A Look at Beaux-Arts Architecture: Its History and Style

Beaux Arts combines the forms of Neoclassical, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture. Architects used this style to fashion commercial buildings and grand homes to reflect wealth and civic achievements. It was a popular building style in France from the 1830s until the early 20th century and later became prominent in the United States and parts of Europe.

The Beaux Arts style marked a period of prosperity brought about by the Industrial Age and remained popular until the economic decline of the Great Depression.

The Rise of Beaux Arts Architecture

Beaux-Arts Architecture: Its History and Style

Beaux Arts architecture originated in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, a prestigious French art school that taught painting, sculpture, and architecture. The school emphasized the principles of Neoclassicism.

Teachers within the academy campaigned to develop a French national style using the principles of Neoclassicism and elements from the architecture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. As a result, the blended architecture became the national style of France.

The Beaux Arts design peaked in France during the Second Empire and Third Republic periods.

Beaux Arts Debuts in the United States

Beaux Arts made its way to the United States and some parts of Europe through prominent American architects like Richard Morris Hunt and Henry Hobson Richardson. These men were the first architects to study in France.

Many architects from the United States followed in their footsteps and began popularizing the classical forms of the Beaux Arts style. Some famous Beaux-Arts architects and firms include McKim, Mead & White, John Russell Pope, and Cass Gilbert.

Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and its glorification of the City Beautiful movement advanced Beaux-Arts architecture in the US. The City Beautiful movement sought to uplift the human spirit with well-built urban spaces.

Architects used the Beaux Arts style to build grand public parks and buildings with order and balance. One of the most notable City Beautiful designs is the Civic Center complex in San Francisco.

The booming economic environment of the United States in the late 1890s created an environment suited for Beaux Arts style architecture. Historians call this period the Gilded Age in the United States, which followed the period of Reconstruction and lasted until the Great Depression.

Beaux-Art architecture suited the monumental and elaborate architecture of the Gilded Age. City planners and architects concentrated most of this architecture in the United States in major urban centers and resort communities for the wealthy.

Characteristics of Beaux Arts Architecture

Beaux Arts architecture features elements that set it apart from other styles for both the exterior facade and interior rooms.

Exterior Features

  • Symmetry – Symmetrical design and for placement of windows and doors
  • Grandeur – Large-scale buildings and homes, overscaled archways, and dramatic colonnades
  • Classical motifs – Use of columns, singular and groups, arches, pilasters, festoons, and cartouches
  • Roof – Flat roof with dynamic rooftop decorations like sculptures
  • Windows – Decorated windows and doors with pediments or arches
  • Surface decoration – Use of friezes, bas-relief sculpture with decorative garlands, shields, or floral patterns
  • Materials – Use of stone and brick with finishes in carved stone and plaster

Interior Features

  • Classical motifs – Use of classical motifs in interior rooms, including columns, pilasters, and arches
  • Decorated openings – Openings decorated with arches and pediments
  • Ceilings – Coffered ceilings
  • Elaborate materials – Use of luxurious materials like marble and carved wood in interior rooms
  • Lighting – Elaborate chandeliers
  • Layout – Rooms arranged in a symmetrical and formal style

Decline of the Beaux Arts Style

Beaux-Arts design fell out of favor in the United States during the 1920s due to changing tastes in architecture and new economic conditions.

Because of the Great Depression, there was less tax revenue and personal income to invest in new buildings. Also, many in the American public associated the Beaux Arts style with overindulgence and excess. New streamlined movements like the Art Deco style were more suited to modern tastes. The Art Deco movement utilized emerging technologies and materials and exhibited hope for the future.

Notable Beaux Arts Buildings

Notable examples of Beaux Arts buildings exist in Europe and the United States.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Richard Morris Hunt and his son, Richard Howland Hunt, designed the Fifth Avenue facade of the Metropolitan Museum in the Beaux Arts style. The symmetrical front features four dramatic sets of Corinthian columns separating three arched openings. A raised scalloped edge ornaments the flat roofline.

Pennsylvania Station, New York City

The prominent architecture firm McKim, Mead & White designed Pennsylvania Station and completed the building in 1910. The Beaux Arts station featured a colonnade with columns of the Doric order.

McKim, Mead & White also used St. Peter’s Basilica as an inspiration for the design with a large central dome. Penn Station had the largest interior area in New York City, with expansive waiting rooms the architects modeled on Roman bathhouses.

Grand Palais, Paris

The Grand Palais in Paris is an exhibition hall and museum on the Champs-Elysees. This building has a classical stone facade and Art Nouveau ironwork. The elaborate symmetrical facade features a central entrance with columns supporting a large arch. It has ornate roofline sculptures with other decorative friezes and frescoes.