What is Beaux-Arts Architecture?

Unsurprisingly, Paris is one of the world’s top architectural influences. Since its beginnings, the city has been a pioneer in various fields, including fashion, art, and music. The dramatic architecture of the Beaux-Arts movement dates to France in the 19th century. This architectural style is known for its luxury and panoramic flair. This form of architecture has a lot more going on beneath the surface. Beaux-Arts Architecture is one of the best architectural styles to come out of Paris. Beaux-Arts is refined, sophisticated, and dazzling in the reverse of minimalistic simplicity and practicality. Several NYC buildings bear homage to a Parisian architectural style. The Beaux-Arts architecture was a trademark of the Gilded Age, a time of prosperity and grandeur. Rockefellers, Astors, and Vanderbilts commissioned Beaux-Arts buildings to flaunt their riches and influence. Their palaces and public buildings are among NYC’s most iconic. Let’s investigate its history, defining qualities, and well-known U.S. and international examples.

What are Beaux-Arts in Architecture?

Maximalism may come to mind when imagining Beaux-Arts architecture. Beaux-Arts developed a type of architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where the ideas of this popular late 19th and early 20th-century architectural style were first taught. Also called Classical Revival, it is an eclectic variation of Neo-classicism. This style combines Rome, Greece, and Renaissance architecture. For added class, gothic and orthodox aspects have been altered over time. Beaux-Arts structures mixed columns and symmetry with eclectic and decorative elements from other historical styles. 

Beaux-Arts Architecture was a French national style, but it became popular in the U.S. and other places. Although Beaux-Arts residences are unusual in the U.S., in big-city neighborhoods, you’ll find Beaux-Arts-style museums, opera theaters, post offices, banks, courthouses, libraries, railway stations, palaces, and government buildings. These magnificent public buildings draw attention and intrigue because they are grand, plentiful, and theatrical. Beaux-Arts are also known as Academic Classicism, American Renaissance, or Beaux-Arts Classicism, which became famous for European government and institutional structures. The U.S. Beaux-Arts became a defining design for affluent private residences in Newport, Rhode Island. 

Beaux-Arts architecture is renowned worldwide. Beaux-Arts buildings are everywhere in Chicago, New York, and Washington D.C. Most Beaux-Arts buildings in these U.S. cities are open to the public as tourist attractions.

The Beautiful History of Beaux Architecture

France’s Beaux-Arts architecture emerged throughout the 1700s and 1800s. This style arose from the Neo-classicism of the French School of Fine Arts, where many famous architects studied. The neo-classical architecture was inspired by ancient Rome and Greece, which valued formal, maximalist styles. The movement later became Beaux-Arts architecture. Beaux-Arts architecture extended to the U.S. during the Gilded Age, thanks to Richard Morris, H.H. Richardson, and Charles McKim, who studied at the Beaux-Arts school in Paris. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago popularized the style with a massive Beaux-Arts prototype.

The architects, who were among the first to bring the style to America, rubbed elbows with the elites of their day and helped promote it among the city’s rising rich. McKim would later combine with architects William Rutherford Mead and Stanford White to form the famed McKim, Mead, and White firm. The firm specialized in immense, extravagant structures and helped beautify New York City, competing with Paris and other European towns. McKim, Mead, and White designed several Beaux-Arts structures and monuments. Some of their designs are the Washington Square Arch, the Morgan Library and Museum, and Penn Station, with its marble colonnades and Romanesque arches. New York City built many Beaux-Arts buildings between 1870 and 1920.

The world saw rapid industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this time, the U.S. became an empire, and American architecture became licensed after the Civil War. Beaux-Arts architecture gained popularity during this era. With its magnificent style, Beaux-Arts architecture was reserved for the elite and found in metropolitan neighborhoods where the rich and famous wished to make a statement. When Beaux-Arts architecture arrived in the U.S., it was fashionable, but only briefly. However, Beaux-Arts architecture became overdone, out of touch, and outmoded during the Great Depression, and its appeal waned after 1930. Despite the crisis brought by the Great Depression, Beaux-Arts buildings remain valued relics of a glittering era in major cities. This style contributed to the renowned American Dream suburbs with enormous, ornately constructed homes and vast gardens. Due to their stately appearance, these structures were more popular as museums, palaces, and government buildings.

Distinctive Features of Beaux Architecture

Beaux-Arts architecture is easy to detect but hard to define. Architecture isn’t a mood or a detail. No matter how real that may appear, it’s more complicated. It’s a collection of more information that builds art. Here are several elements that help identify Beaux-Arts architecture.

  1. A Touch of Classic Greek Element and Italian Character. This architecture requires Greek or Roman components. Classic architecture has Greek influences because Greeks and Romans practically started everything. The buildings were initially seen in France, although their foundations were Greek. You’ll notice a Greek color scheme and Roman elements. You’ll also notice a flair uncommon in Greek architecture, an Italian influence. Italian individuality and character are essential parts of Beaux-Arts architecture.
  2. Use of Natural Materials or Nature-inspired Concepts. Before synthetic materials, people built with natural materials. Beaux-Arts Architecture has magnificent marbles, stones, and plaster. Because of the influences, it’s impossible to find greater plasterwork elsewhere.
  3. Prominent Triangles. Beaux-Arts architecture is predominantly triangular. Angles produce triangles without trying. Low pitches on this building generate gentle triangles. This is one of many Beaux-Arts characteristics that go unseen but are easy to spot.
  4. Stately Grand Entrance and Imperial Staircase. Beaux-Arts architecture has majestic entrances and an imperial staircase. Homes and structures are raised a few feet off the ground. Doorways and foundations are generally elevated. Large, ornamented doors are standard. Beaux-Arts architecture values first impressions. It’s about displaying the owners’ affluence and artistic sense.
  5. Formal Symmetry. Beaux-Arts architecture is symmetrical. Beaux-Arts architecture is balanced. It may have diverse elements, but it won’t sacrifice symmetry.
  6. Dominantly Visible Arches. Beaux-Arts Architecture always has arched doors and windows. It’s not a must, but it’s a defining trait. 
  7. Spacious Gardens and Courtyards. Most Beaux-Arts buildings have gardens or courtyards. The front yard generally has Greek or Italian fountains and statues, and a few tiny trees may be nearby. The courtyard is a feature, but visitors should focus on the building.
  8. Weatherproof Flat roof. Before roofs were weatherproofed, flat roofs were the norm. Stone and plaster were utilized to build lighter roofs, and flat roofs are accented with domes. Beaux-Arts structures have level roofs and little slopes or slants.
  9. Intimidating Gargoyles. Great Beaux-Arts architecture features statues and people. Gargoyles and busts are examples those Beaux-Arts buildings often have. Gargoyles scare off predators and “ghosts” and serve as a scarecrow of the entire structure.
  10. They are made of Two or More Floors. Beaux-Arts buildings must have two floors or more than two. Few have as many stories as an apartment complex. They can be two to five floors making them classy and outstanding. Each floor can be fully adorned without cutting costs to adding more.

Famous Buildings that embody the Beaux-Arts Style

  1. The Grand Central Terminal. Grand Central Terminal, a Beaux-Arts structure in New York City, is a well-known landmark. Some of New York’s best architects and the city’s architectural community look up to this monument since it’s stunning on the inside and out.
  2. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building. This was built in 1897 to hold the Library of Congress’s colossal collection of volumes, purchased by Congress in the early 1800s when the Library of Congress was created. The Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C., is a prime example of Beaux-Arts architecture. The stunning Paris Opera Garnier served as an inspiration for the design of this classical Beaux-Arts structure.
  3. The Art Institute of Chicago. Located in classical Beaux-Arts architecture constructed by the Boston architectural firm Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge, the Art Institute of Chicago first opened its doors to the public in 1893.
  4. The Musée D’Orsay. The Musée D’Orsay in Paris, a former Beaux-Arts train station, has been transformed into a top-rated museum of world-class art. On July 14th, 1900, the Paris Exposition World Fair’s train station was inaugurated during the event.

After being designated a historical monument in 1978, the disused train station was restored as a museum in 1986 to display French art from the late 19th century to the early 20th century.

  1. Grand Palais. The Avenue des Champs-Elysées in Paris is home to the Grand Palais, a significant museum, exhibition space, and events venue erected for the 1900 Paris Exposition 1897 and 1900. On its 100th anniversary, the stone, steel, and glass Beaux-Arts structure was designated a historical monument.

Delve deeper into New York’s architectural story with our latest post on the iconic Beaux-Arts style in the city’s public buildings