What do the U.S. Supreme Court building, the Woolworth Building, the State Capital buildings in Arkansas, Minnesota and West Virginia and The Saint Louis Art Museum and Library have in common? They were all designed by noted architect Cass Gilbert (1859-1934).
Gilbert had a very diverse life. Born in Zanesville, Ohio, he and his family moved to St. Paul, Minn., when he was 9, one of three boys raised by his mother after his father died. He dropped out of Macalester College at age 17 to work in the office as an apprentice draftsman of Abraham M. Radcliffe. At the age of 19 he enrolled in the architecture program at MIT. After his first year, wanderlust took over, and he headed off to Europe for a grand tour with $420 in his pocket earned as a surveyor that summer. Not being able to secure an architectural job in London, he returned to New York City and was fortunate enough to become Stanford White’s assistant at the extremely successful and prominent firm of McKim, Mead and White. In 1882 he returned to Minnesota, representing that firm, and began his successful architectural career in the Midwest. His mother was extremely well-connected socially, so he was able to secure several high-end residential commissions that by all expectations would not have been available to a man of his age.
St. Louis was the recipient of his talents for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The Palace of Fine Arts, now commonly known as The Saint Louis Art Museum, was the only permanent building built for this fair and stands today as a testament to Beaux Arts Architecture. Another testament to Gilbert’s talents as an architect is his thoughtful consideration of how people move and flow through the building, since it is a museum space. David Chipperfield, who is the architect for the new addition proposed to this early 20th century building, has incorporated Gilbert’s philosophy in the flow of the future finished project.
In 1912 St. Louis once again was fortunate to benefit from Gilbert’s design acumen, this time for the St. Louis Public Library. The fact sheet for the library states it best: The main library for the city’s public library system, in a severe classicizing style, has an oval central pavilion surrounded by four light courts. The outer facades of the freestanding building are of lightly rusticated Maine granite. The Olive Street front is disposed like a colossal arcade, with contrasting marble bas-relief panels. A projecting three-bay central block, like a pared down triumphal arch, provides a monumental entrance. This building, too, is about to go through a major restoration, along with some up-to-the-date technology. Both of these examples prove that ‘good design lasts forever.’