American Architecture Series
James Renwick

Biography of American Gothic Revival Architect.

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James Renwick (1818-95)


Early Life and Education
Grace Church
St Patrick's Cathedral
European Styles of Architecture
Second Empire Designs
Materials and Other Architectural Commissions

American Architecture Series
• For a general guide, see: American Architecture (1600-present).
• For tower design, see: Skyscraper Architecture (1850-present).

To see how architecture fits into
the general classification of the arts,
see: Definition of Art.
For more about the different
disciplines, see: Types of Art.


Important Achievement

St Patrick's Cathedral (1858-79)
New York City.


One of the most successful American architects of his day, James Renwick is best known for his contribution to the revival of Gothic Architecture in 19th century New York, as exemplified by St Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral (1858-79), the Grace Protestant Episcopal Church (1843), and the City College of New York. Influenced by Victorian architecture, as well as styles from the Continent, Renwick also explored several other medieval forms of architecture: for instance, the Smithsonian Institute ("the castle") in Washington DC has strong features of Romanesque art, while the original Corcoran Gallery, also Washington DC (1859-61) was a model example of the Second Empire style of 19th century architecture, developed in France under Napoleon III. He also incorporated the mansard roof and Romanesque-style round arches in the design of several mansions and other private residences. An urban artist of great style and education, Renwick's many contributions to American art can still be seen throughout the city and state of New York. His style was continued by a number of his pupils like Bertram Goodhue and William Hamilton Russell, both of whom went on to enjoy successful careers of their own.


Early Life and Education

James Renwick achieved fame early: he was only 24 years old when he won the commission for New York's Grace Church (1843-16), an event equal to being named architect of a major corporate skyscraper today. Over the following 50 years, he designed outstanding churches, including the internationally acclaimed St. Patrick's Cathedral (1858-79, spires 1885-88), museums, schools, theatres, hotels, commercial buildings and city and country houses throughout the United States.

Renwick had talent, ambition and, like many of his colleagues, social and educational advantages. Born into America's influential upper class - his father James Renwick, was an engineer, architect, and professor of philosophy at Columbia College (now Columbia University), while his mother Margaret Brevoort, came from a wealthy New York family - Renwick obtained a Master's degree in engineering from Columbia College. (A collection of architectural drawings by Renwick are in the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University.) He also received additional training from his father, who taught him architecture and encouraged him to become an architect. After Columbia, he served as a structural engineer with the Erie Railroad, and later assistant engineer on the Croton Aqueduct, New York. In 1847 Renwick founded the Delta Psi the secret fraternal college society, for whose chapter house (St. Anthony Hall) he later provided the architectural design. In 1851 he married Anna Lloyd Aspinwall, who came from one of the wealthiest families in America. Substantial private and professional income provided for an elegant lifestyle. Nonetheless, Renwick devoted himself to his practice and to the training of apprentices, such as Bertram Goodhue.

Grace Church

From the outset, Renwick had the knowledge and self-confidence to be inventive. The two buildings Grace Church and Trinity Church (1839-46, designed by Richard Upjohn), both completed in the same year, were the first credible American adaptations of the medieval Gothic style, but Renwick's lavish white marble design was more original, combining French as well as the customary English motifs and designed in an unprecedented cruciform shape. (He was influenced by the French medievalist architect Viollet-le-Duc.) Other early Gothic Revival designs by Renwick included those for Calvary Church, New York (1848), the Free Academy Building (City College of New York) (1849) - one of the first Gothic Revival college buildings in America - and Oak Hill Cemetery Chapel, Washington DC (1850).

St Patrick's Cathedral

Structurally, too, Renwick was a leader. St Patrick's Cathedral (1858-79) was planned with a stone tower over the crossing supported by the first giant masonry vault ever built in the United States; a plaster vault was substituted because of mounting costs but only after the necessary (and now meaningless) flying buttresses had been completed. Located on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 51st Street, the building is one of the biggest churches in America, and exemplifies Renwick's interpretation of the Gothic Decorated style. Designed three years after Renwick visited France to study medieval architecture, it was inspired by the Cathedral at Reims, as well as those of Cologne and Westminster Abbey, and has been acclaimed for both its proportions and purity of style.

For more about 19th century Gothic Revival, see: English Gothic architecture.

European Styles of Architecture

Renwick quickly gained celebrity status for his stylistic and technical competence. His Romanesque design was selected for the Smithsonian's "Castle" (1847-55), Washington, DC, the first American public building in that style. (Note: For the leading exponent of Romanesque Revival architecture, see: Henry Hobson Richardson, 1838-86). Two months later he adopted a Gothic design for the Free Academy (1847-49), later the College of the City of New York. By the 1850s Renwick's reputation extended to hotel design: The Clarendon (1850-51) and the St. Denis (1851-52), derived from Elizabethan and Renaissance art, and the palatial Albemarle (1859-62), all in New York, were begun in that decade. His diversified talent enabled him to create castles for aspiring "English lords," chateaux for Francophiles as well as neoclassical architecture for clients proud of their early American lineage.

Note: For biographies of the greatest architects to practice Neoclassicism in America, see: Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) who designed Monticello House, William Thornton (1759-1828), who did the original design for the US Capitol; Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820), architect of the Baltimore Basilica; and Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844), whose Federal Style became the standard formula for state capitols across the United States.

Second Empire Designs

Among the many important accomplishments in Renwick's prolific career was the introduction of the Second Empire style for public buildings. He first used it for the Island Hospital (1858-61), New York, and perfected it in the original Corcoran (now Renwick) Gallery (1859-61, 1870-71), Washington, DC, Vassar College (1861-65), Poughkeepsie, N.Y, and Booth's Theater (1867-69), New York, famous also for its sophisticated mechanical equipment.

Materials and Other Architectural Commissions

Renwick's use of technology was, in fact, as conspicuous as his stylistic virtuosity. In addition to improved mechanical systems, he was among the first to employ new building materials such as wrought iron for complete floor framing and durable terra cotta for exterior ornament. (Note: For another pioneer architect who employed wrought-iron in his building designs, see: Gustave Eiffel, designer of the famous Eiffel Tower (1887-89) in Paris.)

Other New York buildings designed by Renwick include: Saint Bartholomew's Church (1871–1872), and All Saints' Catholic Church, Harlem (1882–1893), as well as large private houses, like "Martinstow", West Haven, Connecticut. His many other commissions included the facade on the New York Stock Exchange; several banks; the Courthouse at Fredericksburg; the Children's Hospital on Randall's Island; the Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island; the Lunatic Asylum on Wards Island; and the bell tower of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, Florida.

In 1890, at the age of 72, Renwick undertook a design for the proposed National Gallery of History and Art in Washington DC, a huge outdoor museum complex. Although never built, the monumental Beaux-Arts classical layout was revolutionary both as the stylistic forerunner of the celebrated 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and for the early use of reinforced concrete as the chief building material. This kind of vision and the courage to experiment characterized Renwick's entire career.

Other 19th Century American Architects

Beaux-Arts (Neo-Renaissance/Neo-Baroque)
Richard Morris Hunt (1827-95)
Cass Gilbert (1859-1934)

Organic Style, Prairie Houses
Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)

Early High-Rise Buildings
William Le Baron Jenney (1832-1907)
Chicago School of architectural design (Skyscrapers)

Twentieth Century Building Designs
20th-Century Architecture

• For more about Gothic Revival architects and building design in America, see: Homepage.

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