Columbians Ahead of Their Time

"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.

Renwick was only 12 when he entered Columbia, where he studied engineering. Renwick's engineer father, James Sr., had graduated from Columbia in 1807 and sat on the faculty as a professor of natural philosophy; he is memorialized by the Renwick Professorship of Civil Engineering and Applied Science, currently held by Rimas Vaicaitis. The Renwick Family Letters and Manuscripts 1794-1916 are held by CU's Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Read more about James Renwick, Jr., in the Columbia Encyclopedia.

CU's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation offers programs of study in several fields.

Alumnus James Marston Fitch changed the way Americans looked at old buildings.

Columbia's history, as seen by those who have studied, taught, and worked here.

Columbians have changed the world and how we see it.

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