What Is Beaux-Arts Architecture?

The Breakers, Newport, RI

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Beaux-Arts architecture is a building style named after the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the legendary school where the principles of this popular late 19th and early 20th century architectural style were taught. 

Grandiose, ornate, and theatrical, Beaux-Arts buildings are based on the symmetry and proportions of Roman and Greek classicism but combined with more flamboyant French and Italian Renaissance and Baroque influences. Beaux-Arts, which is sometimes called Academic Classicism, American Renaissance, or Beaux-Arts Classicism, became a favorite architectural style for government and institutional buildings such as art museums, train stations, libraries, university campuses, and court houses in Europe and the United States. 

Representing the height of European style and flair, Beaux-Arts also became a signature style for the opulent private mansions of the privileged few in wealthy enclaves such as Newport, Rhode Island. Many of the world’s most celebrated and admired buildings are examples of Beaux-Arts architecture.

New York Public Library
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The History of Beaux-Arts Architecture

Beaux-Arts architecture emerged in the late 1800s in Paris and spread to the U.S. during the Gilded Age, with the help of notable American architects such as Richard Morris, H.H. Richardson and Charles McKim, who trained at the Beaux-Arts school in Paris and brought Beaux-Arts style home to America. The architectural movement was popularized largely thanks to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, which captured the public imagination with a large-scale Beaux-Arts prototype that showcased the style. 

The Great Depression rendered Beaux-Arts architecture over-the-top, out of touch, and obsolete, and it began to fade in popularity around 1930. But many Beaux-Arts buildings remain prominent living monuments to a gilded past in major cities and retain a prized place in modern life.

Musée D'Orsay in Paris
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Characteristics of Beaux-Arts Architecture

  • Classical Roman and Greek elements such as columns, cornices and triangular pediments
  • Use of formal symmetry
  • An eclectic mix of elaborate decorative Italian and French Renaissance elements
  • Use of materials such as stone, marble, limestone or brick
  • Elevated first story
  • Colonnades, pavilions
  • Statues, figures and other sculptural decoration on building façades
  • Use of arched windows and doors
  • Grand interior arrival halls and staircases and interior hierarchy of spaces
  • Interiors featuring decorative plaster work and elaborate interior design that classically featured reproductions of French or Italian Renaissance furniture pieces like those found in European palaces
  • Formal gardens and landscaped grounds
Library of Congress, Washington, DC
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Notable Examples of Beaux-Arts Architecture

Opening in 1913, New York City’s Grand Central Terminal is a landmark Beaux-Arts building in the heart of Manhattan. This architectural treasure is one of the most beautiful transport hubs in the country, both inside and out, and remains a point of pride and a visual touchstone for some the best architecture that New York City has to offer. 

Built in 1897 to house the collection of the Library of Congress, which was founded in the early 1800s when Congress purchased Thomas Jefferson’s vast collection of books, the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. is a premiere example of Beaux-Arts architecture. This classical Beaux-Arts building was inspired by the spectacular Opera Garnier in Paris.  

The Art Institute of Chicago is a fine arts school and museum in a classical Beaux-Arts building designed by Boston architectural firm Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge that officially opened in 1893.

The Breakers, Newport, RI
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The Musée D’Orsay is a stunning Beaux-Arts train station turned wildly popular world-class art museum on the banks of the Seine in Paris. The train station was inaugurated for the 1900 Paris Exposition World Fair on July 14th, 1900. The building was classified a Historical Monument in 1978 and eventually the disused train station reopened in 1986 as a museum dedicated to showcasing French masterpieces created from the mid 19th to the early 20th century.

Paris' Grand Palais, built between 1897–1900 for the 1900 Paris Exposition is a major museum, exhibition, and events space located on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées. The Beaux-Arts structure rendered in stone, steel, and glass was declared a historic monument on its 100th birthday in 2000.

The Breakers was built starting in 1893 as the luxurious private mansion of Cornelius Vanderbilt II in Newport, RI and became a National Historic Monument in 1994. Inspired by Italian Renaissance architecture, the 70-room summer house was designed by American architect Richard Morris Hunt, a graduate of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.