The Architect-Artist

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books.

—Walt Whitman

Fifty years before a skyscraper rose at Forty-second Street and Lexington Avenue, there was Mrs. White. She lived in a small white farmhouse on that rocky knoll, surrounded by a pasture for her goats and some squatters’ shanties. The land was valued at two cents a square foot. Across the street sat a dilapidated building shaped like a radish bulb, the Hospital for the Ruptured and Crippled. Nearby, Doctor Tyng preached to his flock in what some called the Church of the Oily Cloth. Other neighbors included the druggist Schoonmaker, butcher Tyson, baker Gibson, grocer Brandeis, and the man who owned the oyster shack. A few years later, Schoonmaker installed the first all-night telephone service in the city; neighboring hotels sent guests there if they needed to make a late call. Up the block, Commodore Vanderbilt kept his horse, Maud S, and his grandson planned a chateau on Fifth Avenue and Fifty-second Street so he could have “air and breathing space around it.” At night, gas lamps lit the way on Forty-second Street for those who climbed the hill east of Second Avenue to watch the Boston and Harlem boats scoot up the river.

Most banks, insurance and trust companies, industrial corporations, and law firms were located downtown near Broadway and Wall Street. Furriers and garment producers ran their sweatshops just north of Canal Street. For shopping, Macy’s and Hearn’s on Fourteenth Street fit the bill. Despite a few tall buildings and premature cries of a “high-building epoch,” the city was primarily a rectangular stretch of low, flat roofs, crossed by a gridiron of streets. For most, Forty-second Street was “that place north.”

This was the shape of the city when William Van Alen was born across the river in Williamsburg on August 10, 1882. The architect came from a family steeped in the history of America. With his wife and three children, the first Van Alen set foot in the New World off a ship from Utrecht, Holland, in 1658. Settling in Beaveryck (now Albany), he traded beaver skins. Before the Revolutionary War, John Evert Van Alen worked as a surveyor and civil engineer. A close friend of George Washington, he later served in Congress between 1793 and 1799. Letters written to John Evert from Washington survived through the years and were prized by the family. Another civil engineer, William’s great-grandfather, surveyed land for the Erie Canal and drew one of the first maps of Albany. His son Benjamin charged General Mosby’s command in the Civil War as part of the Army of the Potomac. He distinguished himself in battles at Harper’s Ferry, Cold Harbor, and the bloody fight at Wilderness. The architect’s father, Jacob Van Alen, married Eleda Squire in 1881 and had William eleven months later. Although the family traced its roots to the days when the Dutch West India Company stole Manhattan for a mere sixty guilders, they were by no means landed gentry. Jacob Van Alen ran a small company called New York Stove Works, producing potbellied cast-iron stoves. He worked hard to bring in the sales, like other budding industrialists around him.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Williamsburg was crowded with distilleries, sugar refiners, breweries, glass factories, iron foundries, and shipyards. For three cents, passengers took a ferry across the East River to the markets on Twenty-third Street. On the docks, cats followed around the fishmongers. Vendors peddled hot corn on the streets and a poor fellow named Bismarck was often seen turning the corner, ordering the troops of his “army” to rally against an unseen foe. Most of the houses were two stories and wooden framed. As the first steel-framed buildings went up in Manhattan, the best Williamsburg offered for a skyline was the dome of the local savings bank and a string of six-story grain elevators along the waterfront. But it was as fine a place as any in the city to raise a family.

While returning home from Jamaica Bay on July 22, 1897, Jacob Van Alen was struck by a LIRR train and killed. William was fourteen, his sister eleven. Two years later William left public school in Brooklyn to work as an office boy for architect and developer Clatence True. True paid him a meager wage and “Will” or sometimes “Bill” took to his role as errand boy for the senior draftsmen and the “boss,” as the head of an architect’s office was always called. Clarence True was the owner, contractor, and architect of most of his buildings: he seldom compromised. Known for developing rowhouses up and down Manhattan’s Riverside Drive, True turned heads when he first advertised his firm. The journal Pencil Paints said: “His name, tripping the light fantastic on the signboards of New York, was then as familiar as are those of ‘Camel,’ ‘Chesterfield,’ and ‘Spearmint’ . . . for the rather exclusive circles of men who considered themselves as the standard-bearers of the learned profession and fine art of Architecture, it was the unfittest of things unfit to do.” The advertising worked though, and True’s office rushed to complete his many jobs. While many of his peers studied at the handful of schools that taught architecture, like MIT and Columbia, Van Alen earned his start as once all architects had, with his hands. The futurist True played the mentor, showing the teenage tyro that architecture was in part about advertising and that the disdain of others could be the best indicator that one was on the right path. In his career ahead, Van Alen would exhibit a flair for showmanship in his designs and certainly earn a harsh word—several in fact—from the standard-bearers.

Half a century before Van Alen apprenticed with True, most people considered architects simply carpenters putting on airs. In Chicago in 1853, several builders sat down to discuss who should forgo contracting to spend his time solely drawing up plans in order that they all could meet the demand for new buildings. When one of the builders volunteered, the group guaranteed that if he didn’t earn at least two dollars a day, they promised to make up the difference. Such was the state of the profession at the time. The few practicing architects distrusted one another and secreted their designs. There were no schools, no national publications of import, no society, and the few architecture books these men owned were prized and kept under lock and key.

Finally in 1857, Richard Upjohn, architect of New York’s Trinity Church, and several others came together to share what they knew, adopt some guidelines, and form an official group: the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Architect George B. Post said of these days: “It was torn by dissensions and jealousies, and its few members were engaged in a war of styles. The Medievalists could see no merit in Classic art; the devotees of the Renaissance considered modern Gothic worthy of no consideration; and the Pre-Raphaelites believed in neither. The American painters and sculptors were frankly outspoken in their opinion that there was no art in Architecture.” Architects fought for the occasional church or public building where they could show their skill, but few of their designs were of consistent character. Only after the Civil War, with the rising influence of the American Institute of Architects, and the development of architecture schools at MIT, the University of Illinois, and Columbia, among a handful of others, did a formalization of style begin to emerge.

When Van Alen first began to trace drawings and scour dusty tomes filled with Ionic orders, Roman vaults, and Gothic buttresses, architecture in America was under the spell of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Daniel Burnham with his aide-de-camp, the firm of McKim, Mead & White (Charles McKim, William Mead, and Standford White), managed to set the style for the kind of architecture they decided America needed, rather than the more democratic approach of giving the individual what he wanted. According to Stanford White, it was fine for H. H. Richardson to design a few buildings with an inventive use of mass, as long as others didn’t follow in his path; what the crude tastes of the American public needed was some classical European refinement. Charles McKim set about to establish the American Academy of Rome, for students to study classic Italian architecture and steer clear of “Yahoo or Hottentot creations.” Soon New York and cities across the country turned to Classical, or Renaissance design for their libraries, train stations, court houses, office buildings, and houses. In an imperial rebirth of ages past, architects put up little Romes everywhere. In his last couple years, Richard Morris Hunt, considered the dean of American architecture, must have been bleary-eyed with the number of Italian palazzos the wealthy asked him to design. The Beaux-Arts movement that soon followed, though drawing on a range of styles and benefiting from a stress on a building’s plan, was mostly a language of French neoclassical design with a heavy emphasis on ornament. Sullivan commented: “the damage wrought to this country by the Chicago World’s Fair will last half a century. It has penetrated deep into the constitution of the American mind, effecting there lesions of dementia.” It would be years before clients wanted anything other than amended copies of classical architecture.

Although aware of this cultural nod to all things European, Van Alen had other concerns, like mastering his trade. Many architects’ offices at the time were housed in barren lofts. Tables crowded the room where the draftsmen labored in shirtsleeves. Ventilation was a luxury and a spot by a window the prize of seniority. The men attached string to the lamps hanging from cords overhead to illuminate a section of their drawing board. Cigarette butts and torn pieces of tracing paper littered the cement floor. Drawings were pasted over most of the walls. Between shelving materials and taking measurements, a neophyte like Van Alen spent his days learning the basics. He copied classical orders and traced floor plans; he went on-site and watched the progress of the masons and carpenters. If asked, he cleaned the office floor of pencil shavings. Practices of the day were open six days a week and most the draftsmen were paid less than the bricklayers and carpenters on the jobs (some started at as little as eight to ten dollars a week). They had to be fast and accurate with their work.

After three years and three months, Van Alen made draftsman’s grade. Draftsmen were responsible for taking rough designs (sketched out by True and the senior men) and developing them into working drawings and specifications for the builders to use on site. If a change in the plan was needed—additional windows, alterations in story heights or exterior details—draftsmen such as Van Alen were called to make a new drawing. Head draftsmen rarely hesitated to criticize an uneven or too bold line. Occasionally Van Alen was asked to make a preliminary sketch in soft pencil in addition to the final drawings. The total number of drawings required for a single building stacked up into the hundreds.

Although exhausted by the end of the day, Van Alen attended night school at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, a school of art and design founded with the motto: “Be True To Your Work And Your Work Will Be True To You.” It was a young school, started only a decade before the burgeoning architect enrolled. What free time Van Alen had left, he spent like most draftsmen with aspirations to be great designers—looking for inspiration and an opportunity to learn. As one contemporary described, young apprentices “herd by themselves. They do not often go to parties, they do not go much to the theatre; they are always walking about the Metropolitan Museum . . . or taking trips out to see old colonial houses or working on problems in the ateliers . . . There is certainly something in the profession that gets the men as does no other profession that I know of.”

In his last days of apprenticeship with True, Van Alen left Pratt to study at an atelier run by Emmanuel Masqueray, a Frenchman and one of the founders of the Society of Beaux Arts Architects. The organization was formed in 1893 by several alumni (mostly American) of Paris’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts, who wanted to bring the famed school’s method of study, the atelier system, to the United States. Its members sponsored ateliers, or studios, where students gathered to study the craft and participate in a succession of competitions with various design problems to solve. In a sense, the organization ran a loose-knit collection of mini-academies, some affiliated with universities like Columbia, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania, others run independently by teachers or architectural clubs. Atelier teachers strove to instill in budding architects the principles of design—balance, flow, utility, truth, scale, proportion, and beauty—rather than rote adherence to historical style.

Van Alen chose one of the more eccentric characters running an atelier in the city. The red-bearded Masqueray had a flair for the dramatic. Once asked by a patron to add more color to his drawing, Masqueray pulled on his handlebar mustache and said, “Oh! You make it twenty-five dollar more, an’ I put on all ze colours in ze box!” Underneath the good humor, there was a bit of a revolutionary in Masqueray. He insisted his students break from the past. Van Alen learned from him that while the Parthenon may be fine architecture, “it might not make the best design for an office building if a dozen Parthenons were piled one upon another and hung to a steel skeleton.” Masqueray pleaded with his students to make things simple. The Frenchman may have had praise for Vignola’s rules for Renaissance order and decoration, but he also knew that “Vignola has been dead a long while and besides, he didn’t know everything when he was alive.” After work and late into the night, young men like Van Alen discussed theories of design, made colored perspectives, and critiqued each other’s drawings in the loft on east Twenty-third Street. They copied plates of Greek temples and simmered in Masqueray’s thoughts on architecture.

In 1901 Van Alen left True’s office to cut his teeth at the large firm Copeland & Dole. He stayed there a few short months and then jumped to the conservative firm Clinton & Russell for a higher salary. While working on the grand Hotel Astor for his new firm, he switched ateliers, joining the one run by Donn Barber, the ninth American to graduate from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Van Alen wanted to follow in his steps, but had little money to go gallivanting off to Europe. There was only one way he could attend: win the Paris Prize. First awarded in 1904, the prize offered a scholarship to the famed school and a stipend for travel to the winner of a nationwide design competition sponsored by the Society of the Beaux-Arts Architects and funded by the likes of Andrew Carnegie and J. Pierpont Morgan. It was the honor for an atelier student.

Van Alen first tried in 1906, but was eliminated. In 1908 he entered again. The competition was closed to anyone twenty-seven or older, since one had to be younger than thirty years old to be at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and it took roughly three years to graduate. At twenty-six, this would be Van Alen’s last chance. The competition ran in three rounds of elimination. In the first program, students had twelve hours to draw a decorative motif. Judges from the Society chose who continued to the second program, which called for a plan for a single building or group of buildings. For the third round, the five finalists gathered in New York and in thirty-six hours made preliminary sketches for the auditorium floor and principal façade of a theater. The program read: “This theater for a large city is designed for lyric and dramatic representations, the former comprising opera, ballet, and the latter tragedy, comedy. Like all theaters, it comprises two grand divisions: 1. the part for the public; 2. the part for the artists.” After the sketches, each finalist was given ten weeks for study, then returned to finish rendered drawings en loge—or, “in the box”—without the benefit of any books or consultation with another architect. Van Alen delivered his final drawings by the deadline, two showing plans for the ground and auditorium floors, as well as an elevation for the façade for his “Grand Opera House” and a longitudinal section drawing at one-sixteenth scale. The drawings revealed an architect with a fine sense of scale and a clever eye, but more important, one with more promise than the thousands of others who aspired to the Paris Prize. The judges issued their decision: Van Alen was to sail for Paris in September.

Before he left, Clinton & Russell entered their firm into a competition for a New Orleans bank. Van Alen was chosen to represent them. Contrary to classical rules of design, he chose to split the façade with a pilaster and won the commission for the firm. Clinton & Russell took the job, but removed the pilaster. They had no intention of mocking good fashion. As Van Alen departed for his education at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, he left behind an architectural community desperate to know the name of the designer who had dared to upset convention.

Marco Vitruvius Pollio, the architect for Emperor Augustus of Rome, set down his principles for the training of an architect in his legendary treatise, De Architectura: “He must have both a natural gift and also a readiness to learn. For neither talent without instruction nor instruction without talent can produce the perfect craftsman. He should be a man of letters, a skillful draftsman, a mathematician, familiar with historical studies, a diligent student of philosophy, acquainted with music; not ignorant of medicine, learned in the responses of jurisconsults, familiar with astronomy and astronomical calculations.” Nearly two thousand years later, those principles were at the core of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts when Van Alen presented his papers for entrance.

Beyond architectural theory and design, students at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts were taught mathematics, geometry, history, sculpture, mechanics, painting, and even the principles of construction. Although the school only enrolled forty-five French and fifteen foreign applicants each term, thousands descended upon rue Bonaparte to take the five-part entrance examinations. The caliber of students, particularly among Americans, was high. They included architects who later made their names designing skyscrapers, among them William Lamb, Raymond Hood, George Howe, and Ely Jacques Kahn. But Van Alen was the only one in 1908 to walk through the doors with a scholarship courtesy of the Paris Prize and a pass on the entrance examinations.

Students spent little time at the school itself. Lecture attendance was optional. Typically, each student joined an atelier connected with the school, where they worked on their architectural studies. Van Alen spent most of his waking moments at the atelier of Victor Laloux, the architect of the Gare de Quai d’Orsay and one of the most revered instructors. Many of his students claimed top awards at the school, and he was known for his emphasis on the plan of a building, rather than on decoration like Redon taught at his atelier. Nouveaus of the atelier were subjected to ritual hazing. The anciens tore their clothing, painted them blue and red, drew mustaches on their faces, reddened their cheeks with rouge, stuck plaster on their noses, and forced them to parade through the streets. Some were ordered to buy pastries or sing at the top of their lungs. Although everyone had a good laugh at their expense, a greater purpose was gained by these pranks: in a student’s first year, humility was necessity.

The new initiates then spent the next six months in service to the anciens, meaning Van Alen performed menial tasks like buying materials for the atelier and mounting paper for the older members. The arrangement served both parties: the atelier won free labor, the nouveaus learned techniques of craft and a sense of duty to what would be their family in the coming years. Every two months the professors called the students into the school to make a sketch solution for a particular architectural problem, like a decorative treatment for a wrought-iron door or the plan of a museum. After the preliminary sketch, they returned to the atelier to study their original sketch and to render a final solution (based on the original, or it was disqualified) in the next two months. There they worked night and day with the others: the anciens guided the younger students; the nouveaus helped the older members with detail work, retrieved books from which to study or ran for baguettes and cheese. Their patriarch Laloux oversaw the work, guiding with broad strokes; the students adored him like a father.

The day before the Saturday two o’clock deadline for the final solution, the atelier went wild. Members scrambled over one another for paste brushes and mounting boards. If the candles shed inadequate light, some waited until dawn to put the last finishes on their watercolors and ink-wash renderings. Then the last hour came. Clarence Stein, a student at the atelier with Van Alen, described the scene:

Everyone was shouting and running around. The whole atelier seemed to have gone mad. Finally we had loaded all the drawings mounted into small charettes—carts. I, as last nouveau, was commanded to act as horse for the last charette. It was five minutes of two . . . The cart-load was heavy—it seemed to be pulling me back, but I jogged along. A tram came along and almost ran us down, and we in turn came near to knocking down innumerable old men and children . . . One final spurt and we were at the school. My, I was tired when it was all done. I felt like sitting down there on the stairs and dying.

Van Alen and Stein, who later became well known for his efforts in city planning, often ran together. They traveled to Fountainbleu, where they got lost in the woods outside the town. They shared drinks at the brass-edged tables of Café des Deux Magots; they attended grand balls and costume parades, sometimes ending the night at a bonfire before the Pantheon and the hustle of police; and they worked together. Once they spent the last weeks of December, including Christmas and New Year’s Eve, toiling on a competition design for a terra-cotta building. Friends stopped by the atelier or their apartments to help, or at least share in a tea, but Van Alen kept calling Stein back to the drafting table, even while he was writing letters home to his parents. There was work to be done. Ely Jacques Kahn said of his time in Paris with Van Alen and Stein, “Unless you were really serious about trying to do a job, nobody gave a damn about who you were or anything about you whatsoever.” To graduate, students earned points from competitions held throughout the year; rivalry among students, especially from different ateliers, was intense. To dare step into another atelier earned one a pail of water poured from overhead.

Despite the constant competition, Van Alen remembered the time spent in the old Louis XV–style private house near the school as one of the finest of his life. He lived up to the promise of a Paris Prize winner, earning special remark from Laloux and medals for his design of a bathhouse, a City Hall, and a naval monument on an island in the sea. He was praised for his cleverness and understanding of scale. One critic commented: “The training was providing him with the mental freedom necessary to think independently, instead of merely the school-cargo of elements of architecture and a technique of composition by rules.” The school taught him the necessity of a logical plan rather than a blind adherence to one style or another; the broad range of study gave him knowledge of all the arts and an insight into the physics of construction. He mastered the technique of rendering so that he might provide future clients a vision in ink and color of how their buildings would look. He modeled in clay, competed with painters, and was won over by the school’s bent toward monumental, large-scale projects.

His instructors also stressed beauty in design, a lesson that motivated Cass Gilbert to say: “Aim for beauty; originality will take care of itself.” In Paris beauty was a student’s constant companion, from the Palais du Luxembourg, to the arcades of the Rue de Rivoli, to the great cathedral of Notre Dame. Van Alen only needed to cross the Pont des Arts, passing the fisherman on the quays, to arrive at the Louvre. Always appearing unexpectedly at the turn of the corner was the Eiffel Tower, looming like a giant over the city at 984 feet. Built twenty years before Van Alen arrived, millions had gone before him up the lifts to the top platform to see the city from the tallest structure in the world. It was a sight that also influenced the artists then carousing at Montparnesse’s Lapin Agile and leading the movement of modern art. No matter how hectic the atelier schedule, the pleasures and inspiration of Parisian life were always present to the eager architect.

But most important, the architect, almost thirty years old at his graduation in 1911, learned the art of competition in his three years at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. At the end, he received his diploma and spent the summer touring through Europe. He met Stein and Kahn in Italy, and for several weeks sketched and made watercolors of the ruins of Rome. That summer Italian cities and villages across the country built pavilions to celebrate Roman arts through the ages. It was as if the past, the architecture of Palladio and Brunelleschi, dared him to challenge their style. Eventually Van Alen returned to Paris and set off back to America, now ready to make his name. His colleague Kenneth Murchison later characterized the young architect’s sentiment: “Van Alen was the only American student who returned from Paris without a box full of architectural books. He foresaw the future. He tingled with the touch of approaching modernism. He threw his pencil compass overboard on the way home.”

“No old stuff for me!” Van Alen said. “No bestial copyings of arches and colyums and cornishes! Me, I’m new! Avanti!”

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