron into their work. To an extent, their use of iron was dictated by Classical precepts of monumentality; while Duban and Labrouste both used exposed iron, they did so within the acceptable context of masonry buildings.[12] Although their designsgreen image 2 reflect a knowledge of ancient architectural forms, the work of Duban and Labrouste does not rigidly adhere to the principles of antiquity.

Right: Jacques-Félix Duban’s iron and glass roof in the Grande Salle des Antiquités, Ecole des Beaux Arts (1863) [15]

For example, Duban’s iron and glass roof over the courtyard of the École des Beaux Arts clearly draws on characteristics of Classical architecture.[13] The roof forms a grand arch, and the structure rests on Classically-molded columns. The roof’s use of pre-manufactured iron and glass does not work against the ancient tradition, but enters in dialogue with it, literally giving Classical shape to industrial materials. This forthright use of exposed iron must have had significant bearing on Duban’s contemporaries; a number of published or winning designs entered in the 1865 Grand Prix de Rome featured visible iron as a main structural material.[14]

Similarly, Henri Labrouste inventively incorporated iron in his designs. A notable example is his use of the detailed cast iron arches which accentuate the vaulted roofs of the reading room in the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. In his discussion of the architect, Bertrand Lemoine partially attributes Labrouste’s use of cast iron to France’s increasing production capacity, noting that while “England was still providing half of the world production in 1830, France was providing a quarter, or 350,000 tons.”[16] Lemoine also points out that because cast iron was easier to process and more affordable than iron or steel, it remained the predominant medium until the late nineteenth century.[17] It must also be noted, however, that cast iron, more malleable than iron, lent itself green image 3much easier to the fine detail required by Labrouste in his intricate, decorative design for the arches. The result is an elaborate ironwork which embellishes the curvature of the roof and punctuates the span of the ceiling with ornate rows.

Left: Henri Labrouste’s reading room in the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (1838-1850) [18]

This increasing willingness to incorporate iron and eclectically mix styles coincides with a rising sense of domestic duty even among France’s most progressive architects. As historian Donald Drew Egbert indicates in his study of Beaux Arts architecture, both Labrouste and Duban expressed sentiments of nationalism in regards to their work. Labrouste stressed “that a building should reflect and express the specific region in which it is built.”[19] Duban similarly indicates “as a primary aim the importance of achieving a national character in architecture.”[20] These nationalist expressions suggest an increasing preoccupation with the contemporary identity of France and how it might be manifested in its civic buildings.

It is unsurprising that Napoleon III was impelled in this climate to launch various construction initiatives to develop the urban identity of France. In attempts to create an alliance between the state and private land-holding and development companies, Napoleon III implemented various projects intended to galvanize the French economic system and create public monuments nodding to his regime.[21] An example is the addition of the Pavillon Richelieu to the Louvre, completed by Louis-Tullius-Joachim Visconti and then Hector-Martin Lefuel. Visconti and Lefuel’s Pavillon indicates a desire behind Beaux Arts architecture, and the French government which funded it, to create monuments which helped define a national French identity. The building does, after all, engage with a specifically French architectural lineage. The Pavillon is completed in the Louis style of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, although it also mixes elements from Renaissance architecture as well.[22] That the Pavillon was intended as a monument of national pride is also evidenced by its inclusion in a government initiative to document state buildings. In 1851, the French government’s Historic Monuments Commission selected Edouard Baldus to photograph thegreen image 4 Pavillon Richelieu for a series documenting the nation’s historic and contemporary architectural achievements. The photograph, reproducing the building’s façade in sharp clarity, captures the majesty of the state-funded building.[23]

Right: Visconti and Lufuel’s Pavillon Richelieu at the Louvre (1853-1881), photographed by Edouard Baldus (1856-7) [24]

The use of the cast-iron frame especially provided an ideal solution to the various impulses guiding French architects. On the one hand, it allowed designers to adhere to preciously-held notions of Classical monumentality; the use of a frame concealed the utilitarian iron and kept visible only the suitable cut-stone material.[25] At the same time, the iron frame satisfied France’s strong nationalist urge and brought its construction up to speed with the ever-rapid pace of the Industrial Revolution. The use of a frame allowed for edifices to be erected on grander scales with more expansive spaces. Additionally, the use of the frame allowed for projects to be completed on a shorter schedule than in the past. The industrial opportunity for pre-fabrication allowed for building components to be made off-site and then erected on-site by crews of workers specifically trained to perform this function. These were conducive to France’s rising sense of national pride, and indeed, we see during the second half of green image 5the century a wealth of quintessentially metropolitan XIXe siècle landmarks appear throughout the city.

Left: Charles Garnier’s Palais Garnier (1861-1874) [26]

One example of many is Garnier’s opera house, commissioned by Napoleon III. The Palais’s vertical façade has a stately presence, stolid in its almost stout stature. The composition of the façade adheres to the classical principles of balance, and hierarchy of architectural orders. Its strong and visually stable rectangular form conveys a sense of visual strength and stability. Its iron framework is hardly discernible through the traditionally stone-clad façade. Structurally, it incorporates staples of antiquity, replete with Corinthian columns, arched entryways, and balustrades lining the balconies.

However, these elements interplay with distinctly more updated features. The spatial proportions, though Classically ordered, are embellished; the opportunity afforded by the iron frame to build more openly is apparent in the large interior theater space, as well as the equal size of the entryways on the first floor and the windows on thegreen image 7 second. And yet, the massive, column-free space of the music hall is barely expressed on the exterior by the partial dome element that sits atop and in front of the roof pediment of the building. The open spaces seem almost magnified. Despite such exaggerations, the façade remains balanced. The luxuriant roof, replete with gilded statuary and a polychromatic copper-clad dome, is anticipated by more subtle variants below it, such as the polychrome masonry or the golden capitals on the columns in the second-level windows. At the turn of the century, an abundance of such era-defining structures are erected throughout Paris.

Right: The setting of the iron foundation of the Palais Garnier (1865) [27]

Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace

Beaux Arts Classicism and the advent of prefabricated iron had a strong bearing on architecture in other major countries undergoing rapid industrialization in the nineteenth century. A dramatic exemplar of the Beaux Arts style in England manifests itself in Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace. Greenhouses were initially developed by landscape architects for growing exotic plants in northern climates. These constructions were designed using glass and iron with the specific intent to maximize heat. green image 8.jpgSelected as the winning design for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London,[28] Paxton’s plan called for a conservatory built entirely out of prefabricated materials.

Left: Scene during construction of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace (1850-51) [30]

The iron columns and trusses, as well as the glass walls and roofs, were mass manufactured off-site over the course of six months. The building was built over the course of an additional six months. After columns were set on concrete footings, trusses were fastened in place, and glass walls and roofs were eased into their grooves. The Crystal Palace was a marvel of industrial ingenuity. The iron and glass, for example, retained heat and light so effectively that cheesecloth had to be draped on the walls to reduce glare. As Dora P. Crouch summates in her discussion of Paxton’s greenhouse, “it seemed a new kind of space had been created—an indeterminate space that would become characteristic of the next century, a space whose inception and closure seemed totally arbitrary rather than determined by internal necessity.”[29]

Beaux Arts Architecture in the United States

It must be noted that Beaux Arts architecture, though respectful of its historic point of reference, operates in a markedly different way than the architecture preceding it. The edifices have a decidedly public program and utility. They do not serve religious functions like the opulent churches of seventeenth and eighteenth century France. Rather, they are funded by the French government and erected as symbols of national pride. This civic duty and usefulness is a hallmark of the French Beaux Arts style. It was this sense of public responsibility which came to be Grand_Central_Terminal_Exterior_42nd_St_at_Park_Ave Warren whetmoreembraced by another nation that has already embraced the economic engine of the Industrial Revolution, the United States.

Right: A familiar American Beaux Arts landmark, New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, (1913)

The influence of French Beaux Arts bore heavily on American architecture between the 1880s and the First World War. The style was edifying to the United States. The manufacture of iron and the opportunity to fabricate the iron frame married with the established architectural language of classicism was a perfect fit for the young and rapidly growing nation that sought a traditional and exuberant architectural form to reflect its burgeoning prestige in the world order.

A great number of American architects attended the École in the nineteenth century. The first of these is generally understood to be Richard Morris Hunt, who enrolled in 1846.[31]  The program at the Beaux Arts school instructed Hunt and other American architects how to organize the working plan of a building. Through rigorous exercises, students were required to swiftly assess the essential parts of building plans and logically distribute them along circulation spines. The final presentation drawings, generally composed for submissions in competitions, required meticulous coloring and detail.

Camille Pissarro, Rue de l’Opera (1898). The above-noted Palais Garnier, or Paris Opera House, is in the distance

Although the École’s emphasis on technical skill and presentation focused primarily on individual buildings, many students would go on to apply the school’s planning and architectural principles to the city as a whole. Such was the case of Charles Follen McKim, of the prominent turn-of-the-century American firm McKim, Mead & White. McKim undoubtedly absorbed the École’s emphasis on architectural order and organization, attuned to its basic principles of logical planning, precise detail, and exaggerated scale. However, McKim also benefitted from living in Paris during the especially fertile architectural period of the late nineteenth century. McKim returned to the United States in 1870 at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War which would ravage much of the city. However, during his time in Paris, he witnessed the mass renovations occurring under the direction of Baron Haussmann.[32] Haussmann transformed the city during the Second Empire, organizing its twisting roads into a rational grid, and replacing them with broader streets accentuated by greenery and promenades.[33][34] Witness to this reformation, McKim returned to the States with a heightened sensitivity to the problems of organizing a city and establishing a new urban order.[35]

The prolific output of McKim, Mead & White in the early twentieth century serves as a useful corollary for the general direction and progression of the Beaux Arts influence in the States. Apparent in the firm’s work is not only a carefully considered composition, but also an awareness of how architecture should interact with the urban environment. The firm’s work on the Boston Public Library McKim Building (right, 1895 [37]) shows such acuity to the dynamics of architecture’s relationship to its environment. The entrance of the library itself is carefully designed in consideration of its location in a busy area of Boston. A preliminary aerial sketch of Copley Square where the library was to be built reveals a deliberate examination of the location by the designers. The building’s strong presence and its large, stately, and monumental features are meant to encourage visitors to fill the space of the library. The edifice is domineering, completed in a white stone Renaissance revival style, and dominating an entire side of Copley Square. The triple-arched front entrance draws visitors into a loggia containing a large staircase, replete with groups of sculptures and lamp clusters. The immense details draw visitors inside. Much of the firm’s work reflects this consciousness of public space.[36]

McKim, Mead & White’s careful consideration of urban planning is indicative of the nuanced relationship between Beaux Arts architecture and the American cities which it pervaded at the turn of the century. The ubiquity of the style among major American cities and its civic structures into the twentieth century is significant. In his discussion of McKim, Mead & White, architectural historian Leland Roth states that the firm’s work “persuaded a growing number of architects” and that the “use of such classicism spread until… by the time of Mead’s death in 1928, there was virtually no village or town in the United States that could not boast of a bank or courthouse in some variant of the theme.”[38] The prevalence of Beaux Arts architecture in the United States reflects an effort to engage civic structures in a Classical tradition tempered not only by the new technologies brought on by the Industrial Revolution, but also the new prosperity that it spawned. This is particularly evident in the adoption of the Beaux Arts style for the design of the homes and mansions of the wealthy in major American cities.

A report prepared by the Landmarks Preservation Commission on the E. Hayward and Amelia Parsons Ferry House provides illuminating insight on how Beaux Arts-influenced architecture developed with and invigorated what is now an iconic and wealthy area in New York City.[39] Remodeled in 1907-1908 by architect Harry Allan Jacobs for investment banker Isaac Seligman, the home was long occupied by the banker E. Hayward Ferry and his wife Amelia Parsons Ferry. green image 11.jpg.pngThe house is located on West 56th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, a location with a historical legacy of gentrification and occupation by the wealthy, especially in the post-Civil War boom. The increasing number of private homes being built and inhabited in this area was parallel to the implementation of various civic and institutional building projects at the time, most notably the planning and construction of Central Park between the 1850s and 1860s, and the monumental Grand Army Plaza entrance built on Fifth Avenue.

Left: Hayward and Amelia Parsons Ferry House façade, remodeled by Harry Allan Jacobs (1907-1908) [40]

Jacobs was heavily influenced by the French Beaux Arts style in his design for the remodel. The façade of the building is defined by its simplicity and emphasis on planar wall surface, and inclusion of Classical details. The subtly arranged solids and voids and carefully proportioned dimensions are refined by details such as the elegantly carved lion’s head above the door, the colossal pilasters which frame the façade’s midsection, and the cornice and balustrade topping the third story. Additionally, the mansard roof enhances the design’s French character. The historic building’s architecture aspires to a dignified luxury, signifying at once wealth, prosperity, and elegance, at a pivotal, particularly charged time in American history. The building is an informative and beautiful glimpse into New York history. It nods to a more refined period of wealth and civic awareness in American history, especially in the context of its current midtown location amidst towering urban skyscrapers.


The Beaux Arts style balanced an awareness of historical precedents with an integration of advancements in nineteenth-century technology. Responding with nuance to the Classical tradition in which it was steeped as well as the industrial innovations of its time, this architecture ushered in a new urban era at the turn of the century. Afforded the opportunity for rapid, grand-scale construction by the advent of the iron frame, Beaux Arts came to define nations under reform with civic identities and Classical monumentality. However, edifices constructed in this style did not boast a Classical flourish for its own sake. Rather, they were designed with an attuned consciousness to the problem of establishing an urban order in the rapidly changing industrial city. By the early twentieth century, this architecture was used not only in government and state buildings, but became increasingly employed in urban mansions and townhouses. Ubiquitous by the early twentieth century in France and the United States, the Beaux Arts style filled the urban landscape with buildings which gave Classical grace to industrial forms.

By Eldis Sula, Contributing Writer © BiLLY BoY Enterprises

Eldis Sula is a researcher at BiLLY BoY Enterprises, the division of William Green Architecture, PLLC, focusing on their own, self-generated creative projects. They frequently develop research reports that pertain to their architectural projects, but also develop research reports on unrelated topics that inspire them to want to know more. Read more at:

Read Maia Dickinson’s article in this series on the architecture of private men’s clubs at:



NEW YORK, NY 10011

T 212 924 2828


[1] Donald Drew Egbert, The Beaux Arts Tradition in French Architecture: Illustrated by the Grands Prix de Rome (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 40.

[2] Ibid., 36.

[3] Ibid., 40.

[4] Ibid., 42-3.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 45.

[7] Frank D. Prager and Gustina Scaglia, Brunelleschi: Studies of His Technology and Inventions (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004), 60.

[8] Rendering based on Filippo Brunelleschi’s drawing (1420-1434) for dome on Florence’s Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore. Image: National Geographic Magazine (February, 2014). Art: Fernando G. Baptista, Daniela Santamarina, Matthew Twombly and Elizabeth Snodgrass, NGM Staff; Kirsten Huntley; Fanna Gebreyesus; Margaret NG. Text: A. R. Williams, NGM Staff. Sources: Rowland Mainstone; Riccardo Dalla Negra, University of Ferrara, Italy; Massimo Ricci, Forum UNESCO—University and Heritage, Polytechnic University of Valencia, Spain; Francesco Gurrieri, University of Florence. SEE INTERACTIVE VERSION OF THIS IMAGE AT:

[9] Egbert, 45.

[10] Ibid., 42-3.

[11] Ibid., 51.

[12] Ibid., 62.

[13] Ibid., 44.

[14] Ibid.

[15], February 10, 2014,–_.jpg.

[16] Bertrand Lemoine, “Labrouste and Iron,” in Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light, eds. Corinne Bélier et al. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2013), 185.

[17] Ibid., 185-8.

[18] Wikimedia Commons, February 10, 2014,

[19] Egbert, 59.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Barry Bergdoll, European Architecture: 1750-1890 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 247-8.

[22] Egbert, 60.

[23] “Edouard Baldus, ‘Pavillon Richelieu,’” V&A Home, February 10, 2014,

[24] Edouard Baldus, “Pavillon Richelieu, Louvre,” V&A Home, February 10, 2014,

[25] Egbert, 44.

[26] Open Buildings, February 11, 2014,

[27] WordPress, February 11, 2014,

[28] Nigel R. Jones, Architecture of England, Scotland, and Wales (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 90.

[29] Dora P. Crouch, History of Architecture: Stonehenge to Skyscraper (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1985), 269.

[30] Ibid., 272.

[31] Marcus Whiffen and Frederick Koeper, American Architecture, vol. 2, 1860-1976 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981), 11.

[32] Leland Roth, “McKim, Mead & White,” A Monograph of the Works of McKim, Mead & White: 1879-1915 (New York: Arno Press, 1977), 14.

[33] Bergdoll, 248-51.

[34] Whiffen and Koeper, 14.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., 47.

[37] “McKim Building, Copley Square, Boston, 2005,” Wikipedia, February 11, 2014,

[38] Roth, 12.

[39] Landmarks Preservation Commission, E. Hayward and Amelia Parsons Ferry House, by Gale Harris, LP-2330 (New York: Landmarks Preservation Commission, November 10, 2009),

[40] Ibid.

Leave a Reply

This blog is kept spam free by WP-SpamFree.