"A magnificent Gothic Revival church, designed by an engineer who studied the copybooks of [English] theorists and detailers…One of the city's greatest treasures."
—AIA Guide to New York
James Renwick, Jr. (1818–1895)
Columbia College 1836, M.A. 1839
A leader of multiple architectural movements in the 19th-century United States, James Renwick, Jr., elevated contemporary regard for the profession through his designs for high-profile buildings such as the Smithsonian "Castle" in Washington and St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. Renwick's great success was especially noteworthy given that he was, in a sense, a hobbyist: He had no formal architectural training and did not need to work to support himself, but rose to the top of his field on the strength of his engineering background, historical knowledge, and refined sensibilities. Renwick was 25 when he won his first commission, in 1843, to build New York's Grace Episcopal Church (Broadway and 10th Street); the popular design brought him instant renown and is an early marker of the Gothic revival period. He used a related style when designing St. Patrick's, the largest Catholic cathedral in the United States. Begun in 1858 and completed 21 years later, the cathedral was modeled on a German forebear but incorporated French and English elements as well. Responsive to both changing tastes and the desires of his patrons, Renwick also worked in the Romanesque, as exemplified by the red-sandstone Smithsonian Institution building (1855), and in later years helped introduce the Second Empire style to America, as at Washington's original Corcoran (now Renwick) Gallery (1871). For several years the supervising architect for New York's Commission of Charities and Correction, Renwick designed public buildings on Roosevelt, Randall's, and Ward's islands. He also designed the original Main Building (1865) on the Vassar College campus in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. A house built for his parents at 21 5th Avenue—the first on its 9th Street block—was later occupied for a time by Mark Twain.