Posted: January 16, 2012
very American with a few million dollars to rub together starts thinking about getting himself a palazzo. During the Gilded Age and a bit beyond, from the 1870s to 1910, the New York architectural firm McKim, Mead & White was the purveyor of choice to those in the market for digs of surpassing splendor. Vanderbilts, Morgans, Whitneys, and Tiffanies sought the firm's services for projects that would be as impossible to build today as the Great Pyramid. The McMansions that have sprouted in recent years from Southampton to La Jolla to Manalapan cannot compare to these in conception or craftsmanship. At best they seem ungainly knock-offs, without even the simulacrum of taste that faithful imitation or bold reinvention might almost bring off.
But then the most stunning buildings of McKim, Mead & White were also knock-offs in a sense, and the modernist fashion that succeeded them in the 1920s scorned them as such: unashamed borrowings from the genius of the European heritage, owing everything first to the Romanesque, then to the Renaissance from Francois Premier to the Cinquecento, and at last to the fount and origin in imperial Rome.
Charles Follen McKim (1847-1909), William Rutherford Mead (1846-1928), and Stanford White (1853-1906) were sons of the New York and New England upper-middle-class intelligentsia. McKim studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Mead studied in Florence, and all three traveled in Europe with intent eyes. McKim and White served their apprenticeships with Henry Hobson Richardson, the leading American architect of his time, who was decisively formed by his own Parisian training and who built superbly in the Romanesque style.
McKim lit out on his own in 1872, and the others joined him in due course. Family connections helped them get rolling. They made their reputation by designing country and seaside houses in the plutocratic enclaves: Lenox, Massachusetts; Elberon, New Jersey; and Newport, Rhode Island. McKim was the guiding force at this point in the development of the "shingle style," which drew on Norman and American Colonial sources, and is considered by some authorities the firm's most important work. Clients pleased with their vacation homes commissioned houses in town and commercial buildings. By the early 1880s, with Richardson's untimely death, McKim, Mead, and White were the leading architects in the land. Theirs would become the first architectural firm in the world with so large a business.
The firm put its love of European greatness to use. For the majestic Tiffany house (1882-1885), White combined Romanesque and Palladian touches, and invented a tawny speckled brick to startling effect. For the lordly Villard houses (1882-1885), the firm's brilliant associate Joseph Wells composed in the High Renaissance style, with the Cancelleria and the Palazzo Farnese as his models. Monument called out to monument down the ages. The Madison Square Garden tower (1887-1891), a Manhattan landmark during its too brief existence, reiterated the 12th-century Giralda Tower of the Seville Cathedral. The Low Memorial Library at Columbia University (1895) recalled the Roman Pantheon. Pennsylvania Station (1905-1910), another doomed masterwork, summoned up the Baths of Caracalla. McKim, Mead & White fulfilled over 700 commissions, and their designs tended to have the most distinguished antecedents.
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Their clients wouldn't have had it any other way. Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal, and Class in America's Gilded Age is a fine and often fascinating history of the builders and the society types they built for. In it, Mosette Broderick, a professor of urban design and architecture at New York University, has more than a sharp word or two for an enterprise devoted to making the ignorant and pretentious rich believe themselves the rivals of Renaissance princes. "They built for clients who wanted to fit in with an international set and not appear as provincials. The partners could be entrusted to create buildings for their clients that would put a spin on their personas and make them, the modern Medicis, look as if they knew who the real Medicis were."
This is well put and not untrue, but Broderick's flagrant dig at the clientele, and her scarcely more subtle one at the architects, ought to be amplified and elucidated. There are magnificos and there are magnificos, one must admit. Yet it is hard not to be impressed with, indeed overwhelmed by, even the lesser American Medicis. The energy, nerve, and shrewdness required to carve a great fortune out of a new land were often titanic. True enough, low cunning and unscrupulousness and dumb luck sometimes played their part as well; so did the very dumbest luck of being born into wealth, as a number of clients were. Of course, the real Medicis themselves had their share of the ignoble qualities, not to mention the luck of being Medicis.
But—to agree with Broderick on an essential point—that does not mean one should fail to appreciate the distinction between Lorenzo the Magnificent and, say, "Sarsaparilla" Townsend, the soda-pop tycoon. Having the wherewithal to buy an ostentatious lifestyle and living a serious life facilitated by immense wealth are very different things. It might sound as though Broderick is carping resentfully, in the honored academic manner, about the undeserving rich, including the architects who made their pile designing for financiers and mine owners and railroad barons. But in her dissatisfactions she raises important questions about what makes for an individual life of rich accomplishment and for a national culture of high worth.
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Stanford White, who dominates Broderick's book, as he inevitably does any account of the partnership, made his name to an alarming degree on his savvy self-promotion and natural-born skills at flim-flam; by far the most celebrated and most prolific of the partners, he was also the most celebrated and prolific in his social life, and the most profligate and notorious in his sexual life. The clients he attracted wanted the best that money could buy and they had little besides money to offer in appreciation. White was not unappreciative of the money, and reveled in the company of the moneyed. He belonged to every club that would have him as a member, and almost no club would think of turning him down: he designed some of the finest club buildings, including the Players Club, the Century Association, and the Metropolitan Club, the last founded by J.P. Morgan and William K. Vanderbilt in pique at the Union League Club's decision to blackball friends of theirs. The Metropolitan, a white marble Italian palazzo with an ornate projecting cornice, shows White at his most winning, but also suggests his limitations: for all its elegance, the building remains very much a studied production, literally a design by the book.
The cognoscenti, the true nobility of taste, wanted something better than White's second-hand house-fronts and his penchant for the overblown in interior design. The aristocrat of sterling pedigree and the finest sensibility sniffed with fastidious distaste at the showboats who bought culture in bulk and tried vainly to establish themselves as his equals. Writing to a friend in 1901, the nonpareil Henry Adams flayed New York grossness: "The new rich are impayable here, and Stanford White is their Moses, Aaron and Mahomet." In The American Scene (1907), Henry James related his impressions of his native land after decades of living abroad, and he declared one of White's proudest monuments typically disappointing: "the lamentable little Arch of Triumph which bestrides these beginnings of Washington Square—lamentable because of its poor and lonely and unsupported and unaffiliated state." Although White's triumphal arch in George Washington's honor was in fact larger than any single-span arch of antiquity, what struck James was its inadequacy. The effort to impress fell flat in the absence of that genuine ambient excellence which a culture like that of England or France furnished. James's criticism really indicted White's career as a whole: to transplant European elegance to America was a hopeless endeavor; grandeur that assumed its correct proportions in its Old World setting was engulfed by the cultural void over here and could only appear both pretentious and pitiable.
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For certain of his own colleagues, the ultimate inadequacy of White's vocation was of a piece with the triviality of his nature, which would burst into monstrosity. Joseph Wells, perhaps the firm's best designer, who turned down a partnership because the outfit did "so much damn bad work," came down hard but fair on White as an architect and a man:
These qualities which I recognize as the highest in our art, are just the ones he seems to care the least for. I mean simplicity, proportion and unity of effect. These qualities are especially valuable in architecture more than the other arts. I almost regard him as a brilliant decorator not an architect. He is not equal to the mental strain necessary to gradually form a good style; and from recent developments, I should say cared more to make a social figure, than [for] art or friendship.
Wells knew White only too well: they were chums at one point, charter members of the Sewer Club, whose haunts, Broderick suspects, took in a gay bar affectionately known as Paresis Hall, and whose exploits did the club's name proud. The married White was a sexual gourmand, a Heliogabalus wannabe—Heliogabalus being the emperor who paraded naked through the streets of Rome in a golden chariot drawn by beautiful naked slave women. Although White indulged in homosexuality, teenaged actresses and chorines were the fire of his loins. His art collection included an abundance of female nudes; one learns from Paul R. Baker's marvelous 1989 biography, Stanny: The Gilded Life of Stanford White, that White wanted his painted Psyches and Ledas and wood nymphs to possess bodies of adolescent firmness and particularly to have their "little bubs stick up." White was a man who knew what he liked; and he liked what most men like, though he liked it younger and in greater quantities.
In 1901, at the age of 47, he found what he really craved in the 16-year-old Evelyn Nesbit—dancer, actress, artist's model, and perhaps the most celebrated beauty of her day. Suppurating charm, White wooed her with elaborate gentlemanly decorum, then drugged and raped her. Fulfilling the rapist's fantasy, Evelyn fell in love with White. When she moved on a couple years later, it was to the reptilian embraces of Harry K. Thaw, a Pittsburgh railroad and mining heir who was as bad as they come. Evelyn married Thaw: she had come up poor, and he was rich. Cocaine binges for him and whippings for her constituted the domestic routine. Evelyn told Thaw of her rape by White and their affair, and Thaw came to hate White more than any other man alive.
In June 1906, at the tony nightspot on the roof of Madison Square Garden, Thaw gunned White down. The press coverage of the murder trial wallowed in that miasma of upper-crust decadence so revolting to the democratic public, which can't get enough of it. A Vanity Fair headline delicately suggested, "Stanford White, Voluptuary and Pervert, Dies the Death of a Dog." Thaw wound up doing time in an asylum for the criminally insane, but would be declared sound and acquitted of all charges in 1915. Evelyn had it hard for years, but sold the movie rights to her memoirs, moved to California, and found comfort in theosophy and ceramics. In the very popular film of E.L. Doctorow's very popular novel Ragtime, Norman Mailer played the role of Stanford White. Grandiosity, superstardom, goatishness, violence against women: the casting choice was the perfect tribute to Stanny's brand of artistry and allure.
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To leave it at that, however, would be unjust and even churlish. For McKim, Mead, and White were the outstanding American architects between the time of Thomas Jefferson and that of Frank Lloyd Wright. To those of us who might lack the aesthetic hyper-refinement of Henry James and Henry Adams, the firm's work represents one of the glories of American art. To be sure, it can be unabashedly derivative and sometimes bombastic, especially in White's interiors. For all that it is largely magnificent, in a way we shall not see again, exciting and imposing like 19th-century political oratory, which shames the adenoidal maunderings we endure today.
The super-rich have most always liked their elegance spectacular, and the firm gave it to them, but good. This may be a flaw, aesthetic or moral or both, but it is not a fatal one. It is right to make fine discriminations in taste, and there are respects in which McKim, Mead & White and their clientele fail to shine, and sometimes even manage to offend. Yet the triumvirate produced a good many of the handsomest buildings in America, some sadly lost, some built to endure. Though the architects banked heavily on their Old World inheritance, their triumphs have become an essential part of our own national heritage, deserving our honor and inspiring our delight.