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Monday, November 12, 2012

Happy Birthday, James Renwick

One of New York's most influential architects was James Renwick, and yesterday may or may not have been his 194th birthday -- sources variously list the date of his birth as November 1, November 3, and November 11.

We do know that Renwick was born in the Bloomingdale section of Manhattan (now the Upper West Side) in 1818. He was the son of Columbia College professor James Renwick, Sr., and Margaret Brevoort, the sister of Henry Brevoort, one of the city's most prominent landowners.

Renwick studied engineering at Columbia (graduating at age 18, which was not that unusual in that era), and became a supervising engineer on the new Croton aqueduct system that was bringing water from Westchester county to New York. In 1843, Grace Episcopal Church purchased land from Renwick's uncle Henry to build a new parish in Greenwich Village. Likely through Brevoort's influence, Renwick -- who'd never built a building in his life -- was given the job. The church was immediately the toast of the town. As we write in Inside the Apple:
Former mayor Philip Hone, now living on nearby Great Jones Street, soon tweaked the new parish’s congregants in his diary: "This is to be a fashionable church and already its aisles are filled…with gay parties of ladies in feathers and 'mousseline-delaine dresses' and dandies with moustaches and high heeled boots; the lofty arches resound with astute criticisms upon 'Gothic Architecture' from fair ladies who have had the advantage of foreign travel, and scientific remarks upon 'acoustics' from elderly millionaires who do not hear quite as well as formerly." 
The other great New York diarist of the time, George Templeton Strong, took issue with the city’s sudden love of all things Gothic and levied his criticism squarely at Renwick:  "If the infatuated monkey showed the slightest trace or germ of feeling for his art, one could pardon and pass over blunders and atrocities…. [Renwick is] caught up in the prevailing romantic preoccupation with keeps and dungeons illuminated by flashes of lightning and ringing with the clash of sword on shield."

Hot on the heels of the success of Grace Church, Renwick won the competition to design the new Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Built between 1847-1855, the original building -- today known as "The Castle" -- was a major influence on the widespread use of Gothic Revival architecture in America.

Besides the Castle, Renwick's most famous work is probably St. Patrick's Cathedral, completed in 1879; however, New York is filled with other Renwick buildings, from the old Hotel St. Denis (across the street from Grace Church, now offices), to the row of apartments on West 10th Street known as "Renwick Terrace," to the Packer Collegiate building in Brooklyn Heights that was once the Church of St. Ann. It is nearly impossible to study 19th-century architecture in the city without experiencing and enjoying Renwick's influence.

So, no matter what day you were born -- Happy Birthday, James Renwick!

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Read more about James Renwick in 

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