What is Beaux Arts Architecture?

Beautiful, Fine Arts

Marble lion in front of the Main Branch of the New York Public Library, 1911, Beaux-Arts Architecture
Main Branch of the New York Public Library, 1911, Beaux-Arts Architecture. Photo by Robert Alexander / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Beaux Arts is an opulent subset of the Neoclassical and Greek Revival architectural styles. A dominant design during the Gilded Age, Beaux Arts was popular but short-lived in the United States from roughly 1885-1925.

In French, the term beaux arts (pronounced BOZE-ar) means fine arts or beautiful arts. The Beaux-Arts "style" emanated from France, based on ideas taught at the legendary L'École des Beaux Arts ("The School of Fine Arts") in Paris.

The turn into the 20th century was a time of great growth throughout the world. It was a time when architecture was becoming a licensed profession requiring schooling. These French ideas of beauty were brought to America by American architects fortunate enough to have studied at the only internationally known school of architecture, L’Ecole des Beaux Arts. European aesthetics spread to wealthy areas of the world that had profited from industrialization. It is found mostly in urban areas, where it can make a more public statement of prosperity or an embarrassment of riches.

Definitions of Beaux-Arts Architecture:

"Historical and eclectic design on a monumental scale, as taught at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris in the 19th cent."—Dictionary of Architecture and Construction, Cyril M. Harris, ed., McGraw- Hill, 1975, p. 48
"The Beaux Arts is a classical style with the full range of Greco-Roman elements: the column, arch, vault and dome. It is the showy, almost operatic, manner in which these elements are composed that gives the style its characteristic flavor."—Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation

Typical Characteristics of Beaux-Arts Buildings:

  • Massive and grandiose symmetry
  • Constructed with stone, polished interiors
  • Balustrades
  • Balconies
  • Columns
  • Cornices
  • Pilasters
  • Triangular pediments
  • Lavish decorations, including sculptures, swags, medallions, flowers, and shields
  • Interiors with a grand stairway and opulent ballroom
  • Large arches

About the Beaux-Arts Style:

Also known as Beaux-Arts Classicism, Academic Classicism, or Classical Revival, Beaux Arts is a late and eclectic form of Neoclassicism. It combines classical architecture from ancient Greece and Rome with Renaissance ideas. Beaux-Arts architecture became part of the American Renaissance movement.

Beaux Arts is characterized by order, symmetry, formal design, grandiosity, and elaborate ornamentation. In the United States, the Beaux-Arts style led to planned neighborhoods with large, showy houses, wide boulevards, and vast parks. Because of the size and grandiosity of the buildings, the Beaux-Arts style is most commonly used for public buildings like museums, railway stations, libraries, banks, courthouses, and government buildings.

The popularity of the Beaux-Arts style waned in the 1920s, and within 25 years the buildings were considered ostentatious.

To Hyphenate or Not:

Generally, if beaux arts is used alone, the words are not hyphenated. When used together as an adjective to describe a style or architecture, the words are often hyphenated. Some English dictionaries always hyphenate these non-English words.

Famous Beaux-Arts Buildings:

Architects Associated with Beaux Arts:

Some of these architects studied at L'École des Beaux Arts. Others were mentored by those architects. This is how ideas spread.

    Learn More:

    Source: "The Beaux Arts Style" by Jonathan and Donna Fricker, Fricker Historic Preservation Services, LLC, February 2010, Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation (PDF) [accessed July 26, 2016]