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Our Grand & Randy Great Architects

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Bettmann/Corbis
The architect Stanford White
Civilized withdrawal from a brutalized society encouraged interminable summer vacations (the real decadence of New England here?) to Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and the coasts of Massachusetts and Maine, where the old houses weathered silver, floating like dreams of forever in the cool fogs off the sea.

This sense of genteel social retirement and grand self-sufficiency was most apparent in the spacious living halls the firm designed for a number of their Shingle Style schemes. As with the multifunctional ground-floor reception-and-sitting areas that became popular in mid-nineteenth-century Britain, McKim, Mead & White’s adaptations were focused around a vast hearth (often with an adjacent seating alcove, or inglenook) that infused visitors’ first impression with a welcoming warmth both figurative and literal.

Though usually paneled in dark wood, the typical McKim, Mead & White living hall was well illuminated through broad expanses of multipaned windows, often on two sides of the room, which in many cases gave onto the firm’s signature enveloping verandahs. But there was also a distinctly East Asian feeling, which, as Hitchcock noted, went well beyond the superficial application of Japanesque decorative motifs that became a widespread craze during the zenith of the Aesthetic Movement in the 1880s:

The main rectangular space, of which the shape is emphasized by the ceiling beams and by the abstract geometrical pattern of the floor, seems to flow out in various directions into other rooms and into several bays and nooks; but the actual room-space is sharply defined by a continuous frieze-like member that becomes an open wooden grille above the various openings. There can be little question that the major influence here is from the Japanese interior, but the Japanese interior understood as architecture.

Credit for introducing this continuous flow of space to America is most often given to Wright, whose interest in classical Japanese architecture is well known. But McKim, Mead & White was executing these sweeping proto-modern interiors two decades before Wright went even further with that openness in his celebrated Prairie Houses of 1901 onward, with Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe taking the concept to its logical culmination in their plan-libre houses of the 1920s.

3.

McKim, Mead & White’s output was enormous, more than a thousand buildings all told, with some three hundred in New York City alone. Among the latter were the Columbia and uptown NYU campuses; the Century, Colony, Freundschaft, Harvard, Metropolitan, Players, and University clubs; high-end commercial work for such luxury goods purveyors as Tiffany and Gorham; several banks; town houses for magnates—the Whitneys and Pulitzers—as well as fellow artists including Louis Comfort Tiffany and Charles Dana Gibson, in addition to country retreats for the plutocratic Astor, Mackay, and Oelrichs families.

Although Stanford White remains among the very few architects whose name is widely recognized among laymen in this country, his urban designs were demonstrably lightweight in comparison to McKim’s. White is perhaps most accurately seen as the John Nash of American urbanism, a facile and pleasure-giving metteur en scène of enchanting set pieces that catch the eye but rarely provide much intellectual substance, as was also the case with the English architect who put his mark on Regency London as indelibly as White did on New York at the height of the Gilded Age, but who often also seems more an ingenious stage designer than a shaper of modern civic life.

All the same, there is no doubt that apparently without exception White’s clients adored what he gave them, as indicated by one instance in which his work proved more mobile than is usual in the static art of architecture. During an 1878 study trip through France with McKim, White photographed the triple-arched portico of St.-Gilles-du-Gard, a Romanesque abbey church of circa 1125–1150 in Provence, which he deemed the best work of European architecture. This served as White’s model for a portal he appended in 1900–1903 to St. Bartholomew’s Church, a Lombardic-Romanesque pastiche of 1870–1872 by James Renwick (best known for New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Washington’s Smithsonian Institution).

St. Bart’s parishioners grew so fond of White’s limestone frontispiece that when they abandoned Renwick’s building in favor of Bertram Goodhue’s Byzantine Revival sanctuary of 1917–1930 on Park Avenue, they took the narthex along with them and had it incorporated into the congregation’s new home. The resulting palimpsest still imparts an incongruous whiff of hybrid Venetian exoticism to an otherwise dreary corporate stretch of midtown Manhattan.

McKim’s characteristic perfectionism (which contrasted with White’s sometimes slapdash solutions) would never be indulged more fully than by J. Pierpont Morgan, who commissioned him to build the New York private library and gallery of 1903–1906 that late last year emerged, more magnificent than ever, from an exemplary interior restoration by Beyer Blinder Belle. To some extent this respectful refurbishment compensates for the affront imposed by Renzo Piano’s unfortunate addition of 2000–2006, the most objectionable aspect of which was its repositioning of the beloved institution’s main entrance from East 36th Street to a new and corporate-looking façade on Madison Avenue, a shift that reduced McKim’s regal vestibule—one of the finest entry spaces in the United States—to a vestigial backdoor appendage.

Morgan’s commission yielded an exceptionally restrained single-story white marble Classical pavilion, its façade centered by a graceful Palladian archway. “I want a gem,” Morgan told the architect, and he got one, though not before spending a small fortune on specifications of almost manic exactitude.

During a visit to the Acropolis in Athens, McKim became fascinated by the ancient anathyrosis technique of assembling precision-ground blocks of masonry without mortar (a refinement the Incas later mastered and employed in their famous walls at Cuzco). Climatic differences would not permit an exact duplication of the Greek assemblage, but McKim came very close by adding a thin layer of lead between the Morgan Library’s marble blocks to compensate for expansion and contraction caused by New York’s more extreme temperatures. This nicety, which J.P. Morgan instantly assented to, set him back an extra $50,000 (about $1.2 million in current value).

4.

McKim is the closest America has ever come to having a national architect, and his imprint on the city of Washington is still palpable on both the urban and the domestic scale. He was a member of the Senate-appointed panel responsible for the so-called McMillan Plan of 1901 (named for the Michigan legislator who sponsored it), which sought to restore order to the capital city’s original 1791 design by the French-born civil engineer and architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant. That grandiose Baroque layout, with radial principal boulevards superimposed on an overall grid of lesser streets, had been only sketchily realized when the federal government moved to Washington from Philadelphia in 1800.

Over the next century, L’Enfant’s scheme was repeatedly compromised, no more so than with the imposition of an undulating Romantic landscape devised in 1851 by Andrew Jackson Downing to surround Renwick’s neo-Gothic Smithsonian of 1846–1855. This visual non sequitur encroached onto the broad greensward L’Enfant hoped would extend westward from the Capitol building to the Potomac. The far-reaching remedial proposals set forth under McKim’s supervision, which were largely but not fully implemented, reasserted the French architect’s intentions, especially in the creation of the National Mall, the strong outlines and verdant integrity of which remain intact as the precinct now considered America’s sacrosanct front yard.

McKim’s strong hand in reshaping the nation’s capital can be seen most frequently in television broadcasts from the White House, where the main floor of the Executive Mansion—especially the East Room, scene of many presidential press conferences; the Cross Hall, through which the president passes to face the cameras; and the State Dining Room, where foreign heads of state are entertained—were all redesigned by him as part of a thoroughgoing renovation ordered by Theodore Roosevelt in 1902. A century after James Hoban’s President’s House of 1792–1800 was first occupied, the neoclassical character of the original structure had been sadly undermined. The exterior was overburdened by a chaotic jumble of greenhouses appended to the west side of the mansion (where the executive office wing now stands), and Victorian interior accretions were aptly likened to the gaudy, overstuffed décor of a Mississippi riverboat.

McKim stripped away the excesses, but rather than going back to Hoban’s delicate interior detailing (which he had covered over but was ripped out in the gut reconstruction of 1948–1952 decreed by Harry Truman) the architect substituted a beefier Anglo-Classical aesthetic that at the time passed for the then-popular Colonial Revival style. Here is yet another example of the inevitable tendency of Classical revivals to reflect the moment of their creation, in this case the nascent imperial ambitions of America in the days of the Great White Fleet.

Only four years after that incomparably prestigious project, McKim, Mead & White’s glory years came to an abrupt and bloody end. White had always been the most assertively, even aggressively, “artistic” of the partners. He amassed objets d’art, antique furniture, and decorative bric-a-brac as compulsively as his younger contemporary William Randolph Hearst, though lacking a tycoon’s resources the architect was forced into a sideline as a sub-rosa dealer to defray the crushing debts he accrued.

A social animal to the bone, White never let his family—conveniently rusticated at Box Hill, the idyllic Shingle Style home on Long Island he built and constantly remodeled for them between 1884 and 1906—interfere with his frenetic social life in the city, which he rationalized as a means of getting jobs from the nabobs of finance and industry. Never has there been a more adept architectural networker than Stanny White, who moved with intuitive ease among the various subsets of New York’s economic and social elite as he made friends and garnered commissions everywhere he went.

White also had a thing for underage girls, a predilection hardly concealed in the louche theatrical haunts that were no less a part of his strenuous nightly rounds than Manhattan’s most exclusive men’s clubs or expensive restaurants. His predatory habits may not have been much different from the tactics of other stage-door Johnnies, but the forty-eight-year-old letch met his nemesis in the ravishing but snakelike sixteen-year-old chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit, who was being primed for a career as a courtesan by her complaisant mother. Nesbit quickly became a favorite of “art” photographers, including Gertrude Käsebier, and her image was widely circulated on wildly popular picture postcards during the first years of the new century.

The lurid tale of White’s fatal attraction for Nesbit has been told many times before, and given the unedifying nature of their relationship, trashier accounts—such as Paula M. Uruburu’s humid American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl, and the Crime of the Century (2008)—get closer to the reality than Broderick’s rather prim version of events. This affair was the subject of Richard Fleischer’s 1955 film, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, which starred Ray Milland as White and Joan Collins, who at twenty-two was somewhat long in the tooth as Nesbit. The title referred to one of the architect’s favorite erotic pastimes, in which he would position himself beneath a velvet-covered trapeze apparatus in one of his several secret playrooms scattered around the Flatiron district—which he euphemized as his “studios”—in imitation of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s voyeuristic painting Les Hasards heureux de l’escarpolette (1767–1768), which shows a young gallant peering up the skirts of a young woman oscillating above him.

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