The Firm of Art
McKim, Mead, White and America’s design
Apr 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 31 • By EDWARD SHORT
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
McKim, Mead and White: Art, Architecture, Scandal and Class in America’s Gilded Age
by Mosette Broderick
Knopf, 608 pp., $40
Trying to imagine New York without the architecture of McKim, Mead, and White is like trying to imagine Paris without the architecture of Baron Haussmann. Of course, a good deal of that architecture is gone. We no longer have the wonderful old Pennsylvania Station that McKim modeled after the baths of Caracalla, or the Madison Square Garden that White based on the Cathedral of Seville, or the whimsical Herald Building that White modeled after the Loggia del Consiglio in Verona. But we do have the Metropolitan Club, the University Club, the Post Office, the Villard Houses, the Municipal Building, the Metropolitan Museum, and Washington Square Arch, to name only some of the firm’s New York buildings. Without these, New York might still have some modest claim to architectural distinction, but it would have lost its greatest monuments to that acquisitive swagger that defined the Gilded Age.
In Triumvirate: McKim, Mead and White: Art, Architecture, Scandal and Class in America’s Gilded Age, Mosette Broderick revisits the three distinctly different personalities that founded the firm to show how their complementary strengths transformed architecture not only in New York but in all America at a time when the country was ripe for an aesthetic reawakening.
Charles Follen McKim (1847-1909) was born and raised a Quaker in southeastern Pennsylvania, the son of an abolitionist. If McKim père dedicated his life to freeing the slaves, McKim fils dedicated his to giving his compatriots an architecture that would at once appropriate and renew European architecture. A scholarly, exacting, discriminating man, McKim lived in Europe for three years, where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris after attending Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School. On his return, he worked in the offices of Henry Hobson Richardson, the premier architect of the day, where he not only tapped his Harvard connections to obtain commissions but met White.
Stanford White (1853-1906) was the son of an impecunious Shakespeare scholar whose literary ambitions would never be realized. Still, it was from his Anglophile dandy of a father that he acquired his passion for art. Although poorly educated, White was a quick study and brimming with talent. He was also an inspired draughtsman. For Richardson, who made the lively autodidact his personal assistant, White’s contribution to the famous firm was indisputable. He was also a consummate collector, whose avidity for furniture, rugs, hangings, plates, paintings, and antiques of all descriptions fed his flair for interior decoration. That some of these acquisitions were spurious never bothered White: They helped form his highly intuitive taste, and since it was his taste that brought in many of the firm’s commissions, he learned to treat the impostures of dealers as simply another cost of doing business.
Unfortunately, he also had a passion for showgirls, and Broderick vividly describes his murder at the roof garden of Madison Square Garden by Harry Thaw, the jealous husband of Evelyn Nesbit. Interestingly enough, the murder occurred while one Harry Short was singing a popular tune of the day, “I Could Love a Thousand Girls,” which might have been White’s theme song. Yet as Broderick notes, “The autopsy results shocked [White’s] family almost as much as the murder. . . . White was in terrible health. Indeed, he was dying of kidney disease. Thaw never needed to shoot White. He would have died naturally in a few months’ time.” In all events, after pleading insanity, Thaw went scot-free.
William Rutherford Mead (1846-1928) was the down-to-earth engineer of the firm who, unlike his partners, was happily married. If McKim was given to immobilizing depression and White to ringing the midnight bell, Mead was the reliable office man who, as Broderick notes, “ensured the completion of the projects and stability in the small, dark spaces of lower Broadway.” He saw to it, moreover, that the often-ambitious ideas of his partners were translated into structures that were as functional as they were beautiful. Taught his trade by the successful architect George Fletcher Babb in the offices of Russell Sturgis, Mead had no illusions about his own capabilities and deferred to the more original talents of his partners. Nevertheless, when he traveled to Florence as a young man, he was disappointed by the architecture, which he considered too derivative, a criticism which the tribe of Le Corbusier would often level at the work of Mead and his confreres in the 20th century.
What is striking about the borrowings of McKim, Mead, and White is how they prefigure what T. S. Eliot had to say about the relationship between the artist and the past in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919). There, he spoke of “the historical sense,” the “perception” (as he defined it) “not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence,” which makes the artist “most acutely conscious of his place in time,” as well as “his contemporaneity.” In modeling their public buildings on past designs, McKim, Mead, and White were not merely paying homage to the past: They were staking out claims for the present, which readjusted both past and present in precisely the way Eliot thought good traditional art must.
McKim’s appropriations of classical models in his designs for Pennsylvania Station brilliantly illustrate Eliot’s understanding of the vitality of tradition. Eliot would also have enjoyed White’s impish parody of White’s Club in London, which James Wyatt designed in 1787-88, for his design of the Century Club, about which Broderick is nicely observant.
One can see the same innovative use of models in the charming summer houses that the firm built in New Jersey and Rhode Island, which were inspired by the work of the English architect Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912) and the Queen Anne Movement. Growing up around Elberon, New Jersey, where the firm built so many cottages in the shingle style, I vividly recall these breezy, capacious, ramshackle houses, with their wraparound porches and witch-hat roofs. The book’s photographs recapture the now-vanished seaside of my childhood.
Although cosmopolitan, McKim, Mead, and White always remained distinctly American—a trait they shared with Henry James. In Sweetness and Light: The Queen Anne Movement: 1860-1900 (1977), the architectural historian Mark Girouard notes how White’s design for the Watts-Sherman house in Newport is
Moreover, White and his partners treated space differently because, as Girouard notes, “in America the social system which in England worked to separate men from women, grown-ups from children, and family from servants was less constrictive; spaces could open into each other without causing social embarrassment.”
The loveliest of these shingle houses is the Robert Goelet House, which still stands in Newport. Goelet was the son of an old New Yorker of Huguenot stock who kept peacocks in his garden at East 19th Street and Broadway. The house that White built for him is of a prodigious beauty. To appreciate that beauty, one has to keep in mind how unusual it was in most American residential architecture. H. L. Mencken is amusing on this score.
McKim, Mead, and White were not unfamiliar with such noisome districts. When the firm built the Percy Rivington Pyne House on East 68th Street and Park Avenue, the neighborhood had only recently been transformed from a shantytown where locomotives made their fuliginous way to Grand Central. Broderick speaks of her subjects, so many of whom came from abolitionist backgrounds, as turning “the fervor of their parents’ abolitionist zeal into the cause for beauty, carrying the banner of art forward as their parents had done with that of the freedom for the slaves.” This is what made the firm great. McKim, Mead, and White (and their junior associate Joe Wells) did zealously work to dissuade Americans from sating what Mencken called the “libido for the ugly” by introducing a new beauty into American architecture.
Broderick’s command of the professional lives of the trio is admirably thorough. Indeed, she has made this material so much her own that she presents her narrative with few inclusions of secondary or primary sources. The absence of the former might be welcome; after all, she is writing for the general reader, not the academy. But the absence of primary sources—letters, memoranda, diary entries, news accounts, contemporary criticism—weakens her otherwise seamless narrative. The Gilded Age was neither a reticent nor a dull age: Broderick might have occasionally allowed it to speak for itself.
Nevertheless, anyone interested in architecture, history, New York, Newport, or that amusing thing, class, will want to get hold of this engaging book. On that last item, Broderick is insightful—as here, where she speaks of McKim after his triumphant completion of the Boston Public Library.
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries.