What is Gilded Age Architecture?

Gilded Age Architecture: When industrialists got rich, architecture went wild

Richard Morris Hunt designed Breakers Mansion, Renaissance Revival, Newport, RI
Designed by Richard Morris Hunt, Breakers Mansion is a Renaissance Revival home in Newport, Rhode Island. Photo by Steve Dunwell/Photolibrary Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

The Gilded Age. The name, popularized by American author Mark Twain, conjures images of gold and jewels, lavish palaces, and wealth beyond imagination. And indeed, during the period we know as the Gilded Age (the late 1800s to the 1920s) American business leaders amassed huge fortunes, becoming a suddenly-rich baron class with a fondness for ostentatious displays of their new-found wealth. Millionaires built palatial and often gaudy homes in New York City and summer "cottages" on Long Island and in Newport, Rhode Island.

Before long, even refined families like the Astors, who had been wealthy for generations, joined in the whirlwind of architectural excesses.

In large cities and then in upscale resort communities, noted established architects like Stanford White and Richard Morris Hunt were designing enormous homes and elegant hotels that mimicked the castles and palaces of Europe. Renaissance, Romanesque, and Rococo styles merged with the opulent European style known as Beaux Arts.

The Gilded Age of architecture usually refers to the opulent mansions of the super-wealthy. The well-to-do built large Victorian homes in the suburbs. Many more people, during this period of time, lived in the growing urban tenements and decaying farmlands of America.

When was America's Gilded Age?

The Gilded Age was a time period in American history, an era with no specific beginning or end. Family wealth accumulated from generation to generation—continued profits from the Industrial Revolution, the railroads, steel, and the discovery of American crude oil.

By the time the book The Gilded Age, A Tale of Today was published in 1873, authors Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner could easily describe what was behind the ostentation of wealth in post-Civil War America. "There is no country in the world, sir, that pursues corruption as inveterately as we do," says one character.

"Now here you are with your railroad complete, and showing its continuation to Hallelujah and thence to Corruptionville."

In European history this same time period is called the Belle Époque or the Beautiful Age.

The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 put a damper on the boundless optimism and excessive spending (often called, "conspicuous consumption") of the era. Historians often mark the end of the Gilded Age with the stock market crash of 1929. The grand homes of the Gilded Age now stand as monuments. Many are open for tours, and a few have been converted to luxury inns.

The 21st Century Gilded Age:

The great divide between the wealthy few and the poverty of many is not relegated to the end of the 19th century. In reviewing Thomas Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, economist Paul Krugman reminds us that "It has become a commonplace to say that we are living in a second Gilded Age—or, as Piketty likes to put it, a second Belle Époque—defined by the incredible rise of the 'one percent.'"

So, where is the equivalent architecture? The Dakota was the first luxury apartment building in New York City during the first Gilded Age. Today's luxury apartments are being designed all over New York City by the likes of Christian de Portzamparc, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, Herzog & de Meuron, Annabelle Selldorf, Richard Meier, and Rafael Viñoly.

Who were the architects of America's First Gilded Age?

8 Gilded Age Homes:

  • Breakers Mansion
    Breakers is the largest and most elaborate of Newport's Gilded Age cottages. It was commissioned by Cornelius Vanderbilt II and designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt.
  • Vanderbilt Marble House
    Railroad baron William K. Vanderbilt spared no expense when he built a house for his wife's birthday. Designed by Richard Morris Hunt, Vanderbilt's grand "Marble House" cost $11 million, $7 million of which paid for 500,000 cubic feet of white marble.
  • Astors' Beechwood
    William and Caroline Astor hired architect Richard Morris Hunt and spent two million dollars renovating Astors' Beechwood into a place worthy of America's finest citizens.
  • Boldt Castle
    Legend has it that multimillionaire George Boldt ordered Boldt Castle built as a testimonial of his love for his wife, Louise. Just off-shore from Alexandria Bay, New York, the castle was to be the most magnificent summer home in the Thousand Islands. More than 300 artisans, masons, stone-cutters, landscapers, and other craftsmen were hired. However, Boldt's wife died, and the castle was never completed.
  • Oheka Castle
    Many mansion have been transformed by the hospitality industry. You can live like a millionaire at Oheka on Long Island in New York State. Built in 1919, the Châteauesque summer home was built by financier Otto Hermann Kahn.
  • The Manor on Golden Pond
    Not every wealthy industrialist went toward building ostentatious summer homes. Isaac Van Horn created a retreat that reflected his British heritage, a summer house with the aura of an English country manor in the heart of New Hampshire.
  • Biltmore Estate and Inn
    Constructed for George Washington Vanderbilt at the end of 19th century, Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina took hundreds of workers five years to complete. Architect Richard Morris Hunt, designer of the Statue of Liberty's Pedestal, modeled the house after a French Renaissance chateau.
  • Glen Cove Mansion
    This 1910 hotel and conference center on Long Island was once the summer home of the Pratt family.

More About the Name - The Gilded Age:

Gilded Age architecture is not so much a type or style of architecture as it describes an extravagance that is not representative of the American population.

It falsely characterizes the architecture of the time. "To gild" is to cover something with a thin layer of gold—to make something appear more worthy than it is. British playwright William Shakespeare used the metaphor in several of his dramas:

"To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess."
King John, Act 4, Scene 2
"All that glitters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold."
The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 7

Source: Why We’re in a New Gilded Age by Paul Krugman, The New York Review of Books, May 8, 2014 [accessed Jun 19, 2016]