Features December 2020
Stanford White’s surfaces
On the New York architect’s attention to detail.
One has to be of a certain age to know the meaning of the phrase “the unwritten law.” Made quaint by the sexual revolution, this was the unspoken understanding that no jury should ever convict a husband for killing his wife’s lover. It was this understanding that spared Harry Thaw, who on June 25, 1906, shot and killed the architect Stanford White. The specifics of the killing were lurid in the extreme: the woman in question was Evelyn Nesbit, a lovely artist’s model, and the shooting took place at the old Madison Square Garden, a Spanish Renaissance fantasia designed by White. There have been other celebrity murders since then, but none so sensational or so public, for Thaw chose to kill White in full view of hundreds of eyewitnesses, gathered for a musical theater performance on the building’s rooftop garden.
White was at the peak of his fame in 1906. He was the most colorful member of McKim, Mead & White, the architects who had given America some of its finest buildings, including the Boston Public Library and Pennsylvania Station, then under construction. He cut a fashionable figure in public life, dashing from boxing match to art exhibition to Broadway show, perhaps on the same night, only to be back at his drawing board the next morning. Such was the public bon vivant, whose freewheeling private life was not generally known until its every detail was mercilessly dragged out into the open at Thaw’s two trials (the first ended in a hung jury).
Thaw was eventually exonerated on the grounds of temporary insanity, a polite fiction for which he was briefly confined to an asylum. In later years his name became a staple of vaudeville humor (Q: Why is the Paramount Theater on Times Square Harry Thaw’s fault? A: He shot the wrong architect). But while Thaw sank into obscurity, White is now one of the few architects whose name is known to the general public. Over the decades he has inspired films (The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, 1955), a novel (E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, 1975, later made into a film and a musical), and a decent biography, Paul Baker’s Stanny (1989).
It was natural that his spectacular death affected the way people viewed his life. His insatiable pursuit of young women (Nesbit was one of many) seemed one more manifestation of his compulsion to possess beautiful things—the same urge that drove him to wheedle baronial fireplaces and ancient paneled ceilings from their bewildered European owners and ship them to America—this time pushed to its inevitable self-destructive conclusion.
So much has been said about White that it is startling to come upon Stanford White in Detail, which manages to say something new about him.1 A book of striking photographs of his interiors and architectural ornament, it is the work of Samuel G. White, the great-grandson of its subject and an architect in his own right. It is that rare literary object: a nearly wordless book that manages to say a great deal.
Stanford White was born in 1853, the son of Richard Grant White, a major figure in the literary and cultural life of mid-century New York. Surrounded from the earliest age by artists and writers, young Stanford briefly considered a career as a painter, but John La Farge, his father’s friend, convinced him that architecture would suit him better. And so at the age of sixteen, he entered the office of Gambrill & Richardson, a promising firm that was beginning to hit its stride. His eight years with the firm constitute the entirety of his architectural education. They also coincide with the design and building of Trinity Church, Boston (1872–77), the building that established H. H. Richardson as America’s most significant architect and the first to be taken seriously by European architects.
In Richardson’s office White met Charles F. McKim, a man of utterly different background and temperament. A scholarly Quaker, McKim was a product of Harvard and the École des Beaux-Arts, but, in the strange calculus of friendship, he and White complemented one another. In 1878, the two men set out on an ambitious sketching tour of Europe. McKim returned to America after a summer, but White remained fourteen months, filling his sketchbooks with richly textured passages of detail and the expressively sagging silhouettes of old towers or gables, giving himself a lifetime’s worth of source material. He returned in September 1879 and was promptly welcomed into what became the auspicious new firm of McKim, Mead & White.
Until near to that point, American architecture had been a one-man operation. The antebellum architect drew his own plans, wrote out specifications by hand, and made periodic visits to the building site, where he coordinated the activities of the bricklayers, carpenters, plasterers, and other building trades. There was little overhead. One needed only a well-lighted studio with a drawing table and a reception room for meeting prospective clients. Although architects might join together from time to time in a partnership of convenience, to share risk and responsibility and to split the office rent, the business of design remained an individual affair.
All this changed after the Civil War. It is one thing to design an elegant suburban house and quite another to design a ten-story office building with elevators and a steel frame. Buildings had grown swiftly in scale and complexity, and their planning had come to involve a multitude of new mechanical systems: central heating, ventilation, and electrical wiring. In response there arose the modern corporate office, in which partners with different specializations divided responsibilities between themselves. An early center of this development was the city of Chicago, then rebuilding furiously after having lost its entire downtown to the fire of 1871. One model of a highly effective partnership was Adler & Sullivan, in which Dankmar Adler handled the planning and engineering of a building and Louis Sullivan the shaping of its visible surfaces. Another was Burnham & Root, where Daniel Burnham served as business partner and John Wellborn Root as chief designer. Such a firm was entirely dependent on the sensibility of its designer, and it changed completely when Root died suddenly in 1891 (prompting Burnham’s frantic, futile effort to recruit a young Frank Lloyd Wright as his replacement).
McKim, Mead & White represented something newer still, a partnership organized around the principle of creative collaboration. There was no division between artistic and business partners. Each of the principals was a supremely capable designer in his own right, even self-effacing William Rutherford Mead (who planned the Rhode Island State Capitol, the prototype for a long pageant of similarly domed neoclassical state capitols). We do not always know which building was designed by which of the partners, for everything they did seems to have engaged all three principals, if only through the process of mutual criticism. This sort of quiet collaboration, possible only when there are shared, strongly held aesthetic convictions, leaves no paper trail for the historian. But its results are patently obvious in the output of the firm, which is remarkable for its stupendous and uniformly consistent quality.
Nonetheless, there was a natural division of labor. McKim was a veteran of the École des Beaux-Arts, which drilled architects in the rational planning of monumental public buildings, and accordingly he took on most of the firm’s large civic projects, including the Boston Public Library, Pennsylvania Station, and the superbly organized campus of Columbia University. With McKim one always senses a disciplined and highly organized mind at work, leading people and groups of people along impeccably logical paths of movement. When an architect does that well, a building is self-explanatory; painted signs and arrows are superfluous.
White’s gifts lay in another direction. La Farge may have discouraged his ambition to be a professional painter, but he remained one in all but name. At heart White was a graphic artist, for whom naked construction was interesting only as a canvas on which to paint. He was not one of those architects for whom a building was most beautiful when its raw structure was visible; McKim, for example, clearly relished the mighty Roman torso of his Pennsylvania Station, which preserved the austerity of the ruin on which it was based. But for White, the chief interest of a space was in the materials and colors that adorned its walls. So we learn from Stanford White in Detail.
Stanford White in Detail is a product of the great covid lockdown. With his architectural practice on hold, Samuel White devoted himself to a book that would examine his ancestor’s “obsession with ornament and texture.” It is unusual in consisting almost entirely of photographs, taken by Jonathan Wallen, and most of these are extreme close-ups of architectural details. They are superbly composed and lighted and splendidly reproduced. Most remarkable is their sense of tactility. There are exquisitely detailed doorknobs that beg to be clasped; a door studded with brass carpet tacks that function as sequins; a wall of split bamboo, so delicately lashed together it that seems to rattle gently before your eyes.
When an architect is as well-known as White, it is a feat to make his work fresh and unfamiliar. Wallen’s photographs do this, but they also do something more. McKim, Mead & White were so productive that monographs can illustrate only a smattering of their most important buildings, typically represented by distant views that show the building as a whole. This tends to exaggerate the stylistic disruptions, as the firm seemed to lunge from Queen Anne to Romanesque Revival to creative eclecticism to classical revival. But by focusing almost exclusively on doors, hardware, hinges, stair newels, and the like, this book downplays the specifics of each historical style and lets us see how White treated surfaces, edges, and junctions. Seen in this way, White’s work shows a breathtaking continuity. Even his classical details show the same absolute control over texture. I know of no other photographs that so vividly convey his distinctive touch.
The most stunning photograph in the book is the sybaritic interior of the Veterans Room in New York’s Seventh Regiment Armory (1880), a space that rivals Whistler’s famed Peacock Room in its sheer unbuttoned extravagance. At first glance, the profusion of inventive detail—the iron straps that cradle the ceiling beams, the columns wrapped in iron chains—gives the impression of High Victorian excess. There is the same saturation of detail and color, the same love of contrasting materials, the same straining for overwhelming impact. Yet a second glance shows how much White’s aesthetic goals differed from those of his High Victorian contemporaries. At the very outset of his career, his artistic personality was already fully formed and confident, which is surely the most important revelation of this book.
White came of age at a time when the doctrine of truth was almost universally accepted as architecture’s greatest commandment—truth in the use of materials, truth in the display of construction, truth in the descriptive arrangement of parts. At the zenith of the High Victorian movement, in the 1860s and 1870s, it was not enough simply to design truthfully, one also had to exaggerate expressively the facts of structure. Columns should appear to strain, muscular brackets should visibly stretch and distend under the load they carried, although it was not always clear if they were enjoying their labor or suffering in torment. In either case, the goal was that quality of vivid alertness that was known in contemporary architectural slang as “go.”
But in White there was no “go.” In a sense, a building is always working; it is always conducting suspended weight to the ground and discharging it safely. The Victorian generation celebrated that drama and called attention to it in their designs. But for White, the elegant repose of a building was its principal fact, and he typically suppressed any sense that his architectural elements were actually performing any labor. Where brackets and beams appear, they serve not as visible structure but as playful garnishes. Where possible, he overlaid his walls with graceful lattices and screens, masking their load-bearing role. This is not to say that his walls are inert, merely that their vitality derives not from any tectonic display but rather from the shimmer and oscillation of discrete colors and textures, artfully juxtaposed.
Stanford White in Detail prompts one to reconsider the long tutelage in Richardson’s office. The key event of White’s apprenticeship was the design and building of Trinity Church, of which he bragged that he made every single drawing. It was in the making of this building that Richardson discovered his own powers. His original design of 1872 projected a very different building, and a much more conventional one, a typically High Victorian jubilee of stridently colored masonry and strapping roof trusses. Step by step, over the course of the next five years, Richardson purged every hint of this structural exhibitionism. Every surface was plastered or paneled to offer a serene field of color, and La Farge was enlisted to adorn the walls with decorative murals. Meanwhile, White introduced Richardson to his new friend Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who was promptly engaged to provide sculpture. This was White’s formative experience, and not only of design. For the rest of his life, he patterned his working approach on the congenial collaboration he observed at Trinity Church, where painters, sculptors, stained-glass artists, and other artisans worked together in gregarious fellowship, always under the benign direction of the architect acting as impresario.
Stanford White in Detail places its subject in the heart of the Aesthetic Movement, which recoiled violently against the idea that art was fundamentally a moral enterprise, one seeking to reveal truth. His aesthetic goals were closest to painters like Whistler and Thomas Dewing, whose paintings did not aspire to tell a story but to impart a mood, and usually one of languor or reverie. Where they used muted gauzy fields of color, creating an overall tonal unity, White used fields of carefully adjusted texture, which appeared embroidered and stitched or woven, suggesting textile rather than building. (Dewing was a close friend, and White’s elegant frames for his paintings in the Freer Gallery show how closely their aesthetic goals coincided.)
More than a century after his shocking death, we have still not taken the full measure of White. But gossip and scandal are easy to write about, easier than the elusive subtleties of artistic expression. And it is tempting to link the Aesthetic Movement’s rejection of moralizing art with a rejection of personal morality. But the artistic moralists of the preceding generation were hardly paragons of virtue. It was John Everett Millais, the chief Pre-Raphaelite painter, who seduced the wife of John Ruskin (something that Ruskin had neglected to do). And Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, the conscience of the Gothic Revival, died of syphilis. The Aesthetic Movement hardly invented the private libertine.
That White was an abundantly gifted architect is beyond doubt. Buildings like his Lovely Lane Church in Baltimore or New York’s Washington Memorial Arch show the hand of a master. But Stanford White in Detail reminds us that White remained to the end a graphic artist, for whom a building was nothing more than an assembly of surfaces, waiting to be gorgeously painted. For this we must thank Richardson, who spotted White’s artistic brilliance, and quickly promoted him from draftsman to renderer to the firm’s principal decorative draftsman. If his works reproduce so happily on the page here it is because they have resumed their original form, as exquisite graphic art, and the most beautiful architectural surfaces that America has created.
1 Stanford White in Detail, by Samuel G. White; The Monacelli Press, 256 pages, $40.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 4, on page 32
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