Keeler Notes: Ridgefield’s warrior architect

Perhaps he was moved by the damage to France’s cultural patrimony, which had taught him “to see beauty in everything.” Perhaps it was his anger at German tactics on the high seas — “base, gaunt, naked murder,” he raged. Perhaps his personal admiration for Teddy Roosevelt’s muscular Big Stick played a role. In any event, renowned Ridgefield architect Cass Gilbert, creator of 1913’s Woolworth Building, for 17 years the world’s tallest skyscraper, became a vocal advocate urging American intervention in Europe’s war, regularly deploying his formidable rhetorical skills.

Gilbert did much more than merely fulminate, according to his biographer, marching with the Architects Division in the New York City Preparedness Parade in spring 1916. With the country’s entrance into the conflict in April 1917, he telegraphed President Wilson and the secretary of war, offering his services without profit for any buildings needed for the war effort.

Gilbert was evidently prepared to endure a much greater sacrifice: by 1916, 22-year-old son Cass Jr. was already a member of an artillery unit in the Connecticut National Guard, very likely with his father’s approval, if not outright prodding; he would later serve at the front.

While Cass’s fervent wartime speeches were “cheered to the echoes,” it was his wife, Julia, who arranged receptions for departing Ridgefield soldiers and their families at their historic Keeler Tavern summer estate, even if it was a single doughboy and she played the piano herself. And if Cass designed the massive and imposing Brooklyn Army Terminal (when completed, the world’s largest concrete building) for shipment of war material, Julia raised funds to rebuild devastated France and to care for orphaned French children.

For the Gilberts, ardent patriotism wasn’t business — it was personal.