|photo by Alice Lum
As William K. Vanderbilt’s massive chateau on Fifth Avenue was nearing completion, architect Richard Morris Hunt discovered a scheme being carried out by his workmen. “In the great banquet hall, where much of the work was being done,” explained The New York Times, “there appeared a little cloth-enclosed booth. Mr. Hunt, preoccupied, paid little heed to it. He did notice after a time, however, that there was frequent talking and laughing there, and at last he grew impatient.”
What Hunt discovered in the booth, was a sculptor working feverishly on a statue of the architect himself. Hunts plans included a figural sculpture to top the highest turret of the mansion—however he had not specified the design of the statue. So the workmen took things into their own hands. As a tribute to the great architect the stone contractors hired a sculptor to create Hunt’s image dressed as a workman.
“The sculptor had worked cozily and busily away in his little nook, catching glimpses of Mr. Hunt as he came and went through a peep hole cut in the cloth.”
William K. Vanderbilt approved of the figure and Richard Morris Hunt, depicted in stone, fittingly stood above the highest point of the completed mansion. The tribute was an example of the high regard Hunt received from the loftiest levels of society to the lowest construction workers. Not only had Hunt designed some of the most magnificent structures in the city and the nation; he was the moving force in American architecture.
The first American to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he came to New York in 1855 where he established the Tenth Street Studio Building. It was the first time a structure had been created specifically as working studios and living space for artists. He co-founded the American Institute of Architects, and he was instrumental in ensuring that architects were treated as white-collar professionals, like attorneys and physicians.
As his influence and fame increased, his earthy demeanor and sense of humor were unchanged. His list of monumental commissions led some to call him the builder of New York City—he designed the new Metropolitan Museum of Art, the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, the New York Tribune Building, and a long list of the palatial mansions of Manhattan and Newport.
When Hunt, deemed the dean of American architecture, died on July 31, 1895 a movement to erect a monument to him was swift. Started by the Municipal Art Society of New York (of which Hunt was its first president), the project was quickly joined by the National Academy of Design, the National Sculpture Society, and Society of American Artists, the Architectural League, the American Institute of Architects, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Century Association. Hunt’s millionaire clients, including the Vanderbilt family, joined in the fund raising. By September 1897 half of the $20,000 estimated cost had been secured.
In June architect Bruce Price submitted the application for the location of the Richard Morris Hunt Memorial. Price was at the time President of the Municipal Art Society and the group proposed placing the monument along the Central Park wall facing Fifth Avenue between 70th and 71st Streets. “It seems expecially fitting it should stand fronting one of Mr. Hunt’s principal works, the Lenox Library,” noted The New York Times.
|The memorial would face Hunt's grand Lenox Library -- photograph by H. N. Tiemann & Co. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWEFQFQF&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915
Indeed that was the point. And the monument would, appropriately, be as much architecture as sculpture. The Sun, on September 26, 1897, described the design for its readers. “The memorial is a semi-ellipse, rising three steps above the sidewalk, with tessellated floor and a seat. The wall of the exedra is pierced with three openings on each side of the centre carried out in a Greek Ionic order, with columns of green Maine granite In the centre, on a pedestal, is a bust of Mr. Hunt, and against the piers at the ends, on lesser pedestals, are the caryatides, one representing sculpture and painting and the other architecture.”
If the Municipal Art Society got its way, the over-sized bronze bust of Hunt would look forever across the avenue at the magnificent Lenox Library, built in 1870. There was little chance that the site would not be approved and the same day that the application was filed The Sun noted “In the matter of the memorial to Richard Morris Hunt, both the site and the monument were approved.”
Bruce Price had received the honor of designing the monument and the esteemed sculptor Daniel Chester French set to work on the bust and flanking figures. Although only half of the necessary funds had been collected, work was commenced in the fall of 1897. The New-York Tribune reported on September 26 that “the funds in hand are sufficient for the erection of the exedra bust. This part of the work will be finished by spring, and the caryatides will be set up next summer.” The newspaper noted that workers desired to play a part in memorializing Hunt. “There is a strong desire on the part of the artisan artists and metal workers, who owed so much to Mr. Hunt, to have a share in the erection of the monument, and the caryatides may be paid for by them.”
The Society’s projection that the initial phase of construction would be completed in spring was a bit optimistic. On October 23, 1898 The New York Times reported that the still-unfinished monument would be unveiled on Monday, October 31; Richard Morris Hunt’s birthday. “It is expected that the artists of New York, more especially the members of Mr. Hunt’s own profession, will be represented in large numbers at the exercises.”
At 4:00 that Monday afternoon, a procession of members of at least a dozen organizations like the Municipal Art Society, the American Water Color Society, the Art Artisans’ Fund and the Institute of American Architects marched from the Lenox Library to the monument. Architect George B. Post headed the ceremonies and Hunt’s grandson, Richard Hunt III, removed the white silk banner and American flag that covered the bust.
|photo by Alice Lum
The Hunt memorial stood unfinished for over two years awaiting the flanking bronze allegories of “Architecture” and “Painting and Sculpture.” Unfortunately, the fund-raising that proceeded so rapidly at the onset of the project had significantly slowed.
Daniel C. French completed the two figures in 1900 and they were placed on exhibition in the Academy of Design. "Architecture" held a model of the Administration Building of the World’s Columbian Exposition, one of Hunt’s masterpieces; and "Painting and Sculpture" held an artist’s palette and a figure of “Theseus” from the pediment of the Parthenon. The six-foot, three-inch bronze statues were cast by the Henry Bonnard Company.
|The palette in the hand of "Painting and Sculpture" holds a figure of Theseus -- photo by Alice Lum
Finally, on May 22, 1901 John De Witt Warner announced to the Municipal Art Society that “through subscriptions to the amount of $1,400 from this society, and a substantial gift from the National Arts Club, the debt upon the Richard Morris Hunt Memorial had been paid,” reported the New-York Tribune.
With the two striking allegorical bronzes in place, Richard Morris Hunt’s unique memorial was completed.
|An early 20th century postcard showed the completed memorial
Only nine years later, however, at least one New Yorker lamented the abuse and neglect of the monument—including the disgrace of graffiti. Ames Hill wrote to The New York Times on July 11, 1910 saying “Is it not possible that the Richard Morris Hunt Memorial opposite the Lenox Library be kept clean enough so that one would willingly rest there?
“I have never seen it so; but always, as now, marked with chalk and pencil, strewn with waste papers, and defiled with dust. A small amount of effort would keep Richard Hunt’s Memorial in a condition worthy of its design.”
Two years later, Hunt’s glorious Lenox Library across the avenue was razed, to be replaced with the Henry C. Frick mansion. The purpose of the monument’s location was thereby lost.
|A charming postcard captures a nanny with her charge in a pram resting at the memorial.
Nevertheless, the Richard Morris Hunt memorial is a striking monument on Fifth Avenue. The ingenious blending of architecture and art is an apt tribute to the man responsible for how architect and art were perceived in America.