Biographical Sketch of the Architect


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Cass Gilbert was born at Zanesville, Ohio, November 24, 1859, the son of Samuel Augustus and Elizabeth Fulton (Wheeler) Gilbert, and the grandson of Charles Champion Gilbert, the first mayor of Zanesville. Cass Gilbert's father was a decorated officer of the U. S. Coast Survey, and attained the rank of brigadier-general of the 44th Ohio volunteer infantry during the Civil War. The son received his early education in St. Paul, Minnesota, and later studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received the prize of the Boston Society of Architects in 1879. After a period of advanced study in Europe his professional career began in the employ of McKim, Mead & White, architects of New York City. He later established an office in St. Paul in partnership with James Knox Taylor; after winning the competition for the U.S. Custom House in New York City, he opened a branch office there and after 1899 made that city his headquarters.

Gilbert did not confine himself to any one type of architecture but adapted in an individual manner whatever style seemed most appropriate to the subject at hand. The distinctive feature of all his work was its peculiarly American character and his own logical adaptations of principles of design. Among other things he was a pioneer of the modern skyscraper. When he designed the sixty-story Woolworth building in New York City (1912), it was a venture into the unknown, and the building that rose 792 feet was widely acclaimed as both a successful financial operation and as the prime example of Gothic beauty for early twentieth-century America.

Among his other notable works were the state capitols of Minnesota, Arkansas and West Virginia; the U. S. Army Supply Base; U. S. Treasury Annex; building of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce at Washington, D. C.; New York Life Insurance Building at New York City; public libraries in St. Louis, Detroit and New Haven; one of the Prudential Life Insurance buildings in Newark; Essex County Court House in Newark; the St. Louis Art Museum; Suffolk Savings Bank in Boston; City Hall in Waterbury, Connecticut; Union Central Life Insurance Building in Cincinnati; Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis; Scott Memorial Fountain in Detroit; Seaside Hospital in Waterford, Connecticut; United States Legation in Ottawa; the U. S. Court House in New York, and the U. S. Supreme Court Building, which he considered his outstanding achievement. He also made the general plans for the buildings of the Universities of Minnesota and Texas, made planning commission reports for the future layout of the city of New Haven and was consulting architect of the George Washington and the Kill Van Kull bridges for the Port of New York Authority.

Gilbert's work is noted for its simplicity, just proportions, beauty and refinement. Much that he did was built to endure- monuments that will carry the evidence of his genius as an architect for generations to come. A man of scrupulous honesty, he was actuated, in his public building designs, to prove that public funds could be spent honestly. He was a member of many national committees, lectured frequently and was the recipient of various honorary degrees and awards. President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him chairman of the Council of Fine Arts in 1909; he designed the festival hall and art building at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904; and he was awar'ded the following decorations: grand gold medal for architecture at the Paris exhibition in 1900, gold medal of the city of Liepzig in 1913, medal of King Albert of Belgium in 1920, chevalier of the Legion of Honor of France in 1924, and the gold medals of the Society of Arts and Sciences, Architectural League of New York and American Institute of Arts and Letters in 1931.

In person Gilbert was tall, strongly built, and of attractive personality and genial disposition. He had the energy that is requisite for great undertakings, and it was said of him that he would have been great in any business or profession. He liked to help others, and many prominent architects began their practice in his office. His ambition in life was to make the world a little more beautiful and those with whom he came in contact a little more happy for his having lived. He was fond of outdoor life, especially golf and fishing, and took two months away from work each year to travel the world studying architectural forms and ancient ruins. He firmly believed that he could accomplish more in ten months of the year than he could by working continuously for twelve months, and advocated that this interim away from his labors was necessary for the regeneration of his mental prowess. Although deeply religious, he was not affiliated with any church.

He was married November 29, l887, to Julia Tappen, daughter of a Milwaukee lawyer, and they had four children: Emily Finch, Elizabeth Wheeler (who died young), Julia Swift and Cass Gilbert, Jr. His death occurred in Brockenhurst, England, May 17, 1934.

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