Biography

Cass Gilbert Bronze Cast
Photo courtesy of Andrew Martin

Cass Gilbert History | Cass Gilbert Family History

Cass Gilbert was born in Zanesville, Ohio on November 24, 1859. His parents were Samuel Gilbert and Elizabeth Wheeler Gilbert. He was named for a very prominent uncle, U.S. Senator Lewis Cass.

In 1868, when Cass was nine years old the family left Ohio to join his father, who was working as a surveyor in St. Paul, Minnesota. Samuel Gilbert died soon after the family’s arrival in Minnesota.

Elizabeth Gilbert made sure Cass and his two brothers would complete the schooling they had begun in Ohio. In 1876, Cass entered an apprenticeship as draftsman in the office of Abraham Radcliffe, a St. Paul architect. This is where he began his long friendship with fellow architect Clarence Johnston, Sr.

In 1878, Cass entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study architecture under William Robert Ware. He completed one year of the two-year program. In the summer of 1879, he worked as a surveyor to earn money for his “Grand Tour” of Europe.

On January 3, 1880, Cass Gilbert left New York City for Liverpool, England, with $420.00. For almost a year he made his way through the countrysides and cities of picturesque England, France, and Italy. He sketched architectural features that he would later use in many of his designs.

Disappointed that he could not secure employment in London, Cass Gilbert returned to New York in September 1880 and went to work for the prestigious architecture firm of McKim, Mead and White, serving as Stanford White’s assistant.

In 1882, he returned to St. Paul, Minnesota. He represented the interests of McKim, Mead and White in the West and began his Minnesota architecture career. He kept offices in the Gilfillan Block, the same building as his boyhood friends Clarence Johnston and James Knox Taylor who had also returned to St. Paul from New York City.

In 1883, Gilbert completed his first residential work in St. Paul- his mother’s house at 471 Ashland Avenue.

In 1885, he formed a partnership with James Knox Taylor. Together their office would build residences, churches, office buildings, railroad stations and commercial buildings in Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, and Montana.

In 1891, Gilbert and Knox dissolved their partnership. Gilbert went out on his own and continued his St. Paul work.

In 1895, Cass Gilbert was selected to design the new state capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota. Gilbert knew this would be the job to bring him national attention and would make his architectural career.

In 1899, Gilbert won the commission for the U.S. Custom House in New York. He opened his New York office and moved there the same year. His St. Paul office would remain open until 1910.

Gilbert would go on to build many buildings in New York including the West Street Building, the New York Life Insurance Company Building, the New York County Lawyers Association Building, the Brooklyn Army Terminal, and the U.S. Courthouse.

In 1913, Gilbert completed the Woolworth Building in New York City. It would stand as the world’s tallest building for over a decade. His career continued all over America. He worked on the capitol in Arkansas, and he designed the West Virginia Capitol. His last building was the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington D.C.

Cass Gilbert Family History

Cass Gilbert first met Julia Finch in New York City in 1880 when Cass was working for McKim, Mead and White and Julia was attending finishing school. Cass was 21 and Julia was 18.

They would not meet again until 1886. Julia was vacationing in Minnesota at Lake Minnetonka. This is where their serious relationship began.

They had a long distance courtship. Julia was living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with her family, and Cass was living in St. Paul with his mother.

On November 24, 1886 (Cass’s 27th birthday) an engagement party was held at his mother’s house at 471 Ashland Avenue in St. Paul. That would be the only time Julia would visit St. Paul before they were married. Cass would visit Julia in Milwaukee whenever his busy schedule would permit, but mostly it was a courtship by letters. They would write two to three letters a week to each other./'

In 1887, following their wedding, they lived in the Albion apartment building (now Blair House) at the corner of Selby and Western in St. Paul.

In 1888, after Cass Gilbert completed the Portland Terrace, a cluster of row houses at Portland and Kent, they lived at 432 Portland, until the birth of their first child, Emily.

In 1890, on a bluff overlooking St. Paul, Cass built their first home at 1 Heather Place.

Cass and Julia had four children: Emily, Elizabeth, Julia, and Cass Jr. Elizabeth would die at age 14 in 1904 of meningitis. Cass Jr. followed his father and became an architect. He worked with his father on some of his major commissions and completed the U. S. Supreme Court Building after his father’s death.

In 1899, the Gilberts moved to New York City. The family first lived on Central Park West in an apartment, then moved to a more fashionable townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Cass redesigned the house at 1 East 94th Street in 1921.

In 1907, the same year Cass was elected president of the American Institute of Architects, the Gilberts purchased a country house in Ridgefield, Connecticut. It was known as the Cannonball House because of a cannonball lodged in one corner from a Revolutionary War battle. Gilbert designed a special garden and garden house for Julia. The house was sold in 1957 by their daughter Emily. Today it is known as the Keeler Tavern Museum and is open to the public.

Julia was involved in many community events in New York City and Ridgefield. She was co-founder of the Ridgefield Garden Club. Her work also included charitable organizations and relief work that helped French children during World War I and the Architects Emergency Relief Fund that assisted unemployed architects during the depression.

Once Cass Gilbert was settled in New York City, the couple took annual trips to Europe. Julia was his constant companion. In 1925, during one of their European trips, they were granted an audience with the British Royal Family.

In 1934, Cass Gilbert died in Brockenhurst, England, at the age of 74. Julia was at his side.

Upon the death of Cass Gilbert 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.”

Julia lived 18 more years and spent her remaining years in Ridgefield, tending her gardens and caring for her family. She died in 1952 at the age of 90.

Information compiled by Cindy Stephani