For many St. Louisans, the Saint Louis Art Museum in Forest Park is their single-most favorite public structure. Designed in the Beaux-Arts style and sited on a majestic hill that overlooks the Great Lagoon, the building is arguably the finest example of Classic Revival architecture in St. Louis.
The Art Museum and Festival Hall (both designed for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904), as well as the St. Louis Public Library’s Central Library are the work of architect Cass Gilbert, who, were he still alive, would likely be the equivalent of today’s ‘star-chitect.’ When he was chosen as the winner of the architectural competition for the St. Louis Public Library, Gilbert was among the nation's most famous architects and responsible for designing some of its greatest structures, including New York City’s Woolworth Building, which, at the time, was the tallest building in the world and still is considered by many as the most beautiful skyscraper ever built.
“Gilbert had a 50-year architectural career from 1883 to 1934, so he was active through a period of the nation’s history in which key cultural, governmental, and commercial buildings were needed,” explains Sharon Irish, author of Cass Gilbert, Architect: Modern Traditionalist, and a lecturer in the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “Gilbert was a consummate networker and manager of people. While he kept tight control over his building designs, he delegated tasks to talented people who worked for and with him,” Irish notes. “Due to Gilbert’s management style and eclectic aesthetic, he could compete for large projects and frequently win commissions because he understood what the clients wanted and could consistently deliver high-quality designs.”
Gilbert practiced architecture in Minnesota for almost 20 years before moving to New York City. He retained a strong presence in the Midwest, as well as national connections through his railroad clients that were reflected in his firm’s commissions.
“During that first decade of the 20th century, Gilbert’s office was finishing up the Minnesota State Capitol and working in New Jersey, Montana, Wisconsin, Connecticut and Massachusetts on libraries, banks, clubs, schools, courthouses and railroad stations, as well as spearheading major projects in St. Louis and New York,” Irish says. “While opening the St. Louis Public Library in 1912, his firm was overseeing two other public libraries, a hotel, and the Woolworth Building, among others. The St. Louis commission continued Gilbert’s productive movement between scales and building types--from commercial skyscrapers to civic structures and back--that characterized his whole career.”
Although he was adept at designing buildings in the Beaux-Arts style, Gilbert was not trained at the Paris-based Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Rather, he apprenticed with an architect in St. Paul, worked as a surveyor, traveled for a few months in Europe, and studied for one year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the late 1870s, which was not an unusual trajectory for a late 19th-century architect.
“MIT taught the Beaux-Arts system of design—starting with the plan and carefully controlling the interior spaces according to the type or function of a building—so Gilbert was familiar with it,” Irish explains. “In terms of stylistic details—Gothic pointed arches, or arcaded Renaissance entries, for instance—the Beaux-Arts was eclectic in using a range of historic forms. In that sense, Gilbert was eclectic because he, too, selected historical motifs depending on the site, function and client of the building.”
Although Gilbert’s initial tour of Europe occurred in the 1870s, he returned to England, France, Germany and Italy repeatedly throughout his career. “Often, he would study moldings, column bases or a particular stairway at certain buildings in order to adapt them for a design he was working on,” Irish says. “Certainly, Medieval and Renaissance formal precedents in Europe were crucial sources for Gilbert; he also studied the use of materials there--stone, brick and decorative arts.”
Indeed, Gilbert’s architectural legacy in St. Louis not only is among the city’s greatest civic treasures; it also is one of the clearest illustrations of the city’s ties to the great European architectural traditions.