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 Cass Gilbert  (1859 - 1934)

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Lived/Active: Minnesota/New York/Ohio      Known for: architectural design-skyscraper innovation

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Cass Gilbert was a prominent American architect.  An early proponent of skyscrapers in works such as the Woolworth Building, Gilbert was also responsible for numerous museums (Saint Louis Art Museum) and libraries (Saint Louis Public Library), state capitol buildings (the Minnesota, Arkansas and West Virginia State Capitols, for example) as well as public architectural icons like the United States Supreme Court building.  His public buildings in the Beaux Arts* style reflect the optimistic American sense that the nation was heir to Greek democracy, Roman law and Renaissance humanism.  Gilbert's achievements were recognized in his lifetime; he served as president of the American Institute of Architects* in 1908-09.

Gilbert was born in Zanesville, Ohio, the middle of three sons, and was named after the statesman Lewis Cass, to whom he was distantly related.  Gilbert's father was a surveyor for what was then known as the United States Coast Survey.  At the age of nine, Gilbert's family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota where he was raised by his mother after his father died.  After attending preparatory school in nearby Minneapolis, Gilbert dropped out of Macalester College, before beginning his architectural career at age 17 by joining the Abraham M. Radcliffe office in St. Paul.  In 1878 Gilbert enrolled in the architecture program at MIT.

Gilbert later worked for a time with the firm of McKim, Mead, and White before starting a practice in St. Paul with James Knox Taylor.  He was commissioned to design a number of Minnesota railroad stations, including those in Anoka, Willmar, and the still extant Little Falls depot.  He won a series of house and office-building commissions in Minnesota: the Endicott Building in St. Paul is still regarded as a gem, and many of his noteworthy houses still stand on St. Paul's Summit Avenue.  His break-through commission was the design of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in New York City (now housing the George Gustav Heye Center).

Cass Gilbert is often confused with Charles Pierrepont Henry Gilbert, another prominent architect of the time.  Cass Gilbert designed the famous Woolworth Building skyscraper on Broadway for Frank W. Woolworth, while Woolworth's personal mansion was designed by C.P.H. Gilbert.  The Ukrainian Institute building on Manhattan's 5th Avenue is the work of C.P.H. Gilbert, and often incorrectly attributed to Cass Gilbert.

Cass Gilbert is considered a skyscraper pioneer; when designing the Woolworth Building he moved into unproven ground — though he certainly was aware of the ground-breaking work done by Chicago architects on skyscrapers and once discussed merging firms with the legendary Daniel Burnham — and his technique of cladding a steel frame became the model for decades.

Modernists* embraced his work: Alfred Stieglitz immortalized the Woolworth Building in a famous series of photographs, and John Marin painted it several times; even Frank Lloyd Wright praised the lines of the building, though he decried the ornamentation.

Gilbert was one of the first celebrity architects in America, designing skyscrapers in New York City and Cincinnati, campus buildings at Oberlin College and the University of Texas, state capitols in Minnesota and West Virginia, the support towers of the George Washington Bridge, various railroad stations (including the New Haven Union Station), and the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.. 

His reputation declined among some professionals during the age of Modernism, but he was on the design committee that guided and eventually approved the modernist design of Manhattan's groundbreaking Rockefeller Center: when considering Gilbert's body of works as whole, it is more eclectic than many critics admit. In particular, his Union Station in New Haven lacks the embellishments common of the Beaux-Arts* period, and contains the simple lines common in Modernism.

Gilbert wrote to a colleague, "I sometimes wish I had never built the Woolworth Building because I fear it may be regarded as my only work and you and I both know that whatever it may be in dimension and in certain lines it is after all only skyscraper."

Gilbert's two buildings for the University of Texas campus in Austin, Sutton Hall (1918) and Battle Hall (1911), are widely recognized by architectural historians as among the finest works of architecture in the state.  Designed in a Spanish-Mediterranean revival style, the two buildings became the stylistic basis for the later expansion of the university in the 1920s and 1930s and helped popularize the style throughout the state.

Gilbert's drawings and correspondence are preserved at the New-York Historical Society, the Minnesota Historical Society, and the Library of Congress.


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