The Enduring Legacy of Gilded Age Architecture—Now on HBO

As The Gilded Age opens, horse-drawn carriages transport European decorative treasures—furniture, tapestries, statuary—to the still-under-scaffolding white limestone mansion architect Stanford White has designed for ruthless railroad magnate George Russell (Morgan Spector), and his social-climbing wife Bertha (Carrie Coon) on Fifth Avenue. Their blue blood neighbors, Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and her sister, Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon), eye the goings-on from a drawing room window of their 1850 brownstone across East 61st Street.

It’s about a decade into the American Renaissance, a period of extraordinary growth and innovation from the 1870s to the 1920s, in which real-life industrialists like the Russells were building private homes, and along with patrons and politicians, commissioning clubs (The University Club), commercial (The Belvedere Hotel) and municipal (Minneapolis Institute of Art) buildings, public roadways (the Brooklyn Bridge), monuments (The Farragut Monument), and churches (Madison Square Presbyterian Church). Their architectural style—an American interpretation of Beaux-Arts classicism—came to define the era, gaining popularity after a showcase at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, according to architect Phillip James Dodd, author of An American Renaissance: Beaux-Arts Architecture in New York, a lavish new book with a forward by the HBO series’ creator Julian Fellowes.

The Gilded Age production designer Bob Shaw says he modeled the Van Rhijn’s “plus-size brownstone” on some period rowhouses on Gramercy Park’s south side. “There was a time when almost all of New York City was brownstones. Edith Wharton—not an admirer of the old-money look—said it looked like the entire city had been dipped in chocolate.”

Photo: Alison Cohen Rosa

Known for its grandeur and sculptural decoration, Beaux-Arts design as interpreted by the Gilded Age’s star architects—who like their clients strove to outdo each other—is an amalgamation of neoclassic styles, including Gothic Revival, French Baroque, Italian Renaissance, and Roman classical. The name comes from the training in Roman and Greek classicism that some of the men received at the École des Beaux-Arts. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology imported a French architect for an American program in 1893.) Richard Morris Hunt, the Parisian school’s first American graduate, was the era’s most sought-after architect. The Vanderbilt family’s go-to designer responsible for their Biltmore and Breakers estates, Hunt is also known for the majestic entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Statue of Liberty pedestal. Also in demand was Hunt’s protégé George Post, who had studied engineering, and designed the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, and The New York Stock Exchange.

Charles McKim, the senior partner at McKim, Mead & White—the country’s first modern architecture firm, and a training ground for many other influential architects—attended the École about a dozen years after Hunt. The Pierpont Morgan and Boston Public Libraries, and the Harvard Club are among his creations.