Following the early death of his father, Hunt's mother took the family to Europe, where they remained for more than a decade, first in Switzerland and later in Paris. Hunt began his education at the Boston Latin School, but after the family's move to Europe Hunt entered the Paris atelier of Hector Lefuel in 1846. The aspiring architect Hunt became the first American to attend the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Hunt's mentor Lefuel later permitted him to supervise work on the Louvre museum, which Lefuel was renovating for Napoleon III, as well as to design the Pavillon de la Bibliothèque (“Library Pavilion”), prominently situated opposite the Palais-Royal. Hunt would later regale aspiring young architect Louis Sullivan with stories of his work on the New Louvre in Lefuel's atelier libre.
After his return in 1855, Hunt founded the first American architectural school at his Tenth Street Studio Building (beginning with only four students), co-founded the American Institute of Architects and from 1888 to 1891 served as the Institute's third president, brought the first apartment building to Manhattan in a burst of scandal, and set a new ostentatious style of grand houses for the social elite and the eccentric, competitive new millionaires of the Gilded Age.
Hunt's greatest influence is his insistence that architects be treated, and paid, as legitimate and respected professionals equivalent to doctors and lawyers. He sued one of his early clients for non-payment of his five percent fee, which established an important legal precedent. One of his 1859 students at the Tenth Street Studio, William Robert Ware, was deeply influenced by Hunt and went on to found the first two university programs in architecture: MIT in 1866, and Columbia in 1881.
His extensive social connections in Newport among the richest Americans of his generation, were informed by his energy and good humor. Legend has it that while on a final walk-through of one of his Vanderbilt mansions, Hunt discovered a mysterious tent-like object in one of the ballrooms. Investigating, he found it was canvas covering a life-sized statue of himself, dressed in stonecutters' clothes, all carved in secret as a tribute by the gang of stonecutters working on the house. Vanderbilt permitted the statue to be placed on the roof of the mansion.
Most who came into contact with Hunt came away struck by the man. On their first meeting in 1869 Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of "one remarkable person new to me, Richard Hunt the architect. HIs conversation was spirited beyond any I remember, loaded with matter, and expressed with the vigour and fury of a member of the Harvard boat or ball club relating to the adventures of one of their matches; inspired, meantime, throughout, with fine theories of the possibilities of art.
Hunt's folksy manner, lack of pretense and unbridled enthusiasm led Emerson to gush, "I could only think of the immense advantage which a thinking soul possesses when horsed on a robust and vivacious temperament. The combination is so rare of an Irish labourer's nerve and elasticity with Winckelmann's experience and cultivation as to fill one with immense hope of great results when he meets it in the New York of to-day."
Hunt designed New York's Tribune Building, one of the earliest with an elevator, in 1873. Other buildings of note that Hunt designed include the Theological Library and Marquand Chapel in Princeton, the Scroll and Key building at Yale, and the Fogg Museum of Art at Harvard. Until the Lenox Library, none of Hunt's American works were in the Beaux-Arts style with which he is associated. Late in his life he became involved in the Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, at which his Administration Building received the gold medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects.
In New York City, Hunt's handiwork can be seen on the austere pedestal of the Statue of Liberty and on the elegant 5th Avenue facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The only one of Hunt's New York City buildings that has not been destroyed now houses Hostelling International - New York (formerly American Youth Hostels) on the east blockfront of Amsterdam Avenue between 103d and 104th Streets in Manhattan. Erected in 1883 and entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, this red-brick building features dormer windows and a mansard roof similar to those Hunt used on his Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, pictured below on this page. This popular youth hostel was originally built for the Association for the Relief of Respectable Aged Indigent Females, a charity created in 1813 with the help of financier Peter G. Stuyvesant (a descendant of the Dutch colonial governor Peter Stuyvesant) and John J. Astor. In later years it was used as a nursing home, but by the 1970s was abandoned and became a burned-out "shooting gallery" used by drug dealers and derelicts. Its current use as a flagship youth hostel came into being in 1988. According to an article in The New York Times:
The project is a rare collaborative effort involving a West Side community group, a midtown developer, an international foundation, two Wall Street securities firms, seven government agencies and 300 profit-seeking investors in 30 states.....In 1980, the city's Office of Economic Development awarded a grant to Valley Restoration, which in turn hired the consulting firm of Buckhurst, Fish, Hutton & Katz to study the feasibility of converting the building into a hostel. The consultants concluded that a youth hostel containing 477 beds was feasible, along with a restaurant of 126 seats and a small theater. Efforts were then made to bring together community leaders, a youth hostel organization and a developer to put forward a plan.
The financing of this successful preservation and re-use project was unusual. According to the Times article:
The developer was Bertram Lewis, chairman of Sybedon, a group of Manhattan investment bankers specializing in high-stakes real estate deals....The terms of a 1984 agreement between the three groups had Valley Restoration buying the property from the city, which had acquired it in a 1978 tax foreclosure action. The $687,500 price was a payment to Valley from a limited partnership consisting of Sybedon and a group of investors. Last December a public offering of shares through Thomson McKinnon Securities raised $5.2 million from 300 investors in 30 states. The Metropolitan New York Council of American Youth Hostels agreed to manage the building and channel profits from the fees for the rooms back to the limited partnership to repay the investors.
Among the employees who worked in Hunt's firm was Franco-American architect and fellow Ecole des Beaux Arts graduate Emmanuel Louis Masqueray when went on to be Chief of Design at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Hunt often employed sculptor Karl Bitter to enrich his designs. Both Hunt and his frequent collaborator, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, were associated with the City Beautiful Movement, and Hunt was the first president of the Municipal Art Society that grew out of the movement. Nevertheless, Olmstead, an advocate of "naturalistic" architecture and landscape design famously clashed with Hunt in 1863 over Hunt's proposal for "Scholar's Gate," a formal entrance to Central Park at 60th Street and Fifth Avenue. According to Central Park historian Sarah Cedar Miller, Central Park Commissioner and influential New Yorker Andrew Haswell Green, was a major supporter of Hunt. When the park commissioners adopted Hunt's design, Olmstead and his partner Calvert Vaux protested and resigned their positions with the Central Park project. Hunt's plan for Scholar's Gate was never built and Olmstead and Vaux subsequently rejoined the project. Nevertheless, there were to be other reminders of Hunt in Central Park.
Hunt died in 1895 and was buried at the Common Burying Ground and Island Cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island. In 1898, 3 years after Hunt's death in Newport, the Municipal Art Society commissioned the Richard Morris Hunt Memorial, designed by sculptor Daniel Chester French and architect Bruce Price. The memorial is installed in the wall of Central Park across Fifth Avenue from today’s Frick Museum at 70th Street. Following Hunt's death, his son Richard Howland Hunt took over the practice his father had established.
Among the many projects Richard Howland Hunt finished was the great entrance hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for which his father, a Metropolitan trustee, had made the initial sketches in 1894, having earlier designed the Museum's Fifth Avenue facade.