The Magazine

The Firm of Art

McKim, Mead, White and America’s design

Apr 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 31 • By EDWARD SHORT
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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.

The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order .  .  . will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.

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.

Both have a rusticated base, pilaster strips that double on either side of the center of the building, five bays each, round ornament in four of the upper-story bays, and a crowning balustrade. Lost at the Century was White’s famous 1811 bow window [behind which Beau Brummell entertained his louche associates]. Instead, the Century has a tall central arched entrance. Above the entry at the Century was an open, Italianate loggia formed by a great Palladian window. The resemblance is amazingly close, but the details vary, as do the materials.

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

a brilliantly individual version of Shaw’s “Old English” manner—chimneys, sunflowers, oriels, overhanging gables, irregularity, and all. But “Old English” tile-hanging is replaced by a lavish use of its American equivalent, wooden shingles, and the windows, instead of being glazed with leaded lights in the Old English manner, have a close grid of wooden glazing bars.

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.

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