Eclecticism came into practice during the late 19th century, as architects sought after a style that would allow them to retain previous historic precedent, but create unseen designs. From a complete catalogue of past styles, the ability to mix and combine styles allowed for more expressive freedom and provided an endless source of inspiration. Whilst other design professionals (referred to as 'revivalists') aimed to meticulously imitate past styles, Eclecticism differed, as the main driving force was creation, not nostalgia and there was a desire for the designs to be original.
Eclectic architecture first appeared across continental Europe in established countries such as France, England and Germany, in response to the growing push amongst architects to have more expressive freedom over their work.
The École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, considered to be one of the first professional architectural schools, trained students in a rigorous and academic manner, equipping them with skills and professional prestige. Teachers at the École were some of the leading architects in France, and this new method of teaching was so successful, that it attracted students from across the globe. Many of the graduates went on to become pioneers of the movement, and used their beaux-arts training as a foundation for new eclectic designs.
Whilst the practise of this style of architecture was widespread (and could be seen in many of the town halls constructed at the time), eclecticism in Europe did not achieve the same level of enthusiasm that was seen in America—as it was assumed that the presence of old, authentic architecture, reduced the appeal of historical imitation in new buildings.
The end of the 19th century saw a profound shift in American Architecture. Architects educated at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, such as Richard Morris Hunt and Charles Follen McKim were responsible for bringing the beaux-arts approach back from Europe, which was said to be the cornerstone of eclectic architecture in America. At a time of increasing prosperity and commercial pride, many eclectic buildings were commissioned in large cities around the country. The style thrived, as it introduced historical features, previously only seen in the aristocratic architecture of European countries such as Britain and France, contributing to a richer sense of culture and history within America. In the case of Hunt and many other eclectic architects, his 'typically eclectic viewpoint' enabled him to make stylistic choices based on whatever suited the particular project or the client. This flexibility to adapt, and to blend freely between styles gave eclectic designers more appeal to clients.