The American architect Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895) was a major contributor to the eclectic style of the 19th century.
Richard Morris Hunt was born in Brattleboro, Vt. His father was a lawyer and member of Congress, his mother a painter. He graduated from the Boston Latin School in 1843. He was sent to a military school in Geneva but soon tired of it and entered the studio of the architect Samuel Darier. In 1845 Hunt went to Paris to work with the architect Hector Martin Lefuel. The following year he was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts. To round out his artistic training, he also studied painting and sculpture. For long periods he traveled in Europe, Asia Minor, and Egypt, evidently determined to see everything before beginning his career.
By 1854 Lefuel had appointed Hunt an inspector of construction at the Louvre in Paris. Though urged to remain in Paris, Hunt returned to America. He worked as a draftsman in Washington, and in 1858 he opened his own office in New York. He married Catharine Clinton Howland in 1861.
Hunt's early work was of little consequence; perhaps aware of this, he went to Europe again in the early 1860s. In 1868 he returned to New York and reopened his office. Bolstered by strong determination, Hunt finally profited from his long period of study and architectural gestation as he secured a number of commissions from wealthy New Yorkers. Hunt designed the Studio Building (1857) in New York City, the first building in America strictly for artists. More important, he built one of New York's first skyscrapers, the Tribune Building (1873-1875).
However, Hunt's genius lay in other directions. His home (1870-1871) at Newport, R.I., was a modest precursor of the great residences he was to build. This house combined the style of the Swiss chalet with a French mansard roof, colonial clapboards, and Gothic and Greek revival motifs. In spite of this heterogeneous heritage, the design had unity. Hunt was not an inventor but a clever reinterpreter of styles. As rich patrons began commissioning him to do houses, his designs became larger and more resplendent, remarkable for their richness of materials, color, and ingenuity of design. Some were overgrown and bulky; others were burdened with porches, hanging decorations, and bay windows in a variety of shapes; all were covered by highly irregular roofs.
In the late 1880s and the 1890s Hunt tended to simplify his homes by adhering more closely to adaptations of a single style, usually late French Gothic or Renaissance and Italian Renaissance. "Ochre Court" (1888-1891) in Newport and the William K. Vanderbilt House (1881) in New York City are in the French château style; "The Breakers" (1892-1895), built for Cornelius Vanderbilt, and "Marble House" (1892), both in Newport, are in the Italian Renaissance style. These houses were more homogeneous than Hunt's earlier designs. For George Washington Vanderbilt he designed an enormous country estate, probably the largest in America, called "Biltmore" (1890-1895), near Asheville, N.C. This French château, with ornate Gothic decorations, cost over $4 million and covers 5 acres of the 130,000-acre estate.
More important for the future of architecture than Hunt's buildings were his insistence on high professional standards, his help in founding the American Institute of Architects, and his willingness to train the architects of the next generation in his office.
No attempt has yet been made to write Hunt's biography or to publish a critical catalog of his architectural works. John V. Van Pelt wrote A Monograph of the William K. Vanderbilt House (1925). Biographical information is in Wayne Andrews, Architecture, Ambition and Americans (1955), and James Philip Noffsinger, The Influence of the École des Beaux-Arts on the Architects of the United States (1955).
Baker, Paul R., Richard Morris Hunt, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1980.