Born in New York City on October 19, 1861, Tilton was educated in New York City schools and attended the private Chappaqua Institute. At the age of eighteen he began working in the banking house of Corlies, Macy & Co. but soon changed professions. He studied architecture under a private tutor and began working as a draftsman in the office of McKim, Mead and White at the age of twenty. From 1887 to 1890 Tilton studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris along with his friend and future architectural partner, William A. Boring. After traveling in Europe, Boring and Tilton returned to New York in 1890 to the office of McKim, Mead and White. At the time, the firm was working on the plans for the Boston Public Library, which was to become a landmark in the history of American library design.
In 1891 Boring and Tilton formed their own firm. Nathan C. Mellen joined them in partnership until 1894. Their first assignment was to design a row house in New York, a job which Tilton’s father had obtained. Their early designs included homes, schools and hotels. Among the larger commissions were the Casino in Belle Haven, Connecticut (1891-2) and the Hotel Colorado in the resort town of Glenwood Springs, Colorado (1891-3). They submitted designs for competitions for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and the Milwaukee Public Library in 1892 and 1893 but were unsuccessful in these large, open competitions.
The firm’s reputation was greatly elevated after Boring & Tilton won a competition in 1897 to design the first phase of new buildings for the U.S. Immigration Station on Ellis Island. The buildings constructed according to their designs included the Main Building (1897-1900), Kitchen and Laundry Building (1900-01), Main Powerhouse (1900-01), and the Main Hospital Building (1900-01). Boring & Tilton received additional publicity after being awarded a gold medal (one of two given to Americans) at the Exposition Universelle, Paris (1900); a gold medal at the Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo (1901); and a silver medal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis (1904).
The formal partnership of Boring & Tilton ended in 1904 although both men continued to share offices and equipment until 1915, while working independently. Boring went on to become the Dean of the School of Architecture at Columbia University.
In the early 20th century Tilton’s general expertise in the design of classically-detailed public buildings increasingly developed into a more specific interest in library design. During his career, Tilton is credited with more than one hundred libraries in the United States and Canada.1 ManyofthesewereCarnegieLibraries,publiclibrariesbuiltbetween1886and 1917 with funds provided by Andrew Carnegie or the Carnegie Corporation of New York. In all, Carnegie funding was provided for 1,681 public library buildings in 1,412 U.S. communities, with additional libraries abroad. Increasingly after 1908, Carnegie library commissions tended to be in the hands of a relatively small number of firms that specialized in library design. Tilton benefited from a friendship with James Bertram, Carnegie’s personal secretary who was responsible for reviewing plans for Carnegie-financed library buildings. Although the Carnegie program left the hiring of an architect to local officials, Bertram’s personal letters of introduction gave Tilton a distinct advantage. As a result, Tilton won a large number of comparatively modest Carnegie library commissions, primarily in the northeast. Typically, Tilton furnished all plans, working drawings, details and specifications and then associated with a local architect who would supervise construction and receive 5% of Tilton’s commission.
By 1920 Tilton had formed a new partnership with Alfred Morton Githens (1876- 1973). Githens had partnered with Charles C. Haight in New York City for more than a decade before joining forces with Tilton. Tilton & Githens specialized in the design of libraries and institutional buildings. After designing the Riley Hall of Art at the University of Notre Dame in 1920, their list of commissions consists almost entirely of libraries, mostly in the eastern United States. Tilton remained a member of the firm for the rest of his life. After Githens left the firm in 1932, he practiced alone for five years and then with Francis Keally, under the name of Githens & Keally in New York City, until 1942. Githens continued to act as a consultant on library buildings until his retirement in 1955.
During his career Tilton was a recognized authority in the field of library planning, writing articles for both library and architectural journals. As early as 1907 he penned a series of short articles on small library construction for the Inland Architect. In 1927 Tilton wrote an article on “Library Planning” for the Architectural Forum publication. In 1929 the American Library Association published Tilton’s Essentials in Library Planning as a reference text for librarians. His work was also included with some frequency in the publication Library Journal. In 1930 Tilton & Githens was awarded the gold medal of the American Institute of Architects for excellence in public work for its design of the Wilmington Public Library in Wilmington, Delaware. In addition to its importance in library design, the building is notable for its original handling of classic motifs.