by Russell Boniface
of its 50th anniversary celebration, the AIA bestowed its first
Gold Medal on English architect Sir Aston Webb in 1907. Webb, known
for his Beaux Arts and Victorian works, humbly thanked the
reception crowd, saying, The memory of this evening will
remain with me all my life. I shall take the medal home and keep it
amongst my most treasured possessions.
Worth its weight in
At the start of the 20th century, the AIA Gold Medal was an apt
indicator of the heady and confident air of Americans, who were
building a society containing the best of the old and new
architectural styles. For example, immense rebuilding projects in
Washington, D.C., and San Francisco featured huge malls, large
squares, and long boulevards sprinkled with elaborate civic
sculptures and triumphal arches. American architecture was coming
of age, although consensus did not exist on what was its
appropriate style. This ambiguity, coupled with an increasing
fascination with French culture and art in the latter half of the
19th century, made the Beaux Arts style particularly attractive to
American architects. Against this background of American Classicism
in architecture, the AIA established the Gold Medal.
But why a Brit?
One of the leading architects of the day, Charles Follen
McKim played a central role in the founding of the AIA Gold Medal.
McKim, the first American architect to attend the École des
Beaux-Arts, served as AIA secretary in 1878, and then as president
in 1902-1903. Having been awarded the 1903 Royal Institute of
British Architects (RIBA) Gold Medal by Sir Aston Webb, RIBAs
president, McKim suggested that the AIA start a Gold Medal award,
tie it in with the 50th anniversary, and recommended that the honor
go to Sir Aston Webb of England, thus returning the favor.
Sir Aston Webb
had been president of RIBA and had been elected as a full member of
the Royal Academy. Webb was neither a student at the Ecole nor
officially trained as a Beaux Arts student. Nevertheless, Webb was
a highly regarded French Classicism architect known for mixing
French, Gothic, Victorian, and Renaissance styles. His works
includes the Gothic-style Royal Grammar School Worcester in 1877; a
major restoration of the church of St. Bartholomew-the-Great in
1890; the Victoria Law Courts terra cotta structure in 1891; and
the Royal United Services Institution, with its cherubic figures,
Webbs best known works include the principal facade of
Buckingham Palace, which he redesigned in 1912, and the Admiralty
Arch in 1909. The arch, located between the Mall and Trafalgar
Square, is actually a tripled arch made of Portland stone. Webb
also designed the Chancellors Court at the University of
Birmingham, founded in 1900, the main feature of which is its large
dome. Webb was not alone in mixing styles. English architecture
from the 1870s on reflected an increasing mix of various forms of
Classicism. Webbs work, which initially was in a variety of
French medieval modes, changed dramatically by 1900, becoming
full-fledged Classicism with an evident French bias.
Webb cherishes the Gold
When Webb, who previously had been awarded the RIBA Gold Medal,
received the first AIA Gold Medal in 1907, he openly acknowledged
his Beaux Arts leanings at his acceptance speech. In discussing the
proper placement and grand approach to buildings, Webb lamented the
English failing and praised the Beaux Arts Classicism in the U.S.,
citing projects such as the McMillan plan for the National Mall in
Washington, D.C. He went on to say that the French, of
course, are the masters of the work of arranging public
Webbs selection affirmed the formal, grand Classicism
increasingly preferred by American architects. Frank Miles Day, the
president of the AIA in 1907, cited in his presentation speech of
the Gold Medal the numerous contributions madeand being
madeby English architects and pointed out that Webb was the
leading figure in classical English architecture. Day stressed that
English architecture plays a large part in America.
reciprocated by assuring the AIA that all architects on the
other side of the water will deeply appreciate the fact that on
this, the jubilee day of your Institute, and the institution of
this gold medal, you should send it over to the other side. Nothing
they would appreciate more than that, and I venture to think
that it must do a great deal to strengthen the good feeling and
friendship which I am glad to think already exists between the
architects of both countries.
Webb proclaimed that he would always cherish his AIA Gold Medal.
When I look at it, as I often shall, it will remind
methough no reminder will be neededof your wonderful
country, your splendid architecture, and your boundless generosity
and hospitality which you so lavishly bestow on my countrymen and
have extended to me on this occasion.