Our Grand & Randy Great Architects

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.

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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 …

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