Renwick Jr., James (1818-1895)
James Renwick Jr. (1818-1895)
Influence . Like his contemporaries Richard Upjohn and Alexander Jackson Davis, James Renwick Jr. was a champion of the Gothic revival style in architecture. He sought to make American architecture reflect the styles of the Middle Ages, with massive, turreted, castle- and cathedral-like structures. His success at pleasing rich clients made him a wealthy man at a young age, the owner of an extensive art collection and two steam yachts.
Making a Reputation . James Renwick was born on 3 November 1818 in Bloomingdale, New York, the second son of James and Margaret Brevoort Renwick. His father was a prominent Columbia College science professor who had a love for architecture. James Renwick Jr. inherited his father’s taste and was given every opportunity to develop his genius. At age fourteen Renwick entered Columbia College, where he studied engineering. After his graduation in 1836, he became an assistant engineer on the Croton aqueduct in New York City, supervising the building of a distribution reservoir between Fortieth and Forty-second streets. During this period he also designed and supervised the erection of a fountain in Union Square. Appointed to construct Grace Church on Broadway and Tenth Street (1843-1846), Renwick won praise for his elegant neo-Gothic design with its rich ornamentation and decorative scrollwork.
Accomplishments . His reputation established, Renwick soon acquired a large and lucrative architectural business. He was architect of Calvary Church, Fourth Avenue, the Church of the Puritans, Union Square, and many businesses and private residences in New York City. In 1847 Renwick embarked upon his most ambitious project to date, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Two years before the Smithsonian was completed in 1855, Renwick entered plans in competition for a Roman Catholic cathedral in New York City. He received the appointment, and between 1858 and 1879 he supervised the construction of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, probably his best-known work. The monumental structure occupied the entire block bounded by Fifth and Madison Avenues, and Fiftieth and Fifty-first Streets; it remains one of the most imposing churches in the country.
Other Work . Among Renwick’s other accomplishments are the Corcoran Art Gallery, Washington, D.C. (1859); the first Vassar College building in Poughkeepsie, New York (1865); and Booth Theater, New York City (1869). Until 1874 Renwick served as chief architect to the board of charities and correction of the city of New York, supervising the building of the City Hospital, Smallpox Hospital, Workhouse, Lunatic and Inebriate asylums on Ward’s Island, the Catholic archbishop’s residence on Madison Avenue, and the Young Men’s Christian Association. He also loved fine art and collected paintings from all over Europe. He was known as one of the best art connoisseurs in the nation, and many of his paintings were masterpieces. Renwick married Anna Aspinwall in 1852; he died in his native city on 23 June 1895.
John Burchard and Albert Bush-Brown, The Architecture of America: A Social and Cultural History (Boston: Little, Brown, 1961);
David P. Handlin, American Architecture (London: Thames & Hudson, 1985);
Vincent Scully, American Architecture and Urbanism, revised edition (New York: Holt, 1988).
The American architect James Renwick (1818-1895) designed churches, hotels, commercial buildings, and homes for the rich.
James Renwick was born on Nov. 1, 1818, in New York City. His father was a professor at Columbia College and an engineer. In 1836 James graduated from Columbia College. Following his father's example, he turned to engineering as a profession, taking a position with the Erie Railroad and then supervising construction for the Croton reservoir and aqueduct.
Renwick abruptly shifted to architecture by winning the competition for Grace Church (1843-1846) at Broadway and 10th Street in New York City. The design of the church, mainly late English Gothic in style, is remarkably coherent, except for the spire that was added later to replace the earlier wooden one. Following this success, he gained many commissions for churches in New York, such as Calvary Church (1846), Church of the Puritans (1846), Saint Bartholomew's (1872), and Saint Patrick's Cathedral (1853, dedicated 1879, completed 1887). Saint Patrick's is generally considered his finest church. Its west facade is as well composed as any Gothic revival building in America.
The Smithsonian Institution (1846-1855), Washington, D.C., though burned in 1865 and repaired by another architect, is as interesting a design as any conceived by Renwick. In its complete lack of harmony with the established classical style of the Mall, this building has an aura of romance, of a colorful fairyland of picturesque angles, turrets, towers, and gingerbread decorations. Also in Washington, Renwick built the first Corcoran Gallery of Art (1859), which became the U.S. Court of Claims. Built of brick and brown stone, it is well proportioned and owes much to Jacques Lemercier's work on the Louvre in Paris. This is noticeable in the square dome, mansard roof, and imitative decoration.
Secure in his profession, Renwick was commissioned to build banks, hotels, and many private residences for well-to-do clients in New York, Staten Island, and Newport, R.I. In order to meet these obligations, he hired several young architects, among them John W. Root and Bertram Goodhue. (Both men were recognized as superior in the next generation.)
The Charity Hospital on Welfare Island in New York City (1858-1861), though esthetically unsuccessful, was considered otherwise by the Board of Governors, who commented that "Its truly magnificent structure presents the appearance of a stately palace." Renwick based this design on the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Its gray stone was quarried by prisoners on Welfare Island; its quoins and lintels were of a lighter shade, and purple slate covered the roof. He designed the first major building for Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, N.Y. (1860-1861). Built of red brick, with blue stone trim and a green and purple mansard roof, the structure is chiefly noted for its fireproofing, central heating from a separate building, cast-iron columns, and colorful, though awkward, appearance. Renwick died in New York City on June 23, 1895.
There is no biography of Renwick, but some information on his life is in William R. Stewart, Grace Church and Old New York (1924). □
Dictionary of American Biography (1943);
Placzek (ed.) (1982);
Jane Turner (1996);