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.