|photo NYPL Collection|
The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation took place almost simultaneously and the group rallied against slavery saying it made truthful art impossible. They pushed the Pre-Raphaelite principals in art, scoffing at the French Romanticist works being hung in the parlors of America’s wealthy patrons. And they actively sought solid, home-grown architecture to be proud of.
If they wanted American architecture, they had gotten a taste of it in 1855 when Jacob Wrey Mould’s unconventional All Soul’s Church was completed at the corner of 4th Avenue and 20th Street. The exotic Italian Romanesque style structure was like nothing ever built in the United States and its contrasting stripes of red and beige quickly earned it the nickname “The Church of the Holy Zebra.”
According to Peter Bonnet Wight, Mould’s designs for the church made him realize “what an architect was.”
By 1863, no doubt through the incitement of the Society, New Yorkers laid plans for an academy for the training of American artists. The lofty concept was paid for entirely by public donations and it was Peter Wight who would receive the commission to design the new National Academy of Design at the corner of 4th Avenue and 23rd Street. And his admiration of Gould’s spectacular church three blocks to the south would be a evident.
|Harper's Weekly published a sketch of the exotic new building -- NYPL Collection|
A “fine band of music graced the ceremonies with appropriate interludes” and the ceremony “called together a large concourse of the most refined classes of our people,” said The Times. Along with the usual documents and coins placed Inside the copper casket within the cornerstone was a letter from Abraham Lincoln.
Unlike the construction of St. Patrick’s Cathedral which came to a halt due to the Civil War, the building of the Academy went on—despite most of the city’s workforce having marched off to battle.
Wight intended for his Academy building to make a point. His building would prove that American architecture could be imaginative and beautiful—a work of art in itself.
He designed a Venetian Gothic palace of white marble from Tuckahoe, New York, with contrasting blue-grey Hastings marble and bands of “North River greywacke stone.” A split staircase descended from the Gothic-arched entrance to the sidewalk like outstretched arms. The various colors of marble created zig-zag and diamond patterns, stripes and stars. The cornice was a diadem of Gothic tracery. It was, as The Times predicted, “different from any other edifice in the City.”
The Gothic theme continued inside and the ornately-carved capitals of the marble columns caused problems for the stone carvers. Each of the eight columns with its individual white marble capital of carved flowers, was presented by a different member of the Academy.
|Interior colors were achieved through the use of natural woods -- Harper's Weekly, 1865 (copyright expired)|
Wight relied on natural woods for colors inside. The interior was finished in white pine, ash, mahogany, oak and black walnut—there was no interior paint anywhere throughout the building.
|Passing pedestrians refresh themselves at the fountain below the entrance -- Harper's Weekly 1865 (copyright expired)|
Harper’s Weekly called it “a beautiful Temple of Art. It went up in the years of angry strife, but at the time of its dedication the time of peace was almost fully come…It is spacious, solid, convenient, simple in arrangement, ample in accommodation, and very beautiful and effective.”
Despite the President’s recent death, Harper’s said “The gay groups ascending and descending the Grand Staircase…afford[ed] a splendid spectacle.” The New York Times predicted that the building would cause a change in architectural trends. “The Gothic renaissance will be the chief style of architecture, with some florid adaptations of the still more modern day.”
The New Path agreed, saying that Wight’s building showed that “our cities need not be the homes of ugliness that they now are.”
The lavish structure had cost around $200,000. The street level, below the first floor, held the offices and janitorial accommodations. Above were exhibition space, lecture halls and school rooms. The second floor held galleries and studios. The Nation beamed that it was “the most beautiful work of architectural art in America.”
Along with instruction, the National Academy of Design presented exhibitions of the works of its members and students. American art was suddenly becoming acceptable and collectors need not be ashamed if a work was not European.
Worthington Whittredge remembered in his autobiography “The Academy…was built chiefly during the war and it was during the war and a little later that the very popular artists’ receptions were held there, for which it was often difficult to get a ticket, so many fine people were desirious [sic] of attending them. They were the great occasions for the artists to show their works and meet nearly all the lovers of art in the City. The painters sold their pictures readily and native art flourished more conspicuously than now.”
Two years after the building’s opening, an art critic for The New York Times paused before a large work by the emerging landscape artist Albert Bierstadt, “Looking Down Yo Semite Valley Ca.” “The distribution of the picture, we take it, is geographically correct…But we may ask with pertinence and justice, in what way is such a picture essential to our perception of beauty; to our apprehension of the sublime?”
|A New York Times critic complained in 1866 that Bierstadt's "Looking Down Yosemite Valley" lacked a subject -- Birmingham Museum of Art|
Generations of later art students would take issue with the verdict.
|By 1870, on "varnishing day," the limited wall space of the Academy was already becoming apparent -- NYPL Collection|
A decade after its opening, the building still won applause. James D. McCabe, in his 1872 “Lights and Shadows of New York Life,” remarked “It is one of the most beautiful edifices in the city. It is built in the pure Gothic style of the thirteenth century, and the external walls are composed of variegated marble. It has an air of lightness and elegant, that at once elicits the admiration of the gazer.”
|A stereopticon view caught the marble staircase and fountain -- NYPL Collection|
|Well-dressed art lovers browse the exhibition in 1882 -- Harper's Weekly (copyright expired)|
The Academy expounded on the need for a new, larger building in May 1900 when The New York Tribune reported “The Academy of Design has had little facility for the exhibition of sculpture in the past, and has frequently been deprived of the participation of sculptors in its exhibitions. Again, prominent painters have of late been devoting most of their time to mural painting. Many of them have found it impossible to exhibit with the Academy.”
|By 1880 telegraph poles surrounded the Academy building -- NYPL Collection|
The unique interior columns their individual capitals and bases, were salvaged to be incorporated into the new building uptown.
And then two weeks later the Academy began coming down. On August 25 The Times reported “The inevitable and foreseen has occurred and workmen are demolishing the pretty home of the painters on Fourth Avenue which has given character to the Madison Square and Twenty-third Street zone for the last quarter of a century.”
With a casual slap at American sensibilities, the article noted “The walls of the Academy have enclosed much innocent and elevating pleasure for a small fraction of the citizens of New York not too dull to enjoy art, not too much harassed by the needs of bread getting to take advantage of what it had to offer.”
|photo NYPL Collection|
And so the letter from Abraham Lincoln inside was saved from the wrecking ball along with the eight marble interior columns. The rest of the exotic Venetian Gothic National Academy of Design--arguably the birthplace of American art--was smashed to the pavement, replaced by a utilitarian office building.