Biography of Cass Gilbert

Architect of Skyscrapers and Capitols (1859-1934)

Black and white head and shoulder profile of Cass Gilbert, mustache, pince-nez glasses, three-piece suit
Architect Cass Gilbert, c. 1905. Photo by Harris & Ewing, Reproduction LC-DIG-hec-18023, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC (cropped)

American architect Cass Gilbert (born November 24, 1859 in Zanesville, Ohio) is nationally known for his grand neoclassical design of the US Supreme Court building in Washington, DC. Yet it was Lower Manhattan in New York City on 9/11/01 that drew attention to his iconic Woolworth Building, a 1913 skyscraper that survived the nearby terrorist attacks (view image). These two buildings alone—the US Supreme Court and the Woolworth Building—make Cass Gilbert an important part of American architectural history.

Although Cass Gilbert's name is rarely mentioned today, he exercised enormous influence on the development of architecture in the United States. Completing his formal education in 1879 at Boston's Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Gilbert was trained to know historic and traditional architectural forms. He apprenticed under Stanford White and the high-profile firm of McKim, Mead and White, yet Gilbert's own architecture is his legacy.

His genius was in merging modern interiors and technologies of the day with historic exterior architectural styles. His Gothic Revival Woolworth Building was the world's tallest building in 1913, and it had an indoor swimming pool. Combining modern technologies with historic ideas, Gilbert designed many public buildings, including the state capitols of Minnesota, West Virginia, and Arkansas, spreading neoclassic design into the heartland of America.

He was a consulting architect for the iconic George Washington Bridge, still used by New Jersey commuters to cross the Hudson River into New York City.

Cass Gilbert's success as a designer was due largely to his skill as a businessman and his ability to negotiate and compromise. Inventing the Skyline: The Architecture of Cass Gilbert, edited by Margaret Heilbrun, captures the spirit of a man who spent a lifetime trying to balance these qualities.

Essays by four scholars analyze Gilbert's major projects, his sketches and watercolors (view example) and his contributions as a city planner. Along the way, readers are given an inside look at Gilbert's creative processes—and his conflicts and compromises. For example:

  • Originally, Gilbert planned to place women's toilets only on every third floor of the Broadway Chamber's Building.
  • Discord erupted when Gilbert refused to use local stone for the Minnesota State Capitol.
  • Gilbert's vision for the George Washington Bridge included fountains, sculptures, and granite towers.
  • Gilbert believed that colored terra-cotta was essential in the design of modern skyscrapers. 

Gilbert died May 17, 1934 in Brockenhurst, England, yet his architecture continues to be part of the American skyline. The most comprehensive records of Cass Gilbert's work are housed at the New-York Historical Society. Some 63,000 drawings, sketches, blueprints and watercolor renderings plus hundreds of letters, specifications, ledgers and personal files document the firm's New York practice. In linear footage, the Society's Gilbert collection is about as high as his celebrated Woolworth Building.

Selected Projects by Cass Gilbert:

  • 1900: Broadway Chambers Building, New York City

Quotes by Cass Gilbert:

  • "In conducting business (especially for the office) never forget that the greatest danger arises from cocksure pride."
  • "Beware of over-confidence; especially in matters of structure."
  • "It is only the young and callow and ignorant that admire rashness. Think before you speak. Know your subject."

-from Maxims for My Office Organization

Cass Gilbert in History:

Although today a new appreciation for architecture based on historic themes has reawakened interest in the work of Cass Gilbert, this was not always the case. By the 1950s, Gilbert's name had slipped into obscurity. Modernism, which idealized sleek, unadorned forms without ornamentation, became fashionable and Gilbert's buildings were often dismissed or even ridiculed. British architect and critic Dennis Sharp (1933-2010) had this to say:

"The fairly pedestrian designs created by Gilbert's firm did not prevent it from gaining popularity. The majority of buildings the firm designed were gothicized skyscrapers, the most famous of which was the Woolworth Building. Works designed by the firm during the early 1930s were competent Classical buildings which lack the originality of such contemporary Modernists as Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe."

~ Dennis Sharp. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Architects and Architecture. New York: Quatro Publishing, 1991. ISBN 0-8230-2539-X. NA40.I45. p65.

Learn More:

  • Inventing the Skyline: The Architecture of Cass Gilbert edited by Margaret Heilbrun, Columbia University Press, 2000
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  • Cass Gilbert: The Early Years by Geoffrey Blodgett, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001
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  • Cass Gilbert Abroad: The Young Architect's European Tour by Paul Larson, Afton Historical Society Press, 2002
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  • Cass Gilbert, Life and Work: Architect of the Public Domain edited by Barbara S. Christen and Steven Flanders, Norton, 2001
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  • Cass Gilbert's West Virginia State Capitol by Ann Thomas Wilkins and David Wilkins, West Virginia University Press, 2014
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