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My grandfather died before I was born, and he remains to me a mostly mysterious figure. As is true of many people born poor who are committed to bettering their lot, his hours were taken up with work, family, and church; not much was left for that luxury item we call personality. A big man with paws for hands, in 1926 he got a job with the Consolidated Gas Company as a digger, busting up roadways and digging trenches for the laying of pipe. With his wife he raised six children in a two-bedroom apartment on 145th Street in the South Bronx. During his working life, he went to Mass on Sundays; during his brief retirement, he went to Mass every day. When I asked, people would tell me, “Your grandfather was a very good man,” and leave it at that. He left behind few stories.

But one story about him has stayed with me. He worked six days a week, but on some Sunday afternoons he would take the subway into Manhattan and visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He often went alone, because no one else in the family wanted to go with him. But his most frequent companion was my mother, who as the fifth child and fourth girl was perhaps the least regarded member of the family and wanted attention. After he died, she reflected on those museum afternoons.

“He didn’t say anything,” she said. “He would just walk through the galleries silently. He never pointed out particular paintings or statues, or expressed any particular enthusiasm. I wish I had asked him why he went—but I never found that out. He must have gotten something out of it, because he went over and over again. But he had no words.” My mother was to study at City College and become an elementary school teacher. She would visit museums all over the world, sharing her thoughts about art with anyone who would accompany her. I have her journals; they are about the art she saw. Art became a part of our family life. And behind it all was my mother’s unsatisfied curiosity about what motivated her father, the silent man in the museum.

There is always a residuum of mystery in individual choice. But I now see one obvious reason why my grandfather came to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: He had been invited. A group of wealthy men had built the institution in the hope that men like my grandfather—ditchdiggers, pipe fitters, bricklayers, and others who labored to manufacture, build, and repair—would learn of the glories of men and women who likewise worked with their hands: artists. But the story of the museum begins far away, in Paris, and with Richard Morris Hunt, the man who more than any other brought the fine arts to New York City.

Standing in the Place du Palais-Royal in Paris, you feel that you are in the very heart of Europe. The palace before you, with its arcaded gate and porticoed wings, was once known as the Palais-Cardinal. It was built for Richelieu, the notorious minister, who crossed this square again and again to consult with Louis XIII. Baptized anew during the French Revolution, it became the Palais de l’Égalité. Now called the Palais-Royal, it houses the Council of State as well as France’s Ministry of Culture. Facing it from across the square is the Louvre. Architectural historians, noting the rusticated columns, figured sandstone panels, and exuberance of the Louvre facade, will assign it to the reign of Napoleon III, who expanded and updated the Louvre. But to the average tourist, it might as well be Louis XIII. It features the same Lutetian sandstone, aged to a dark creamy yellow, as the rest of the Louvre. The columns, the framed and aediculed windows, the sculptured antefixes, all proclaim “French Classicism”—or in simpler terms, “old and glorious.”

The tourist assessment is basically correct. The Napoleon III additions to the Louvre are not just an extension; they are a continuation, a culmination even, of centuries of uninterrupted aesthetic evolution, the millennium-long tradition that makes France the most beautiful and most visited nation on Earth. Which makes it all the more remarkable that this facade—the Pavillon de la Bibliotheque, with its portal, whose mansard roof is studded with angels and acroteria, arched windows and columns, and half-dressed allegorical nymphettes holding up the attic—was, in part, the work of a twenty-six-year-old American named Dick Hunt. This young man, endowed with a hint of genius and old-fashioned American hustle, had entered the École des Beaux-Arts eight years earlier in 1846, the first American ever to be accepted at the school. Before being accepted, he had been rejected; when the rejection note came, he declared to his diary in a fit of defiant resolution, “Today we begin truly to study architecture.” He spent a year traveling, reading, and sketching in Europe, then sat for the exam again and was accepted. In his atelier studies—École students worked directly in master architects’ studios—Hunt became the favorite and protégé of Hector-Martin Lefuel, who would be named court architect to Emperor Napoleon III in 1853. The emperor wanted new personal apartments and an extension of the Louvre to the Tuileries. To be his assistant for this illustrious commission, Lefuel hired Hunt, assuring the self-proclaimed “Green Mountain Boy”—Hunt was from Brattleboro, Vermont—a fine career in the French civil service as a government architect.

One should not overstate Hunt’s contributions to the Louvre project. There are stories that Lefuel, to gratify his young assistant, let him design the whole of the Rue de Rivoli facade; but Lefuel was the prevailing creative force on the project. And yet Lefuel, writing years later, did not hesitate to credit his understudy: “My greatest work was done while my dear Dick worked with me, and he can justly claim a great share of its success.” Hunt would later be elected a member of the Institut de France, an immense honor previously accorded to only one other American: Benjamin Franklin.

Hunt’s work at the Louvre might seem a curious footnote to Parisian history. In fact, it was an enormously consequential event in the history of American architecture and the civic life of New York. Hunt held a government post in the Ministry of Public Works in Paris, and Lefuel begged him to remain. Hunt loved the City of Light. As a government architect he was expected to socialize with, and employ, painters and sculptors; the architect, in Beaux-Arts philosophy, was master and disposer of all the other arts. Imagine designing in Paris at the dawn of the Belle Époque, commissioning work from Monet and Renoir and Rodin to decorate the nation’s buildings! But Hunt wanted to go home. In 1856 he left the city of Victor Hugo and Charles Garnier and boarded a steamer for America, where, he assured himself, “there would be demand for a first-rate architect.”

After six months drafting for the U.S. Capitol expansion then under way, Hunt moved to New York City and hung out his shingle. “It has been represented to me that America was not ready for the Fine Arts,” he wrote to his mother. “But I think they are mistaken.”

Hunt made an impact immediately, building what would become one of the great places of nineteenth-century New York: the Tenth Street Studio Building, the first structure in the city custom-built for artists. Commissioned by James Johnston, a patron of culture whose brother John was to be the first president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it soon became the center of the city’s art scene and put Greenwich Village on the map. Large arched south-facing windows—a design later used for New York City public schools—brought light into the workspaces, half of which also sported residential accommodations. Saturdays were open studio days, which brought crowds—and sales—to the artists who set up shop there. All the apartments opened onto a central glass-covered court, where exhibitions were held. The whole was so superbly conceived and designed that it housed two generations of American art: Winslow Homer, John La Farge, Sanford Gifford, and many others became Tenth Streeters. A great deal of the art on display in the American Wing of the Met was produced in that building. Frederic Church held his famous 1859 exhibit of The Heart of the Andes here; promoters asked viewers to bring opera glasses, to examine the painting in greater detail. In a later exhibit, The Heart of the Andes hung opposite Albert Bierstadt’s Lander’s Peak. On the wall between was Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware.

Hunt was not the type to miss out on the fun. He rented a space in the building and set up his architectural firm, hiring as his assistants Henry Van Brunt, George Post, and later William Ware and Frank Furness, all of whom went on to storied careers. “Thus,” Van Brunt reminisced, “we together entered upon an era so rich, so full of surprise and delight, that it seems, as we look back upon it, as if once more in the world the joy of the Renaissance, the white light of knowledge had broken in upon the superstition of romance.” By bringing the French atelier system to America, Hunt, it is said, founded the first American architecture school. William Ware would later hold the nation’s first professorship in architecture, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and then found the nation’s first university department of architecture, at Columbia. One can fairly say that architecture as a profession in America was born in Hunt’s suite on Tenth Street.

Hunt brought in commission after commission, giving his young apprentices much to do. “You have got to work,” was his professional advice; “you have got to work at day, and you have got to work at night.” Hating interruptions, Hunt perfected the eight-minute New York lunch—a chicken sandwich and a cup of tea. In order to submit designs for public monuments and open competitions, the master architect often worked through the night. “Work, work, keep on going,” he would say. “That is the best rest you can have.” But he was the furthest thing from stern. He was “irresistible in his vitality and unique and charming in his presence,” observed contemporaries, “a bundle of joyous energetic nerves,” and a “vitalizing and enchanting personality.” “He had the power,” wrote the sculptor Karl Bitter, who would provide the sculptures on the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “to kindle enthusiasm in others.”

Apprentices and visitors were amazed by his capacity to express himself, not only in conversation, but on paper: Chiding an assistant for getting a curve wrong, he could lean over the paper and render any line with a single stroke. “Like this!” he would say. Anything he saw, or even remembered, he could draw. “A pencil in his hand,” said Van Brunt, “was a magic wand, which chastened the buoyancy of his imagination and made him a scholar.” And when work was done, the man’s vitality overflowed. He made his love of food and wine into a perennial cause for a feast, bubbling up his famous oyster stew and mixing his secret-recipe champagne punch. “Artist you are,” he told his fellows, “and like artists you should live, full of life and merriness.” He was a bachelor and not even thirty, but it seemed no one had lived so much. He had seen the barricades rise in Paris in 1848; hosted Daniel Webster, who in his old age would stay with the Hunts; sketched the reliefs of Cleopatra and Caesarion at Dendera on the Nile; encountered Bedouins, pistol in hand, when crossing Sinai by camel; spent Easter at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; taken classes with the greatest architects of France, Garnier and Lefuel and Viollet-le-Duc; swum in the lakes of Switzerland; and gone to vespers in the Sistine Chapel. He had done it all, and in the excitement of a fine conversation, a notable restaurant, a good club, receptive company, or a productive artist’s studio, his lust for life could not be contained.

It was not all bliss, however. Architecture is the most political of arts, and politics is the art of the compromise. Hunt had work building houses and shops, but contemporaries suspected that American residential and commercial architecture was no place for a man of Hunt’s genius. In Paris he had worked on the Louvre; in New York he had to settle for drawing up a Coal and Iron Exchange for the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company (now long since razed to the ground). A staunch supporter of Lincoln (who lost New York City by almost two-to-one margins twice) and the Republican Party, Hunt had great difficulty getting commissions from New York’s Democratic Tammany Hall establishment. He entered a competition with a plan for a new building for the National Academy of Design and lost. He submitted drawings for the Robert Fulton Memorial, the Union League Club, the American Institute, and the American Museum of Natural History, and received none of the commissions. There was talk of converting the 62nd Street Armory—now Central Park’s headquarters—into an art museum under the auspices of the New-York Historical Society (then the possessor of the largest art collection in New York). Hunt submitted not only a design for a building facelift, but also a full master plan for a gargantuan museum, Louvre-like in look and scale. Part and whole were rejected. He would become the nation’s most famous architect anyway. His work on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, that triumph of Beaux-Arts architecture known as “the White City,” made him a national hero. America’s grandest house, the Biltmore, is his work; so are The Breakers, Marble House, Ochre Court, Chateau-sur-Mer—the houses that make Newport, Rhode Island, America’s bastion of Belle-Époque grandeur. Denied most public commissions, Hunt became “the architect who gilded the Gilded Age,” the man who made private houses monumental. But his real project was to create a culture of fine art in America, starting with a great art museum that could promote it, the museum that would become the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In 1869, the aging Ralph Waldo Emerson met Hunt in New York and confided to his journal: “One remarkable person new to me, Richard Hunt the architect. His conversation was spirited beyond any that I remember, loaded with matter, and expressed with the vigour and fury of a member of the Harvard boat or ball club relating the adventures of one of their matches; inspired, meantime, throughout, with fine theories of the possibilities of art.” A glittering conversationalist, Hunt became America’s foremost public proponent of art, occupying the place in this country that Oscar Wilde would occupy in England a generation later. The differences between Hunt and Wilde were significant, however. Wilde, an Irishman, a poet, a homosexual, and finally an outsider in English society, viewed the arts as modes of personal superiority: art as idleness, genius, personal luxury. Hunt was a builder and a businessman, overseeing complicated projects that required hundreds or thousands of employees (two thousand men were employed to build The Breakers) and cooperation from bricklayers, stonemasons, painters, plumbers, lawyers, and many others. Art for Hunt was not lonely genius but effective collaboration. They looked their parts, too: Wilde had his long locks and silk scarves, whereas Hunt’s alderman goatee made him look like a fire commissioner borrowing his rich friend’s coat. Wilde became the aesthetic icon, but Hunt’s artistic model was probably more effective, and it had important social effects.

Winifred Howe, in her admirable A History of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, furnishes us with memoranda from the museum’s first organizational meetings. Hunt contributed a distinctive vision. “It is our aim,” he declared, “to have, at no very future period, a museum similar to the Kensington Museum in London.” The Kensington is now called the Victoria and Albert, but its very first name, from when it was an offshoot of London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, is the most revealing: the Museum of Manufactures, drawing on the etymology of the term, facta (made) and manu (by hand). It was a museum of handicrafts, a visual encyclopedia of everything that human beings could make with their hands. It was conceived as an institution for working men, and its founder Henry Cole not only curated the collections but established the opening hours so as to be “most convenient to the working classes.”

Hunt had a practical reason for desiring such a museum. As a Beaux-Arts architect, he had a hand in every design feature of his buildings: His sketches specify bannisters, plumbing fixtures, lighting, window sashes, wood paneling, slate shingles, marble revetments, and more. He sketched the sculptures, stained glass windows, and paintings he wanted. But he depended on an army of artists and craftsmen to execute these visions. This necessity made the Beaux-Arts style the most social of all styles, one that required an entire society of workers. It is the democratic style, and not only because the ancient Greek democracies provided much of its visual language. Ordinary people love opulent buildings like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or Grand Central Station; they also play important roles in the construction of those buildings. Modern styles presume an architect working with machine-made parts, with human automata putting the pieces together; the Beaux-Arts style depends on laborers who rise to become artisans and artists, who acquire skills and, over time, dignity.

Hunt’s artistic vocation was inseparable from business; indeed, it was itself a business. And he had a group of businessmen by his side, working to establish the museum. William C. Prime, first vice president of the museum, opined in 1888,

The life blood of modern commerce and industry is the love of beauty. This mighty city, its wealth and power, rest on this foundation, trade in beauty, buying and selling beauty. . . . Consider for one instant what is the trade which supports your long avenues of stores crowded with purchasers. . . . Enumerate carpets, upholstery, wall papers, furniture, handsome houses, the innumerable beauties of life which employ millions of people in their production, and you will realize that but for the commercial and industrial love of beauty your city would be a wilderness.

That same night, the lawyer Joseph Hodges Choate, a friend of Hunt’s who had put Boss Tweed in jail, enthused that the plan was

gradually to gather together a more or less complete collection of objects illustrative of the history of art in all its branches, from the earliest beginnings to the present time, which should serve not only for the instruction and entertainment of the people, but should also show to the students and artisans of every branch of industry, in the high and acknowledged standards of form and of color, what the past had accomplished for them to imitate and excel.

The ambition to tutor craftsmen is still evident in the collections today. Have you ever wondered why the Met has so many “period rooms” filled with furniture? Hunt and his philanthropic allies believed that Americans needed to learn how to make fine furniture, and the Met was the place to learn it. Consider the Costume Institute and the Persian carpet collection. Hunt believed that the museum should collect textiles so that Americans could become expert tailors, designers, and upholsterers. In its earliest years, the Met held classes not only in drawing and painting and sculpture but in tile-laying, metallurgy, carpentry, and plumbing. Plumbing! It made sense: Hunt created custom designs for bath fixtures, but there weren’t enough skilled workers in lead, copper, cast iron, and other metals available to produce the beautiful kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry rooms he wanted. In his vision, the Met would be the place where plumbers would be trained to be artists capable of the most ambitious designs.

Once the doors opened, the Museum was celebrated as “a great thing for the working-men, artisans, artists, and art-lovers of New York.” We find reports of this sort: “The Trustees take especial satisfaction . . . in observing the number of artisans who visit the Museum.” The museum prided itself on its “school of design for arts and trades.”

Today, perhaps too much under the influence of the Oscar Wilde theory of the arts, we split the arts from the trades, just as we tend to split the Beaux-Arts architecture of men like Richard Morris Hunt from the progressive Victorian era of social improvements in which it developed. But it is no accident that the same era that produced labor laws and public sanitation and free schooling also produced buildings like the New York Public Library, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the San Francisco City Hall, and so many other remarkable buildings. Many of the same people championed both tendencies, and considered themselves allies.

A utilitarian-minded person beholding the New York Public Library regards the opulent design as wasteful excess. Could not the public libraries and museums have been simple brick barns, with more room for books? And the extra money given to the poor? The short answer is “no.” Beauty was part of the Progressive Era. Progressive leaders had the works of John Ruskin on their shelves. They saw too much of life dominated by the machine, and their answer was to humanize with nature and beauty. They recognized that machines could provide steel frames, uniform bricks, and square-cut ashlar. With the time and money saved by the industrial process, they aimed to reinvest the fruits of progress. Every visible surface was to be coated with human handicraft: paintings, carvings, mosaics, tapestries, words. They saw humans choked and paddocked in suffocating cities, and they supplied nature, parks, and suburbs. They saw man’s day mechanized by work, and they answered with leisure. Everywhere they sought balance, redressing the deformations of machine society. Le Corbusier and others would come along and say that none of this was acceptable. We live in a mechanized society, and there is a steel frame behind every Beaux-Arts facade, so, they insisted, we should strip away the sculptures, the paintings, the inscriptions, the mosaics, to see the naked steel and industrial concrete, and be satisfied with a screen of industrial glass. Men of the machine age should have nothing made by hand, only machine-made things. But this is stupidity, not honesty. We need beauty, nature, craft. Everywhere one looks today, those who can afford to do so live where beauty, nature, and craft thrive. Those without means live where everything is made by machine.

The Progressives wished to elevate the poor and address inequality. Skilled labor—the bedrock of the Beaux-Arts movement—was an important instrument of this kind of progress. The arts were not a philanthropic diversion from moneymaking, but rather a part of the same human expressiveness that drives commerce. For this reason, the Met embraced art, labor, craft, and commerce, the whole sweep of human activity. To return to Choate: “It is this same old-fashioned and exploded idea, which regards all that relates to art as the idle pastime of the favored few, and not, as it really is, as the vital and practical interest of the working millions, that has so long retarded its progress among us.”

This democratic vision led the trustees to offer classes at minimal cost; to expand opening hours to make the museum available to working people; and most of all—a policy in recent years vehemently opposed by the museum’s very different modern directorship—to make admission free. More than anything else, this policy carries with it the bouquet of the founders’ original idealism. As Hunt said, “By the Great Caesar, if this country doesn’t take up art, we’ll make it! We’ll educate it! We’ll show it what a great and glorious thing it is!” Free admission exemplified this spirit of evangelization on behalf of beauty. (In 2018, to their shame, city officials authorized a required entry fee for the first time in fifty years, exempting only residents of New York State.)

As one of the founding members of the Museum’s board, and the country’s most famous architect, Hunt might well have expected, when the board planned a building to house the museum during the 1870s, that he would design the structure. He was disappointed. By the terms of the museum’s charter, the city would build the museum on city land in Central Park—and the city would choose the architect. The city chose Calvert Vaux, the architect for most of Central Park. Vaux’s efforts to blend the aesthetics of the Alhambra, Central Park’s Dairy, and a New England brick factory created what James Jackson Jarves called “a forcible example of architectural ugliness.” Renovations have exposed some elements of Vaux’s original structure, so visitors to the Met can make up their own minds about its merits. A second building, by Theodore Weston, attempted to blend Vaux’s brick walls and Ruskin-inspired arches with Classical details. The design was effective but unspectacular. Meanwhile, Hunt looked on with increasing exasperation as Weston, a civil engineer with minimal architectural experience, struggled to manage the project. Luckily, like the city and its wealth, the museum continued to expand. By the 1890s the board realized that it needed a world-class building, which required a world-class architect. A change of law allowed the Met’s board to hire its own architects, instead of receiving them from the city’s Department of Parks, and Richard Morris Hunt became the third architect of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was sixty-six, only a year from his death. But he had long thought about the museum, and he designed not only a new Fifth Avenue entrance, with its Great Hall and Grand Staircase, but a new master plan, which remains the basic plan in use today.

We can marvel at Hunt’s achievement, the grand building that contemporaries described as “his monument.” His Fifth Avenue facade is imposing but beautiful, its elements familiar and yet exotically exuberant; the deep bays, low arches, and oversized acroteria are all unusual. The long climb to enter a building whose interior is entirely screened evokes aspiration and mystery; entering through the doors and stepping into that Great Hall, one has the feeling of stepping through a magical portal. The Great Hall is both a soaring temple and a homely, darkened cave; grand and comfortable, it remains to this day both the museum’s entrance and its heart. It offers an architectural presentiment, as Hunt intended, of just how great and glorious a thing art is.

In Hunt’s hands, it was a great and glorious thing, a civilization-wide effort. He rallied the era’s robber barons, whom he called “the New Medicis,” and encouraged them in their responsibility to create enduring beauty that would enrich the life of the city. And he enrolled the apprentice stonemasons, who would at first carry and place the stones, and then in time learn to shape them with greater skill and command a greater wage. Hunt’s student Frank Furness created my favorite image of the Great Hall of the Met: a simple charcoal sketch that shows the space as it was being built, with brawny men lowering the giant limestone rails into place on booms, as the newly formed arches rise up above them. That great museum, in other words, was built by—and for—people like my grandfather. It is a sad sign of our times that the museum just recently published a book titled Making the Met, with reams of information about directors and curators and favored minority groups and famous exhibitions—and not a single word about the builders, the blue-collar workers whose skill made the place such a thing of beauty, and for whom the museum was originally founded. They were elided, forgotten, supplanted by the managerial class and its preoccupations.

We can be sure that Hunt would not have forgotten the men who built the Met. He died in 1895, at the age of sixty-seven. Overwork—he had written on his tombstone Laborare Est Orare, “to work is to pray”—almost certainly contributed to his death. His final years saw him working obsessively on the Biltmore and the Columbian Exposition in Chicago (both with Frederick Law Olmsted), on the American Academy in Rome, and on his master plan for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His death produced a unique tribute, worth considering at length. It came from the workers at the Biltmore and reads as follows:

Whereas, the great Architect of the Universe has in his wisdom removed our fellow laborer, Richard M. Hunt, from this earthly mansion to a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens; and
Whereas, his fame as an artist and his devotion to and his accomplishments in his profession are known to the world, but his generosity, sympathy, and services in behalf of the worthy laboring men of all classes are only known to those whose good fortune it was to be under his immediate supervision;
Therefore we who have worked under him, deeming it fitting that we record our love for and appreciation of him, have
Resolved, that in his death our country has lost its greatest architect, and our skilled workmen, artists and sculptors have lost a kind, considerate and constant friend; for neither his great fame nor his wealth ever caused him to be forgetful, indifferent, or careless of the rights and feelings of his fellowmen and laborers who were aiding in an humbler way in erecting these beautiful buildings, which, only marvellous genius could have imagined and planned;
Resolved, that to him more than any other man of our time all the representative workmen of this country are indebted for the elevation of their trades and arts to the position which they now hold in the ranks of the great army of skilled workmen.
Resolved, that we tender his afflicted family our deepest sympathy and that a copy of these Resolutions be sent to his widow.
Dated at Biltmore, N.C. August 1st, 1895.
B. Worth … for the carpenters
J. Miller … for the stone carvers
J. O’Neill … bricklayers
J. C. Thompson … painters
G. Bartigate … stone cutter
L. Bowen … electricians
S. J. McKeon … plumbers
E. D. Holt … tile layers
R. J. Miller … marble cutters
P. F. Jones … coppersmiths and slaters
S. C. Gladwyn … wood carvers
J. Mortimer … plasterers
P. McNiven … stone setters

We can add to this tribute the name of my grandfather, Frank Costello, signing for the diggers and the pipe fitters.

John Byron Kuhner owns Bookmarx Books in Steubenville, Ohio.

Image by Store Norske Leksikon, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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