Architecture September 2006
McKim, Mead & White’s architectural citizenship
The influences of the architectural triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White.
Ernest Hemingway once declared that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” a claim so provocative that Lionel Trilling based an essay on it. Was it indeed possible that Twain’s picaresque adventure could be so influential? For Trilling, the answer was yes, not because of its racial or social themes but because of its language. Previously, antebellum America “was inclined to think that the mark of the truly literary product was a grandiosity and elegance not to be found in the common speech,” hence the recurrent passages of stilted grandiloquence on the part of Cooper, Poe, and Melville. But while “the language of ambitious literature was high and thus always in danger of falseness, the American reader was keenly interested in the actualities of daily speech.” This meant, to a large extent, dialect, that instrument that is embarrassing to modern sensibilities but which for nineteenth-century America was limitlessly expressive of regional, class, and racial meaning. Thought vulgar, dialect was shunned by self-consciously literary writing, but humorous writing suffered no such inhibition.
Trilling’s account can be extended to American architecture. There too a similar stilted provincialism prevailed through the nineteenth century, its mock Venetian storefronts and haughty Renaissance villas standing at prim attention. But beneath the awkward grandiloquence, as with American English, there lay a vernacular reality of remarkable hardiness and vitality. Already practical builders had devised the cast iron front, the passenger elevator, the balloon frame, and, by the early 1880s, the steel skeleton. The American building, in fact, was novel and original in virtually every aspect but the facade that was draped across it. It took Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright to strip away this drapery and to make buildings whose architectural prose spoke the reality of construction, without straining after imagined European standards. In this respect they are Twain’s architectural counterpart.
Such an understanding of American architecture, however persuasive or attractive, cannot be kind to McKim, Mead & White, the firm founded in 1879 by Charles F. McKim, William Rutherford Mead, and Stanford White. Works such as the Boston Public Library, the Morgan Library, or their masterpiece, New York’s Pennsylvania Station, are exercises in architectural formality of the most exacting sort. Far from shunning European standards of refinement and taste, these were perhaps the first American buildings to meet them. But a brilliant provincial is still a provincial, and the architects did not even have Cooper’s excuse of having no indigenous models who might have shown him a better way. For when construction began on Penn Station in 1905, Sullivan had long since developed the modern steel-framed skyscraper (1891) and Frank Lloyd Wright had already created the Prairie Style house (1901). It is the blithe indifference to these developments on the part of McKim, Mead & White that constitutes the modernist indictment against them.
Of course, the event for which they are most famous has nothing to do with architecture at all: the murder of Stanford White. His killer was Harry Thaw, a young Pittsburgh millionaire who had the great misfortune to marry Evelyn Nesbit, the most alluring artist’s model of her day. (She had been memorialized by, among other artists, Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the Gibson Girl.) On their honeymoon, Thaw learned that White had seduced her and kept her as a mistress; at the time of her seduction she was sixteen. Humiliated, Thaw decided to take his revenge in as public a manner as possible.
No celebrity murder, certainly not the squalid ones of recent memory, has matched the élan of White’s. On June 25, 1906, he attended the debut of a cabaret entitled Mamzelle Champagne, performed on the rooftop cabaret of the old Madison Square Garden at Fifth Avenue and Twenty-sixth Street, a building he himself had designed. Just as the lead singer began to croon “I Could Love a Thousand Girls”—subsequently a detail of infinite delight to the tabloid press—Thaw approached the table where White sat and shot him three times. As he fell, his last sight would have been Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Diana of the Tower, the building’s lovely weathervane that depicted the bronze goddess, nude and proud as she released her arrow.
The murder has exerted a perennial fascination on the public which did not subside when Thaw was acquitted for reasons of insanity in 1908. It was the subject of the 1955 film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, starring a young Joan Collins as Nesbit, as well as of the E. L. Doctorow novel Ragtime, also made into a film. White’s death was memorable for it seemed to encapsulate the guiding principle of his life—the pursuit of beauty—in a particularly poignant way, even to his death at the feet of Diana, that banner of beauty. But it was also of a piece with his architecture. To unsympathetic critics, at least, it seemed to embody precisely what was wrong with the firm: They made frivolous buildings for frivolous people, costume architecture for debauched socialites, their Roman arcades masking both their steel framework and the squalid carryings-on within. The scandal and changing architectural fashions did their work. By the 1920s, the conventional wisdom was that McKim, Mead & White were mere façade architects. Their work seemed a quaint curiosity—difficult, to be sure, but not relevant, like painting on vellum or Morris dancing.
This conventional wisdom rested in large part, ironically, on the building that was their finest achievement, Penn Station. The commission came when A. J. Cassatt, the enterprising engineer who headed the Pennsylvania Railroad, decided to tunnel underneath the East River, something that could not be done before the invention of smokeless electric trains. Passengers would now glide swiftly into New York without the cumbersome transfer to ferryboats that formerly burdened the trip. There they would emerge from twenty-one subterranean tracks into a station of gargantuan proportions, a prodigy that stretched 780 feet between Seventh and Eight Avenues, and 430 feet from Thirty-first to Thirty-third streets. This station would greet arriving passengers as a portal to the city, although of a radically new sort, placed not at the periphery of the city but at its center. In program and essence, nothing could be more modern. Yet rather than evoking the industrial audacity of the undertaking, the architects enveloped the building’s steel skeleton in a Roman colonnade of pink granite and clad its interior in Roman travertine.
Of course, the ancient world had no train stations, but it did have one large public building with multiple paths of movement: the Roman bath, a massive complex of vaulted public halls and various pools of different temperature. McKim had inspected the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla in 1902, when researching the design of the Mall in Washington, D.C., and he had even paid Italian urchins to wander about in it, so that he might study its capacity to move and orient a crowd. Now he based the central waiting room of his station on the bath’s great tepidarium, enlarging it twenty percent in the process, and letting its broad passages welcome pedestrians to their track platforms rather than to tepid pools and steam rooms.
McKim, Mead & White believed that creative classicism—classicism informed by history, archaeology, and modern engineering—could solve any architectural problem that the contemporary world might offer. Penn Station was a demonstration of that philosophy; its demolition was a gleeful renunciation of it. In 1963, the railroad decided to destroy it, condemning it as a spurious copy of a Roman monument. An appalled architectural community, including such stalwart modernists as Louis I. Kahn and Philip Johnson, protested to no avail. The station was razed down to track level, keeping intact only the circulation system (something which not even an age of functionalism could improve upon). Its demolition was swiftly recognized as one of the most tragic acts of cultural vandalism in American history, summed up in Vincent Scully’s oft-quoted lament for the station: “Through it one entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.”
The loss of Penn Station had far-reaching consequences, not only bringing about the rehabilitation of McKim, Mead & White but also launching the influential historic preservation movement. But while its willful destruction has been universally decried, it must be taken seriously, for it was based on principle. It was itself a form of architectural criticism, criticism of a rather muscular sort, rooted in a clear understanding of the task of architecture, and its duty to society and to the present. Without addressing this understanding, and without grounds stronger than mere nostalgia or a fashionable aversion to modernism, there can be no fair assessment of McKim, Mead & White. For we will never be able to praise them as definitively as our predecessors renounced them.
The conventional image of McKim, Mead & White as academic classicists is unfair. It is true that their office was the principal finishing school for American classicists, their alumni including Cass Gilbert, Whitney Warren, Henry Bacon, John Russell Pope, and both members of Carrère and Hastings; hundreds of other former draftsmen flooded into offices across the country. And it is true that the refined civic classicism that dominated the period from 1890 to about 1940 was in large measure created and guided by their example. But they themselves were hardly academics at all (collectively, they spent a total of but three years in a school of architecture). And they came by their classicism honestly, by a circuitous path through the Victorian period styles, which made their classicism the product of a quest and not of indoctrination.
Charles Follen McKim (1847–1909) was the son of a prominent Philadelphia Quaker, an abolitionist who helped launch the Nation magazine, which at its founding was the voice of radical Republicanism. The journal’s art critic was the architect Russell Sturgis, an ardent Gothic Revivalist whose moralistic conception of art and architecture came verbatim from John Ruskin. After McKim withdrew from Harvard after an unhappy year, Sturgis offered him a berth in his office. McKim agreed, spent the summer of 1867 as an apprentice, and decided that architecture was to his liking. He sailed to Paris and enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts, where architecture was viewed not as a moral but as an aesthetic affair. Students were thoroughly grounded in the discipline of the floor plan, which was meant to embody the logic of the entire building in diagrammatic fashion. McKim’s marvelously lucid plan for Penn Station has its origin in this education.
He remained in Paris from 1867 to 1870, when he returned to the United States and the office of H. H. Richardson, an architect with a similar Harvard/Paris pedigree. There McKim met a fellow draftsman, Stanford White (1853–1906), like McKim a redhead but otherwise a young man of a different temperament entirely. White was the son of the New York critic and bon vivant Richard Grant White (a regular in the Nation as well), from whom he evidently acquired his charm and panache and rather elastic understanding of the marital state. Stanford joined Richardson’s office as a teenager, on the strength of his father’s connections and his own precocious drawing skills. All of his training occurred on the job.
Richardson was in a formative phase when McKim and White were with him, emerging from the thicket of High Victorian eclecticism to arrive at his own personal style, a bold and brawny modern Romanesque that crystallized during the design and construction of Trinity Church, Boston (1872–1877). Both McKim and White assisted with this remarkable building. It showed that the two great architectural cultures of the nineteenth century, previously thought to be mutually exclusive, might be reconciled, and that the picturesque tradition of England might be brought under the academic discipline of France. For McKim, who had been caught between these two systems of thought, the synthesis was a revelation.
Another revelation was the odd way that Richardson ran his office. Chronically ill and bedridden for days on end, he delegated the development of a design to his assistants, coaxing it to refinement through verbal criticism and swift explanatory sketches. He was also notoriously reluctant to provide a binding design in advance, preferring to visit a building under construction and to judge it in the round, like sculpture, refining its details as it rose. In McKim’s subsequent practice, these quirks of the Richardson method became a kind of theology.
So unlike were the temperaments of McKim and White, aesthetic and personal, that a third party was essential, if only to diffuse the element of personal contest in the creative exchange. This leavening agent—the Ringo, as it were, in the Lennon-McCartney collaboration—was William Rutherford Mead (1846–1928), a figure so bland that he was affectionately nicknamed “Dummy” by his partners. Mead was the son of a lawyer from Brattleboro, Vermont, and like McKim he spent a term in the office of Russell Sturgis. He too had literary connections: His sister married William Dean Howells, the novelist and essayist, for whom the firm designed one of its earliest houses. (Howells repaid the favor by burlesquing White in The Rise of Silas Lapham.) Mead handled office administration, and although he was characteristically self-effacing—he once joked that his sole duty was to keep McKim and Mead from “making damn fools of themselves”—he was in fact a fluent planner in his own right, as his floor plan for the Rhode Island Capitol shows.
Such was the triumvirate of McKim, Mead & White, which was formed in 1879. For the first decade of their practice, their fame rested almost exclusively on their domestic architecture. These resolutely vernacular buildings were informed by two extended sketching tours, one in 1877 devoted to the colonial architecture of New England and another the following year along the Rhône to Avignon and Nîmes. Looking at their early work, it is easy to see the lingering shadow of Richardson, particularly in the muscular abstraction of such buildings as the Low House in Bristol, Rhode Island (1887), the entire house treated as one broad shallow gable whose eaves nearly touch the ground. Or the Lovely Lane Methodist Church in Baltimore (1883), whose burly stone tower tapers expressively like the entasis of a Doric column. By the middle of the 1880s, the architects were already drifting toward classicism (in part because they were now winning more formal civic commissions), but the lessons of free composition stayed with them: an appreciation for the abstract force of a sculptural shape, an ability to compose freely in spatial terms, and a feel for chromatic effects.
In 1887, McKim, Mead & White received the commission for the Boston Public Library, which changed the course of their career. It was their first large public building, and on its planning and construction they lavished eight years, studying and restudying its details. Such a deliberate, measured pace was more characteristic of the architectural culture of Europe than that of America, where construction was a pragmatic affair, shaped by the demands of commercial speculation and unrestrained by official standards of taste and decorum. Also novel was the building’s rich decorative program of painting and sculpture, with contributions from Saint-Gaudens, John Singer Sargent, and Daniel Chester French. Here the architects seem to have been inspired by Richardson’s Trinity Church, which stood across Copley Square and also had a sumptuous program of mural painting, and which they evidently sought to match.
Long before the Boston Public Library opened in 1895 it had decisively altered the course of McKim, Mead & White’s career. In place of their languid summer houses there now came an avalanche of monumental civic commissions: the Rhode Island State Capitol (1891), the Agriculture Building at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago (1893), both Columbia and New York universities (both begun in 1894), and the critical expansion of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1904). In these projects, the exceptionally dynamic collaboration of McKim and White came into its own.
Of course architecture, more than any other of the creative arts, is congenial to collaboration. Any building of complexity is designed incrementally, from idea sketches to preliminary proposals to the finalized contract drawing—and until the actual start of construction, all of these might be discarded and the process of study begun again. At the same time, a design is refined as the drawing increases in scale. The earliest sketches are thumbnails and are diagrammatic but at each successive restudy they are drawn as larger scale, reaching one quarter inch to a foot, one inch to a foot, and occasionally, in the case of ornamental detail, one to one. With each enlargement of scale, new aesthetic issues are raised, as a feature that was but a line in a thumbnail sketch expands to become a wide band, requiring detailing and development. Because of this sequential working process, verbal criticism is possible—even essential—at every stage, for which reason the studio critique is the essence of architectural education.
Unless such criticism is brought to bear, unless a design is rethought and refined at successively larger scale, the resulting building will have a rather bald and schematic character, looking merely like an enlarged model of itself. But McKim and White brought an extraordinary aesthetic intelligence to the process of mutual criticism, and their personal presence during the development of the design accounts for the exquisite quality of their best work. Each project was handled by a different partner—McKim, for example, had the Morgan Library, the University Club, and Columbia University, while White had New York University, the Knickerbocker Trust Company, and the Goelet Building (where The New Criterion is published, in fact). Yet whichever partner was principal designer, the other served as design critic, switching roles depending on the building, like seasoned actors trading Othello and Iago on alternate nights.
This process of mutual criticism was extraordinarily beneficial, for despite all the concord that existed between McKim and White, their personalities were diametrically opposed. McKim was a planner of brilliance and logic, his plans marked by a superb legibility that is visible even at a glance; his flair was for the gracious orchestration of movement through space. Modern French architecture seemed insufficiently virile to him, and as his career progressed he aspired more and more to the severe clarity of ancient Roman architecture.
In this was a certain chilly correctness, the orderly antiquity of the grammarian, for McKim was the very opposite of a sensualist. The roots for this may lie in his Quaker childhood. There survives a revealing letter from his student days in which his mother takes him to task for his newly acquired architectural lettering: “Charlie darling, why does thee make those horrid square capital letters … ? I should advise thee to keep to a plain round clear hand as the one to commend thy writing to all sensible persons.” If a sensuous appreciation of texture and form is acquired early in life, this was clearly not the household in which to learn it.
White, by contrast, was a designer of intuition rather than logic. His genius was in the refinement of surfaces, the sensuous treatment of all that would reach the eye. For academic platitudes he had only contempt; when an assistant complained that his rooms could not be aligned along an axis, White famously exploded, “Damn it all, bend the axis.” If McKim affected classical antiquity, White was drawn to the Italian Renaissance in its most sumptuous manifestation, outfitting his buildings with polished marbles, fabrics, tooled leather, and sumptuous ceilings that he extracted like teeth from Italian palaces, implanting them on Fifth Avenue.
Out of this pairing, a perfectionist grammarian and a free-spirited voluptuary, emerged a creative collaboration of unusual power. It is easy to see why McKim retreated from active design shortly after White’s death, turning the office over to the junior partners who produced clever but cautious imitations of the firm’s early work for another generation or so.
The essential tension in McKim, Mead & White, that between logic and feeling, lends their work depth and density, a certain laminated richness in which differing sensibilities are applied to the same problem. Such a quality was rare in American architecture, which historically had evoked its European models as image rather than substance. In the antebellum era its principal sources were print materials, either woodcuts or books, which gave to replicas a flat and graphic quality, a trait that was only intensified by the American habit of building in planar materials such as boards or brick. Here, too, the literary parallel as suggested by Trilling is striking. In his 1948 essay “Art and Fortune,” he contrasts the rich density of characters and social classes found in European novels with the thinness of their American counterparts. American characters such as Captain Ahab and Natty Bumppo did not exist in a complex world in which social relations and social class locked them into a network of fraught relations and obligations with others; lacking the property of “substantiality,” they were instead “mythic because of the rare fineness and abstractness of the ideas they represent.” The very same terms might be used to describe a Greek Revival house, idealized and abstracted from the pages of a Greek pattern book.
But substantiality, in literature as well as architecture, was precisely what the post-Civil War generation now ardently desired. Transatlantic travel had become routine and part of the normal flow of fashionable summer life. The cultured traveler who had inspected and admired the real thing was no longer satisfied with mere cardboard approximations of European architecture; he expected a physical recreation in tangible materials. For White, with his peculiar gift for the tactile, the timing was right. And indeed, the hallmark of all of the firm’s civic buildings was their intense corporeal presence, like that of sculpture. McKim made large-scale plaster models of his important designs, and photographed them to evaluate their heft and massing. Even this was not enough. For the Boston Public Library and Penn Station, he built full-size mockups of the wall and cornice, and hoisted them into place on site, so that he might gauge the boldness of relief and the strength of the shadows, and adjust the proportions by eye. It was a trick he had learned from Michelangelo, who had done the same with the Farnese Palace.
To the critics of McKim, Mead & White, this fastidious refinement of detail might be said to represent all that was wrong with the classical revival: its academicism, elitism, and criminal indifference to modern technology. In this view, they are to be condemned for ignoring the pioneering achievements of Louis Sullivan and, already evident by 1901, of Frank Lloyd Wright. But this is to condemn Henry James for not being Theodore Dreiser. Sullivan and Wright indeed solved brilliantly the problems they set out to solve, but these represented only one lobe of modern life. There was another that they scarcely addressed at all, and which their architectural realism perhaps could not address.
The hallmark of early modernism, paradoxically enough, was at once a heightened objectivity and a heightened subjectivity. The objectivity lay in the acute attention to the facts of a building, its program, and its construction. Sullivan’s skyscrapers expressed these facts with eager bluntness: the large commercial windows below, the stacked stories of identical offices above, the cage of the steel piers. But they were no utilitarian boxes, and their urgent factuality was offset by an equally urgent subjectivity. Sullivan’s buildings were intensely personal in character, so much so that they might be taken as surrogates for the architect. Or so Sullivan wrote about them, invoking the idea of the heroic individual self, the lineage that runs from Rousseau through German romanticism to Coleridge, Emerson, and Whitman (to whom he once wrote a fawning mash note).
The typical buildings of Sullivan and early Wright were precisely those that lent themselves to this sort of treatment, swaggering commercial towers and the private houses of self-made businessmen. But for McKim, Mead & White this was not an option. Buildings such as a state capitol or city library, a university or museum of art, are collective in nature and reflect a consensus, a shared understanding of society, of art, or of history; they were public documents rather than personal manifestos. (This helps explain McKim’s instinct always to place their design on a historical basis, colonial in the early years, and classical in the later, and also his leadership in forming the American Academy in Rome.)
In architecture, as with literature and art, a full century must pass before a reputation settles into lasting form; until then everything still swims in the surf of current events. It has been a century since the creative partnership of McKim, Mead & White came to an end, and it has become abundantly clear that their rank is very high indeed. Their libraries, museums, universities, and other civic buildings, as a corpus, form one of the enduring accomplishments of American culture. These institutions were themselves still in a formative stage, and the buildings McKim, Mead & White made for them helped to crystallize their identity. Their solutions invariably became exemplars of their type, as when a dozen state capitols modeled themselves on the example of Rhode Island’s. One no longer feels the need to ritually disavow their classicism. If they did not seek modernist solutions for these buildings, it was because this was not a realm for the principled modernist dissent of Sullivan and Wright; their task was rather one of definition and consolidation, and it is here their achievement lies.
It is an oddity that Charles McKim, William Mead, and Stanford White represented three of America’s principal founding cultures, those of Quaker Philadelphia, Puritan New England, and mercantile New York, dominated by the high society of its Episcopalian elite. Each had its distinctive architectural tradition and cultural sensibility, each of which, though in less distinct form, is still palpable today. In some strange way, they were able to amalgamate those traditions, refining away regional peculiarities and personal idiosyncrasy to produce work of national character, which no longer looks like the fashionable output of an overworked design factory, but something like the collective achievement of a high civilization.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 1, on page 77
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