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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On a winter day, not long ago, coming out of Pittsburgh on one of the swift, luxurious expresses of the eminent Pennsylvania Railroad, I rolled eastward for an hour through the coal and steel towns of Westmoreland County. It was familiar ground; boy and man, I had been through it often before. But somehow I had never quite sensed its appalling desolation. Here was the very heart of industrial America, the center of its most lucrative and characteristic activity, the boast and pride of the richest and grandest nation ever seen on earth—and here was a scene so dreadfully hideous, so intolerably bleak and forlorn that it reduced the whole aspiration of man to a macabre and depressing joke. Here was wealth beyond computation, almost beyond imagination—and here were human habitations so abominable that they would have disgraced a race of alley cats.

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. 

McKim could see himself now as a mature master, fostering the education of a future generation of American architects. He had joined those he had felt were his natural companions. In marrying into the Brahmin class, McKim had joined the Episcopal Church and let his family heritage of politically based idealism go. Indeed, when he was courting Julia [his second wife] and the family of William Lloyd Garrison had asked McKim to design the base for a monument to the great abolitionist, he declined the job. He instead gave it over to Joe Wells.

Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries.

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