The Firm of Art
McKim, Mead, White and America’s design
Apr 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 31 • By EDWARD SHORT
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.