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Cass Gilbert


Centurion, 1899–1934

Born 24 November 1859 in Zanesville, Ohio

Died 17 May 1934 in Brockenhurst, England

Buried Fairlawn Cemetery, Ridgefield, Connecticut

Proposed by Thomas Hastings and William Rutherford Mead

Elected 2 December 1899 at age forty

Archivist’s Note: Father of Cass Gilbert Jr.

Century Memorials

When Cass Gilbert drew up his chair to the Century lunch-table (from which he was rarely absent) and joined in the talk on topics of the day, it was not always easy for fellow-members seated next him to realize that they were matching impressions with one of the greatest constructive artists of our time. Gilbert had positive ideas on many subjects, but they were never arrogant, and his own judgments were always quietly expressed, with genuine interest in what the others had to say. He had no objection, if the lunch-table conversation turned that way, to talking of his own profession and his own architectural achievement; indeed, his seat-mates at the table will remember how, when Gilbert became absorbed in explanation of a construction plan, the table-cloth would presently be decorated with his pencil-sketches. But he never thrust the topic forward, and was equally ready to exchange ideas on politics, literature and social questions.

Over Gilbert’s place in architecture there is no dispute. The tribute of the London Times that “his range and versatility were extraordinary,” that all his work “bore the impress of his personality,” that the list of his important buildings “proves him to be the most remarkable architect of his generation in America,” fairly summarizes the educated public’s judgment. More definitely, the Society of Arts and Sciences has described him as “the prophet of the age of skyscrapers,” the allusion being evident to what was possibly Gilbert’s masterpiece, the Woolworth Building. But Gilbert was no lover of the skyscraper. Its advent, he remarked in one of his speeches, was the expression mostly of “an age of restless change.” These structures seemed to him “ephemeral”; we might have much to learn hereafter concerning “the economic wisdom of such projects” and concerning the dangers created by gathering “so many people in one spot.” In his own conversation, the designing of the new Supreme Court Building at Washington or the Federal Reserve Bank at Minneapolis interested him more.

But he accepted New York’s architectural problem as he found it. He applied successfully to a fifty-five-story structure principles of Gothic grace and decorative art which had been deemed entirely impracticable for the purpose, and the old idea, already expressed in a score of New York edifices, that a building of such height could not aspire to greater beauty than attaches to an elongated dry-goods box, was at once disposed of. Any one who, in winter days when the sun is farthest South, looks up Broadway from Battery Park and surveys that slender structure, its white surface and its graceful decorations gleaming from street to tower in the sunlight, will have had a vision of lasting beauty.

Alexander Dana Noyes
1935 Century Association Yearbook

Gilbert was born in Ohio and, at the age of nine, moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, after his father died. He dropped out of Macalester College, attended MIT for a year, before spending a year in Europe. He then worked as Stanford White’s assistant at his firm before starting a practice in St. Paul. He designed a number of railroad stations and buildings in the upper Midwest before his break-through commission of the U.S. Custom House in New York City in 1899. He moved there that year and followed that with plans for the Union Club and the New York Life Insurance Company Building. For the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, he designed what is now the St. Louis Art Museum.

Gilbert executed libraries in Detroit, New Haven and St. Louis, the State Universities of Minnesota and Texas, and the state capitols of West Virginia, Minnesota and Arkansas. His design for the George Washington Bridge was later greatly modified, but the support towers are his. In 1913, he achieved a national reputation with the Woolworth Building, long the world’s tallest and still considered one of the finest early skyscrapers.

He completed many projects in Washington, D.C., including the Supreme Court and Chamber of Commerce buildings, and he was on the design committee that guided and eventually approved the modernist design of Manhattan’s groundbreaking Rockefeller Center.

Proposed by fellow architects William Mead and Thomas Hastings, Gilbert was elected to the Club at the last monthly meeting of the 19th Century and remained a Centurion for 35 years. Upon his death in England, the London Times wrote, “The list of his most important buildings would only be long enough to prove him the most remarkable architect of his generation in America.”

Cass and his wife Julia Finch had four children: Emily, Elizabeth, Julia, and Cass Gilbert Jr., who also became an architect. He completed work on the Supreme Court Building after his father’s death.

James Charlton
“Centurions on Stamps,” Part I (Exhibition, 2010)