Why You Still See this Parisian Style Everywhere — And Why Designers Love It
If there’s one word that’s uttered repeatedly in the midst of design, it’s this one: character. “I really want something with character,” a first-time homebuyer may say to a real estate agent. “This space lacks character,” a DIYer might remark before embarking on a project. Character is a short-hand term for a setting that exudes style, and perhaps those who are currently in search of it may have something to learn from the history behind Beaux Arts architecture.
“Beaux Arts came, literally, from the École des Beaux Arts in Paris in the late 19th century,” says architect Nicholas Potts, who practices in Washington, D.C. “This was the dawn of architecture as a profession and the development of professional schools.”
What Is Beaux Arts Architectural Style?
Beaux Arts is best known for having a symmetrical front facade adorned with columns, cornices, and other decorative objects. This look pulls from ancient ruins as much as it does the Renaissance, particularly in its preferred building material of marble or limestone — anything that stands the test of time.
Like design enthusiasts of the modern era, students who enrolled at the École aimed to learn architecture as a subject of formulated study. “At the time, mass industrialization and urbanization was taking place across Europe and the Americas, where middle and upper classes were emerging and capital was being centralized widely because of colonialism,” says Potts.
If you’ve ever stood at the base of an ornate building from this Gilded Age and wondered about its origins, there’s a chance it could be part of the Beaux Arts style. Potts describes how to spot this unique build in the wild — which is still noticeable in places like Paris and New York City — and why its use of character still matters today. Read on to learn more, and perhaps you could incorporate a few of these details into your own home (or travel plans for another day).
How to Spot Beaux Arts Architecture
Much like a liberal arts education, the students who enrolled at the École to study this field did so on an interdisciplinary basis. “The École brought students to Paris to study architecture in the context of the other visual arts, like drawing, sculpture, and watercolor,” Potts says. “It was, at its root, based on copying classical European models.”
Wealthy students were invited to go on what was called a “grand tour,” which involved supplementing studies with trips across Europe to sketch famous Roman and Greek ruins, Potts notes. Then they would graduate and find work, only to mimic those sights in projects for townhouses, universities, department stores, and opera houses. Beaux Arts is best known for having a symmetrical front facade adorned with columns, cornices, and other decorative objects. This look pulls from ancient ruins as much as it does the Renaissance, particularly in its preferred building material of marble or limestone — anything that stands the test of time.
“This model made its way to the United States after Richard Morris Hunt, the first American to attend the École, exported the style alongside other Beaux Arts alumni,” Potts continues, adding that some went on to teach at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard.
By the end of the 19th century, Beaux Arts peaked at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, which brought together heavy-hitters like Hunt and Daniel Burnham to showcase the model to the masses. “Although the model was built of temporary plaster structures, it gave America — still considered a young country — a model for the design of public spaces and buildings based on classical elements, sculpture, and grandeur.” Thanks to the media of the age, soon Beaux Arts was ubiquitous for covetable character.
Where You Can See Beaux Art Architecture
As these things tend to go, the same forces that propelled Beaux Arts into popularity eventually became its undoing. “Modernism is often superficially blamed for the decline of this style,” Potts notes. “Other styles gained traction, like ‘international style,’ which didn’t require a huge pool of cheap, dangerous labor required by stonecutters and sculptors.” As the middle class continued to grow, and those who provided “cheap labor” advanced into it, it became harder and harder to justify the Beaux Art aesthetic.
“Furthermore, the highly Eurocentric look no longer reflected a more heterogeneous society’s values,” Potts added.
Nevertheless, it’s still possible to experience prominent examples of Beaux Art architecture in America today (and Paris, naturally). New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, which opened in 1913, is a sterling example, as is the Thomas Jefferson Building in Washington, D.C., which opened in 1897. The Art Institute of Chicago also fits the bill, as does the Vanderbilt home of the Breakers in Rhode Island. That sprawling summer property of 70 rooms was actually completed by Richard Morris Hunt, the most famous American graduate of the École.
While it might not be as feasible to do an exact replica of this architectural style in everyday residential homes, paying attention to ornate details can somewhat emulate this historic draw toward timeless character. Whether that means installing cornices on window frames, faux columns beside doors, and gilded chandeliers on tall ceilings, that’s your call. For most of us, we’ll stick to proud preservation.
“The public still appreciates these buildings and the effort and craftsmanship that went into them, but aside from a strident conservative minority focusing on luxury residences, the style is no longer replicable,” Potts says.