• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Our Grand & Randy Great Architects

1.

Changing attitudes toward historically inspired architecture, and Classicism in particular, have led to reassessments of buildings that were long dismissed by proponents of the Modern Movement as retrogressive, but which now are widely regarded as advanced despite their traditional appearance. There is no better example of this reversal of posthumous fortune than New York’s Pennsylvania Station of 1905–1910, still keenly mourned as the lost masterpiece of Charles Follen McKim, one of the triumvirate—along with William Rutherford Mead and Stanford White—who gave their surnames to McKim, Mead & White, the most prolific and celebrated high-style American architectural practice during the half-century between the Civil War and World War I.

filler_1-052611.jpg
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Everett Collection
New York City’s Pennsylvania Station, designed by Charles Follen McKim of the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White. Modeled on Imperial Rome’s Baths of Caracalla and completed in 1910, it was demolished in the early 1960s to make way for the new Madison

It had long been commonplace to emphasize McKim, Mead & White’s dependence on Old World prototypes. For example, White based his Renaissance Revival New York Herald Building of 1890–1895, which fronted what is still called Herald Square, on Fra Giovanni Giocondo’s Palazzo del Consiglio of 1476–1492 in Verona, and modeled the Mozarabic tower of his Madison Square Garden of 1887–1891 (once the third-tallest structure in the city, after the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty) on the Giralda of 1184–1198 in Seville. Similarly, McKim’s Beaux Arts–inspired Boston Public Library of 1888–1892 owes an obvious debt to Henri Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève of 1843–1851 in Paris, whereas his Pennsylvania Station followed a conjectural reconstruction of Imperial Rome’s Baths of Caracalla of 212–216 AD.

Though McKim, Mead & White’s historical eclecticism almost never attains the quality of its sources and sometimes appears little more than a skillfully executed precursor of the touristic landmarks we now see replicated at Las Vegas theme hotels, the best of the firm’s work, however derivative in outward expression, on occasion comes close to that of the foremost American master builder of the generation before them: H.H. Richardson, in whose employ McKim and White first met.

However, despite McKim, Mead & White’s current critical esteem—considerably higher than it was a half-century ago—in order to find the true muscle and sinew of advanced American architecture during the heyday of this arch-establishment partnership we must look instead to the mystically inclined but commercially aware Louis Sullivan, spiritual father of the tall office building, and to his spiritual son, Frank Lloyd Wright, the apostle of organic design derived from the native soil. Their heroic quest for an authentically American architecture set them in diametric opposition to what they saw as the deadening hand of Classicism so powerfully wielded by McKim, Mead & White (however much Sullivan and Wright may have absorbed and subsumed historical models themselves).

The American public was rudely reawakened to the significance of McKim, Mead & White by the demolition of Pennsylvania Station, which began in October 1963 but took nearly three years to accomplish because of the huge building’s extraordinarily solid and deep construction. By the time the vast site was cleared and ready to receive the crowning indignity of Charles Luckman’s ticky-tacky Madison Square Garden, completed in 1968, the historic preservation movement had gathered to prevent comparable acts of cultural vandalism. New York’s only other equivalent landmark, Grand Central Terminal of 1904–1913 (a collaboration between the firms of Reed & Stem and Warren & Wetmore), was spared a similar fate when opponents derailed a disastrous redevelopment scheme by Marcel Breuer for its site during the 1970s thanks to the shameful precedent of Penn Station.

McKim’s design marked a significant departure from earlier railway depots because it was built to accommodate the newly electrified trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which freed him from the standard arrangement of a train shed attached to a shelter for ticket sales and passenger waiting areas, all at street level or only somewhat recessed (as was the case at the steam-driven New York Central Railroad’s Grand Central Terminal). Electrified trains emit no noxious fumes, so they could run through tunnels rather than on viaducts or in open trenches and thus remain deep underground once they reached their destinations, which enabled McKim to submerge components that previously needed to be above ground.

The new possibilities provided by electrification afforded McKim the freedom to make his ground plan for Pennsylvania Station a marvel of modern efficiency. In choosing the Baths of Caracalla as his model, the architect found an ideal scheme that allowed him to encompass the entire eight-acre site—which covered two full city blocks from West 33rd to 31st Streets and from Seventh to Eighth Avenues—in one immense but cohesive whole, united by a colossal order of granite columns that formed a monumental colonnade on its principal façade along Seventh Avenue and concealed a porte-cochère driveway that ran along its north flank on 33rd Street. This arrival sequence, which protected travelers from the elements in all seasons, was arranged so that luggage could be conveniently unloaded first and then moved to baggage cars via mechanical conveyors, before passengers were driven on to a final stop situated as close as possible to the departure gates, located below street level.

Although Penn Station’s stupendously grand Waiting Room was decked out with all the elaborate masonry detailing of the Classical copybook, the Concourse—where travelers descended to the train platforms on the level beneath it—dispensed with stone cladding and left the building’s steel supports exposed. With its barrel-vaulted glass-paned ceiling and machine aesthetic, the Concourse resembled Joseph Paxton and Charles Fox’s Crystal Palace of 1850–1851 in London; with its strong vertical development and interplay of light and shadow it also brought to mind Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Carceri d’invenzione of 1745–1751, etchings of imaginary prisons in which the Venetian architect concocted vertiginous multilayered networks of mysteriously interconnected spaces.

This unexpectedly harmonious synthesis of two divergent and supposedly irreconcilable architectural approaches, the Classical and the industrial, would have been a most instructive object lesson during the architectural style wars that were to rage during the two decades following the scandalous sack of McKim’s marvel. No one saw the dire implications more clearly than an anonymous editorial writer in The New York Times, whose voice sounded, at least, like that of Ada Louise Huxtable, our infallible Cassandra of urbanism:

Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.

2.

McKim, Mead, and White began working together in New York City in 1879 when the latter, now the best- remembered of the partners, joined forces with his two older colleagues. Although Mead has sometimes been unfairly characterized as a glorified office manager, or at best a mediator between his two antithetical if extravagantly gifted associates, there is no question, as Mosette Broderick makes clear in her thoroughly researched but discursive and uneven Triumivrate: McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal, and Class in America’s Gilded Age, that the magnetic (and occasionally mutually repellent) poles of the consortium were McKim and White. (The best one-volume treatment of the firm’s work remains Leland M. Roth’s concise but comprehensive 1983 study, McKim, Mead & White, Architects.)

Broderick neatly demonstrates this dichotomy in her introduction by juxtaposing a pair of contemporaneous, functionally identical, but tellingly different New York City schemes that exemplify the two architects’ respective qualities: McKim’s Low Memorial Library of 1895–1898 at his new campus for Columbia University on Manhattan’s Morningside Heights, and White’s Gould Memorial Library of 1897–1902 at his University Heights branch of New York University in the Bronx (which became Bronx Community College when NYU gave up the property in 1973). Each building serves as the focal point for its academic ensemble, is compact in ground plan, and has a shallow centralized dome and a columned entry portico of Roman derivation, but there the similarities end.

The Columbia library is massive, stolid, sober, devoid of ornamental frippery, and though a bit dull conveys an aura of gravitas thoroughly suited to high-minded intellectual pursuits. On the other hand, White’s uptown NYU library is characteristically lighter in volume and enlivened by sprightly detailing, all of which suggests that a little learning can be a delightful thing.

Like Richardson, McKim studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and possessed an innately more decorous temperament than White, who had almost no formal training but was such a natural-born designer and quick study that his lack of education would have been betrayed to only the most pedantic of Classical scholars. Instead, it was the far more important differences in personal character between McKim and White that held the seeds of destruction for their architectural dream team.

McKim, Mead, and White made their reputations, at first individually and then in concert, during the 1870s and 1880s with a remarkable series of large wood-frame vacation houses in fashionable resort communities along the Atlantic seaboard, including Elberon, New Jersey; Newport, Rhode Island; Lenox, Massachusetts; Tuxedo Park, New York; and the East End of Long Island (where from 1880 to 1883 White designed the Montauk Association—a group of seven capacious “cottages” with a communal recreation building—on a bluff near the tip of the South Fork, a property laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect of New York’s Central Park of 1858–1873).

The novel domestic format devised by the collaborators stemmed less from American precedents than from vernacular traditions in Normandy and the residential work of their older British contemporary Richard Norman Shaw, who harked back to English rural forms with rambling, irregularly angled, multigabled compositions that seemed to be the accretions of many years, if not several centuries. But whereas Shaw clad his houses in half-timber or slate tiles, McKim, Mead & White used natural-colored wood shingles, which they deployed in varied interlocking textures that the architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock (with whom Broderick studied at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts) vividly likened to birds’ plumage.

The architectural historian Vincent Scully dubbed this the Shingle Style, and in his classic study The Shingle Style and the Stick Style: Architectural Theory and Design from Richardson to the Origins of Wright (1955) rescued these seminal works from decades of critical oblivion and accorded them a central place in the American canon. To the untutored eye these houses—with their deep wrap-around porches (or “piazzas” in the contemporary parlance), overhanging eaves, cylindrical turrets topped by conical “candlesnuffer” roofs, multiple massive chimneys, and a profusion of gables and dormers—may seem indistinguishable from countless other residences of the well-to-do in every good-sized town in the United States, an indication of how pervasive this format became in the decades between the American Independence Centennial and World War I.

But as Scully and Hitchcock both stressed, McKim, Mead & White’s major innovation was a radical spatial reconception of the domestic interior, which gave their houses a breathtaking expansiveness quite the opposite of typically compartmentalized Victorian residences, in which every room was a veritable world unto itself. Scully gives an even more specifically Jamesian explanation as to why this kind of private exurban refuge met with such an enthusiastic reception among a sensitive segment of America’s moneyed class after the Civil War in one of his most rapturous passages:

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print