by Florence Markoff

The story of how he put his architectural mark on Newport and New York.


Richard Morris Hunt

The time: the present. The place: the Fifth Avenue entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. You stand there for a few minutes and watch the crowds marching in. Thousands of people walk through the main entrance, but not many are aware that the magnificent building of the Metropolitan—based on the Louvre Museum in Paris—was designed by a Rhode Islander, a well-known turn-of-the-century architect from Newport.

Richard Morris Hunt started his career as an artist and went to France in 1843 to study. It wasn't until he lived in Paris, and worked as inspector of construction on additions to the Louvre, that his interest turned to architecture. When Hunt came back to America in 1857, his first job was as a draftsman working on the nation's Capitol in Washington, and then he opened his own office in New York.

Hunt was a spirited young man who didn't accept opposition peacefully. When a client built an expensive house based on his plans and refused to pay him, the architect sued him. The case had much to do with Hunt's early success because it brought him to the attention of wealthy New Yorkers. His early designs were not free of criticism, but he didn't care. He introduced radical new ideas in building; in 1873 he designed New York's Tribune Building, the first office building in the country constructed with an elevator. But his national reputation came from the Newport residences, such as the Breakers and Belcourt Castle, that he designed for his millionaire clients.

When the Statue of Liberty was to be brought to New York Harbor from France in 1885, the city fathers realized that a base needed to be designed for it. They gave the assignment to Richard Morris Hunt. The base holds the famous words every newcomer to this country sees as he sails into the harbor of New York City: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." And standing on Fifth Avenue, facing the New York Public Library there is a monument erected to the memory of the Rhode Island architect; built for the man who left many monuments of his own—Richard Morris Hunt, a Rhode Island Portrait in Sound.

Providence resident Florence Markoff (1927-2017) was a speaker, performer, storyteller, and radio personality.

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This article last edited January 23, 2003

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