Richard Morris Hunt: Exploring the Man and the Legacy

June 5, 2014 by Barbara Orbach Natanson


Elizabeth Terry Rose with Richard Morris Hunt drawings. Photo by Dan Rose, 2014.

While reading Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City about events in 1890s Chicago during the World’s Columbian Exposition, I became intrigued by the glimpses Larson provided of architect Richard Morris Hunt, one of the contributors to the exposition’s monumental design.

Dorsheimer-Busk house, Newport, Rhode Island, designed by Richard Morris Hunt. Drawing, ca. 1890.

Richard Morris Hunt has become something of a household name around the Prints and Photographs Division. Curious to learn more about him, I spoke with Elizabeth Terry Rose, a member of our reference staff. Elizabeth has been helping researchers work with Hunt’s drawings, photos, and his library of books in the American Institute of Architects/American Architectural Foundation Collection. Along the way, she has been gaining familiarity with the man and his legacy.

Barbara: Can you say a little bit about Richard Morris Hunt and why he was so crucial to the development of American architectural practice?

Elizabeth: Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895) had a great influence on architectural design and the practice of architecture in theUnited States. Through his own tremendous career success and commitment to education, he became a leader in establishing architecture as a profession. He co-founded the American Institute of Architects and inspired the development of academic architectural training. Those who followed him became America’s first architecture professors.


Seventh Regiment Memorial, New York City, designed by Richard Morris Hunt. Drawing, before 1874.


Hunt was the first American to study at the rigorous École des Beaux-Arts inParis, which allowed him to pair the beauty of oldEuropewith the latest ideas in technology and technique.

He also learned through experience. Early in his practice, Hunt became involved in a major court case and defended the right of architects to be paid for their designs. So he was a gifted artist, a technician, and a businessman.

Hunt is known for his grand architecture, which elevated American culture and gave his wealthy clients status as an elegant new “gentry.”

His generosity and determination in sharing the design source materials he collected also elevated the profession of architecture. With Hunt as a role model, with the formalization of architectural education, and with the 1857 establishment of the AIA, the profession developed in stature.

Barbara: How can people learn more about Hunt and his influence?

Elizabeth: Our online introduction to Hunt is a great place to start. It summarizes how Hunt’s life and glittering career allowed him to achieve his professional ambitions. From there, one can continue learning through the recommended books and articles. I’ve studied many works about Hunt and found those listed to be particularly helpful in understanding how influential he was.

The Prints & Photographs Division is also pleased to share a recently digitized resource–an unpublished biography of Richard Morris Hunt written by his widow Catherine Clinton Howland Hunt sometime between his death in 1895 and her death in 1909. We have scanned the more than 500 delicate pages of typewritten manuscript, every last word or smudge, as well as the evocative personal photos and other illustrations, creating PDF files that anyone can use. This is Mrs. Hunt’s proud perspective on her husband’s momentous career.

Barbara: How can researchers find out what else is in the AIA/AAF collection and come view the material?

Elizabeth: Hunt’s reference library and his own designs became the core of the American Institute of Architects/American Architectural Foundation (AIA/AAF) Collection, which was donated to the Library of Congress in 2010. An estimated 160,000 drawings, 30,000 photographs, and hundreds of rare illustrated books have enhanced our rich existing holdings of millions of architectural documents. Hunt’s archive is being prepared first for service by appointment, and the work of other creators will follow.

Researchers interested in coming to the Library of Congress to do primary source research in the AIA/AAF collection should first write to our Ask a Librarian service.  Our dedicated team is still inventorying this vast collection, so there isn’t yet a comprehensive listing to offer online.

Tell us about your research and what particular items you are hoping to find in the collection. We’ll respond with information and, if needed, proposed dates for an appointment. Please contact us well in advance of when you hope to make a visit. Because of the complexity of the collection and the many fragile materials it includes, we provide one-on-one service to those who need to view originals. Appointments fill quickly and steadily.

Keep in mind that other institutions, such as Columbia’s Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, the Preservation Society of Newport County, the Biltmore Estate, and other organizations related to the buildings that Hunt designed may also have relevant materials.

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