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Richard Morris Hunt Photo

Richard Morris Hunt

American Architect

Born: October 31, 1827 - Brattleboro, Vermont
Died: July 31, 1895 - Newport, Rhode Island
Movements and Styles:
Beaux Arts Architecture
Gothic Revival
"You have not got long to live, you won't live half long enough to be a really accomplished architect. You have got to work at day, and you have got to work at night. When you wake up at night, you have got to think about it."
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Richard Morris Hunt
"It's your clients' money you're spending. Your business is to get the best results you can, following their wishes. If they want you to build a house upside down, standing on its chimney, it is up to you to do it and still get the best possible result."
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Richard Morris Hunt
"We should be most conscientious in our endeavors to faithfully serve the interests of our clients to the best of our ability; to do so even should it at times be necessary to sacrifice some of our artistic preferences."
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Richard Morris Hunt
"If you can't draw anything else, draw your boots, it doesn't matter, it will ultimately give you a control of your pencil so that you can the more rapidly express on paper your thoughts in designing. The greater facility you have in expressing these thought the freer and better your designs will be."
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Richard Morris Hunt

Summary of Richard Morris Hunt

Hunt is widely credited with transforming American architectural design into a venerable artistic profession. Working with the monied classes of America's so-called "Gilded Age", he emerged as the most recognized architect in America on the back of a number of extravagant residential mansions. But Hunt, who was happy to adapt his style to suit the preferences of his patrons, proved to be a highly adaptable designer and was a pioneer across a range of less ostentatious styles including the picturesque - or "stick-style" - villa, the apartment house, the municipal building, and the national monument. Referred to by his peers as the "Dean of American Architecture", Hunt was also a key figure in the advancement in architectural education and was a co-founder of the American Institute of Architects.


  • Hunt's most ostentatious and resplendent structures were based on the lavish French Beaux-Arts and Renaissance designs and were renowned for the richness of materials, and the creativity of their design. His best known (and, for many modern critics, most tasteless) residential mansion, such as The Biltmore Estate (thought at the time to be the largest private residence in America) and The Breakers, were set in vast grounds decorated with classical sculptures and featuring sprawling terraces and arcades perfectly suited to outdoor dinner parties, balls and other high-society events.
  • Throughout his later career Hunt worked on designs for several memorial monuments and public buildings, most notably the base for The Statute of Liberty and the Fifth Avenue entrance to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. To these (and others like it), Hunt brought a variety of classical columns and arches. The prestige of these commissions was such that they symbolized, in the words of Curator Morrison H. Heckscher, "the ultimate triumph of French classicism over the English High Victorian Gothic that had dominated American public buildings during the 1860s and 1870s".
  • Hunt designed what was known as the "Stuyvesant Apartment" building. It was a five story multi-resident block and, based on the model of "French flats", the Stuyvesant was considered a first of its kind in America and gave rise to the style that became known as the "apartment house". The façade of the apartment house was (as the name suggests) designed to look like a row of houses, while the apartments themselves were affordable and especially popular with young couples who were just starting out on building a family.
  • Bringing his European training to bear, Hunt was one of the pioneering figures in the development of the architectural profession in America. As a key figure in the newly formed American Institute of Architects (AIA), he helped set new precedents for architectural education that moved it beyond the apprentice system by establishing a set of stylistic, technical, intellectual and professional principles. The AIA put in place the foundations for the first academic architectural training programs that would spread throughout America.
  • By way of contrast to his excessive Beaux-Arts designs, Hunt produced several "stick-style" domestic wooden residences featuring pointed roofs, gables and decorative wooden frames. Based on the model of the Swiss chalet, Hunt's cottage designs brought a distinctive look to Newport and enhanced its status as summer resort. Hunt had inadvertently initiated a style that became known amongst American's as the Colonial Revival style.

Biography of Richard Morris Hunt

Portrait of Richard Morris Hunt painted by Thomas Couture sometime between 1844 and 1855.

In order the reach highest professional standards in architecture, Hunt told his peers: we "must be most conscientious in our endeavors to faithfully serve the interests of our clients to the best of our ability", and to apply that value, "even should it at times be necessary to sacrifice some of our artistic preferences".

Important Art by Richard Morris Hunt

Progression of Art
Studio Building, 51 West Tenth Street (1857)

Studio Building, 51 West Tenth Street

One of Hunt's earliest jobs, the building effectively launched his career. He received the commission from James and John Johnston who wanted to create a space dedicated to artists and their work. Hunt biographer Paul R. Baker explains how "the dramatic fenestration, the huge recessed studio windows extending almost from floor to ceiling [....] The four small balconies, with elaborate black iron grillwork, the first-story brickwork panels, with decorative circles set in square frames, the brick piers topped with Greek crosses, and the boldly defined entrance surmounted by a triangular pediment and the word "Studios" chiseled directly above the door all made for an interesting play of surface elements ". The interior of the building was equally impressive as it consisted of twenty-five large studio spaces some with adjoining rooms that were to serve as bedrooms, and a large exhibition room for communal use. It was the first building of its kind in New York City.

Baker explains, "the Studio Building was an immediate success. The first tenants, including some of the best-known painters of the day, moved into the building early in 1858 [...] Many of the painters were members of the National Academy of Design, and for years works by tenants of the Studio Building dominated the exhibitions of the Academy ". Among the artist residences were Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Church, William M. Hart, Winslow Homer, and Emanuel Leutze. Hunt himself was so taken by the finished building he rented a studio on the third floor shortly after the building opened and remained there until 1870. Sadly, the building was demolished in the 1950s.

New York, New York

J.N.A. Griswold House (1863-64)

J.N.A. Griswold House

Griswold House is an elaborate domestic wooden residence featuring pointed roofs, gables and a decorative, partially exposed, wooden frame. As professor Sarah Bradford Landau explains, Hunt was "inspired by the contemporary revival in Germany and France of half-timber houses, the Swiss chalet, and other vernacular styles of wood architecture ". One can see that here in Hunt's use of the "stick style" which became popular in both America and Europe at the time and is evident in the overall verticality of the house's design features and visible frame elements.

His first commission for a project in Newport, Hunt was hired to build a summer residence for the wealthy merchant John Griswold. This house marked the start of a series of cottages designed by Hunt which energized and elevated the look of Newport and its reputation as a summer resort area. Landau cites the architect Alfred Janson Bloor who stated "in Newport Hunt was one of the first to invest comparatively inexpensive cottages and villas with some of the attributes of an indigenous and coherent art [....] Bloor rightly credits Hunt with having stimulated a new development in American domestic architecture, a development that would culminate in the vernacular expression known as the Colonial Revival ". The Griswold house marked the first of several elaborate residences he would design for clients in Newport, although in later years, he would move away from the cottage "stick style" and favor more ornate, decorative and sculptural structures.

Newport, Rhode Island

Stuyvesant Apartments (1869-70)

Stuyvesant Apartments

Hunt's elaborate multi-resident building, known as the Stuyvesant Apartments an impressive five stories. Aesthetically pleasing the buildings front façade, according to Landau, was deliberately designed, "as if to suggest the parlor floor of the New York row house, the second-story windows were longer than those of the other floors [...] Partition walls, visible on the roof, as well as the pattern of the fenestration of the floor immediately below the roofline contributed to the impression of a row of houses ".

Groundbreaking in its design, the Stuyvesant was one of the first apartment buildings built in America. In describing the legacy of this project, Landau states, "it was probably the first American building to be called an apartment house, and was certainly the first to be recognized as such; and it did stimulate the building of 'French flats' (the popular term in New York for the apartment house) in the 1870s ". The building was positively received by the public and according to Baker, even "before the Stuyvesant Apartments were finished, several prominent people had subscribed for flats there, many of them young couples with small families who considered the apartments particularly suited to their needs ". In this way, the apartment building owed its origins in no small part to Hunt's architectural vision.

New York, New York

Tribune Building (1875)

Tribune Building

At the time of construction, Hunt's New York Tribune Building was one of the tallest structures in the city, and at ten stories high, is considered one of the first skyscrapers. In praising the structure, Baker described how, standing on its "well-defined base of light-colored granite", Hunt had designed "walls faced with deep red Baltimore brick with geometrical designs in black, white, and red brick, and the windows, the cornices, and the tower trimmed with the same light-colored granite". He adds that "The tower rising over the main entrance was corbeled on piers from the upper part of the fourth-story level and was a sharply defined unit, narrower than the other three triply fenestrated bays ".

An important early commission, this building served as the headquarters for the New York Tribune newspaper, and is one of the many commercial projects Hunt was involved in during his career. While today he is remembered largely as a classical architect, the Tribune Building shows that he was open to the influences of modernism. According to Landau, indeed, "several [parts] of the Tribune Building's construction were decidedly avant-garde. These include the composition of its concrete-bedded foundation, the structure of its giant relieving arches (seen in the first and fourth stories), and its fireproof floor construction ".

New York, New York

William K. Vanderbilt House (1878-82)

William K. Vanderbilt House

Hailed on its completion as, "the architectural masterpiece of Manhattan's Fifth Avenue", Hunt's Vanderbilt House gave rise to a new demand for French Renaissance "châteauesque" style residences across America. Built of gray limestone, the Vanderbilt House was elaborately decorated with exterior flourishes including copper trim work, rounded arches, pointed peaks above the top floor windows, a balcony over the doorway, and a tourelle topped with a pointed cylindrical roof. The interior was equally ornate with a banquet hall featuring a long fireplace with marble carved sculptures by artist Karl Theodore Bitter, and a long stained glass window depicting Kings Francis I and Henry VIII.

Vanderbilt was a patron of Hunt's and the architect had already completed other commissions for the family before he took this job to build a Manhattan townhouse for him and his wife, Ava. Hunt had a guiding philosophy for his work which was to place the wishes of his clients above his own ideals. He believed fervently that architects, "should be most conscientious in our endeavors to faithfully serve the interests of our clients to the best of our ability; to do so even should it at times be necessary to sacrifice some of our artistic preferences".

The Vanderbilt House was arguably the greatest of Hunt's residential commissions and it brought both him and his client great national attention. For Hunt specifically, it showed him as an architect with great panache and it led to several other residential commissions. According to Baker, "for several years this house was the most widely admired residence in New York City and, probably to a greater extent than any other American dwelling of the Gilded Age, set a goal for Americans of wealth and fashion to emulate. The mansion was opened to guests in March 1883, with a great housewarming costume ball, one of the most lavish parties of the time and an affair that established the preeminence of the Vanderbilts in New York society ".

New York, New York

Statue of Liberty National Monument (1886)

Statue of Liberty National Monument

A gift from the French government to the United States as a symbol of friendship, the Statue of Liberty (Liberty Enlightening the World to give it its original title) is a grand neoclassical sculpture of the Roman goddess standing with torch held high in her right hand, and a tablet inscribed with the date of America's independence in her left. In 1881, Hunt was selected by the American Committee of the Franco-American Union to serve as architect in chief on designing and building the pedestal on which Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and Gustave Eiffel's iconic 151 feet tall copper and steel sculpture would stand (Liberty's internal architecture was designed by Viollet-le-Duc, the French medievalist). Once she was stood atop Hunt's granite pedestal, for which he used unfussy Greek Doric columns so as not to distract from the majesty of Liberty herself, the structure stood at just over 300 feet.

During his career Hunt worked on designs for several memorial monuments with the Statue of Liberty being his most prestigious commission. Construction on the pedestal's foundation was completed in May of 1884 and then, piece by piece additional elements of the pedestal were built up from the base. This project was not without its problems, however. While there was a campaign to raise funds to build the pedestal, by fall of 1884 the committee had run out of money. The news mogul, Joseph Pulitzer, stepped in and launched a publicity campaign through his paper the New York World and over the next several months the remaining $100,000 was raised allowing Hunt to resume work in May of 1885. Through his participation in this symbolic project, Hunt was able to create something that united the two countries that had combined to shape his artistic vision.

Liberty Island, New York

Administration Building (1893)

Administration Building

Hunt received a significant honor late in his career when he was selected to lead the New York architects delegation at the prestigious World's Columbian Exposition. According to curator Lewis I. Sharp, "because of his supreme position in the field of American architecture, he was invited to design the Administration Building that was to stand at the end of the Court of Honor [...] Hunt's building, grand in scale and with a great central dome flanked by four square four-story pavilions, was nonetheless a classically reserved building ".

Hunt collaborated with Karl Theodore Bitter to create the sculpture for his building; a fact which underlines the importance Hunt placed on art and architectural designs. The series of figures Bitter designed were, according to Baker, intended to show "the evolution of man from barbarism to civilization[and were beautifully integrated with Hunt's architectural vision]. The repose of the lower figures accentuated the solidity of the architectural design, while the animation of the uppermost groups provided a transition from the vertical emphasis of the lower part of the building to the curved lines above, reinforcing the spring of the dome ".

In spite of declining health, Hunt diverted all his energies into the Exposition project and considered it one of his greatest personal achievements. The public it seems were in general agreement with the building becoming a hugely popular attraction amongst exposition attendees. According to Sharp, "out of the fair came a renewed stimulus to the American Beaux-Arts neoclassical revival and the 'City Beautiful' movement that was to dominate American urban planning for the next quarter century ".

World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago Illinois

The Breakers (1893-95)

The Breakers

Hunt's grandest structure, The Breakers was a three-story mansion featuring more than seventy rooms which served as a summer home for Cornelius Vanderbilt. According to Baker, "here in Newport, Hunt constructed the American equivalent of a Genoese seaside palace of the Renaissance. The dwelling was a summer place, and the loggias, terraces, and arcades for outdoor activities were made an integral part of the plan and the design. Moreover, with the high ceilings [...] and the very large rooms, some flowing one into another, the mansion, despite its balanced formality of design, was given an open and airy character, appropriate to summer living and summer weather conditions ". Hunt sacrificed some of his own ideas for the mansion to satisfy the owner's wishes, and while he preferred to design in the French Renaissance style, here he designed drawing inspiration from the Italian architecture of that period which was at the behest of the Vanderbilts.

While Hunt was in high demand amongst the millionaire elites, his lavish designs did little to enhance his wider reputation. According to Baker, "The Breakers provided richly ornate and theatrical settings for the lavish dinner parties, the costume balls, and the other entertainments that became so characteristic of fashionable society during the summer season in the years around the turn of the century" and yet "to many social critics [...] the extravagant display was simply appalling ".

Newport, Rhode Island

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue Entrance (1902)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue Entrance

In 1895 the trustees of The Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to an expansion on the east side (Fifth Avenue) of the building to allow for more space and to better accommodate their expanded collection. As one of its longtime benefactors - he had already served on its board and donated works to its collection - Hunt was given the commission for this extension. Baker states that "the interior of Hunt's Fifth Avenue wing is largely occupied by the grand entrance hall, some 166 feet in length, 48 feet in width, and two stories high" . Commenting on the exterior, meanwhile, he states that "The variety of architectural sculptural elements - the powerful columns, the jagged stone masses, the graceful arches, the portrait heads and the roof-edge masks, the convoluted caryatids, the rough-hewn base, the severe projecting triangular pediments over the lateral windows, the simple panels - gives the front an intrinsic interest ".

Sadly Hunt died having completed the designs but without seeing them realized. Upon his death there was disagreement amongst the trustees as to whether his son Richard Howland Hunt should take over as architect. As the terms of his will left the plans to Hunt's wife Catharine, however, she refused to release the designs to the museum unless her son could honor his father's memory. As Curator Morrison H. Heckscher states, "it was a building of superlatives: Hunt's last project and his most famous public building [...] It was, as the president of the Museum noted at the time of Hunt's death, his monument. Furthermore, the Museum building symbolized a number of things: the ultimate triumph of French classicism over the English High Victorian Gothic that had dominated American public buildings during the 1860s and 1870s, the acceptability of the placing of great museum buildings prominently in public parks, and the recognition, perhaps, that such large and complex buildings should only be designed by architects of the highest standing ".

New York, New York

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Richard Morris Hunt
Influenced by Artist
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    Samuel Darier
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    Hector Martin Lefuel
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    Karl Theodore Bitter
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    John Quincy Adams Ward
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Thomas Rossiter
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    James Lenox
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    George K. Vanderbilt
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    Frederick Law Olmsted
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    Henry Van Brunt
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    Frank Furness
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    William R. Ware
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    Charles Gambrill
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    Henry Louis Sullivan
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer
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    Charles Follen McKim
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    Richard Upjohn
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Richard Morris Hunt

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Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Richard Morris Hunt Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 14 Jul 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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