Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal, and Class in America's Gilded Age

Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal, and Class in America's Gilded Age

by Mosette Broderick

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A rich, fascinating saga of the most influential, far-reaching architectural firm of their time and of the dazzling triumvirate—Charles McKim, William Mead, and Stanford White—who came together, bound by the notion that architecture could help shape a nation in transition. They helped to refine America’s idea of beauty, elevated its architectural

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A rich, fascinating saga of the most influential, far-reaching architectural firm of their time and of the dazzling triumvirate—Charles McKim, William Mead, and Stanford White—who came together, bound by the notion that architecture could help shape a nation in transition. They helped to refine America’s idea of beauty, elevated its architectural practice, and set the standard on the world’s stage.

Their world and times were those of Edith Wharton and Henry James, though both writers and their society shunned the architects as being much too much about new money. They brought together the titans of their age with a vibrant and new American artistic community and helped to forge the arts of America’s Gilded Age, informed by the heritage of European culture.

McKim, Mead & White built houses for America’s greatest financiers and magnates: the Astors, Joseph Pulitzer, the Vanderbilts, Henry Villard, and J. P. Morgan, among others . . . They designed and built churches—Trinity Church in Boston, Judson Memorial Baptist Church in New York, and the Lovely Lane Methodist Church in Baltimore . . .

They built libraries—the Boston Public Library—and the social clubs for gentlemen, among them, the Freundschaft, the Algonquin of Boston, the Players club of New York, the Century Association, the University and Metropolitan clubs. . . .

They built railroad terminals—the original Pennsylvania Station in New York City—and the first Roman arch in America for Washington Square (it put the world on notice that New York was now a major city on a par with Rome, Paris, and Berlin). They designed and built Columbia University, with Low Memorial Library at the centerpiece of its four-block campus, and New York University, and they built, as well, the old Madison Square Garden whose landmark tower marked its presence on the city’s skyline . . .

Mosette Broderick’s Triumvirate is a book about America in its industrial transition; about money and power, about the education of an unsophisticated young country, and about the coming of artists as an accepted class in American society.

Broderick, a renowned architectural and social historian, brilliantly weaves together the strands of biography, architecture, and history to tell the story of the houses and buildings Charles McKim, William Mead, and Stanford White designed. She writes of the firm’s clients, many of whom were establishing their names and places in upper-class society as they built and grabbed railroads, headed law firms and brokerage houses, owned newspapers, developed iron empires, and carved out a new direction for America’s modern age.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this unsatisfying overview, Broderick looks at one of the leading architectural firms in turn-of-the-20th-century America. Redefining the American aesthetic, McKim, Mead & White put its stamp on Boston, Baltimore, and Newport, and most particularly New York, where it built NYU's and Columbia's libraries, the second Madison Square Garden, and the original Pennsylvania Station. High-minded Charles McKim brought American architecture up to European standards, but his personal life was overshadowed by a messy divorce and tragedy in his second marriage. Well-born William Mead was the sober, hard-working partner who shepherded the firm to success. Poorly educated Stanford White became more a celebrity decorator than an architect and was murdered by a madman obsessed with White's mistress. NYU architectural historian Broderick (The Villard Houses) is too dry for a general audience in discussing the firm's architectural masterpieces, while she shies away from a deep look at the men behind them: she chooses, for instance, not to focus on the firm's bisexual atmosphere. General readers interested in either a popular study of the great architectural firm or in the "scandal" and "class" of the subtitle will be disappointed. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Broderick (art history, New York Univ.; The Villard Houses) deftly shows how three self-made men—Charles McKim, William Mead, and Stanford White—opened a small architectural practice in 1870s New York City that evolved into the legendary firm catering to wealthy clients during America's Gilded Age and obtaining commissions for palatial homes and magnificent buildings. Several masterpieces such as the original Penn Station and Madison Square Garden have been demolished, but the firm has left a lasting impact on architectural history. While Broderick structures her book primarily to provide an account of the firm itself, the results are actually more of a biographical triptych. However, two of the three (McKim and Mead) are documented far less than the much-studied White, whose sybaritic lifestyle mired him in enormous debt, scandal, and led to his shocking death; the book suffers from this imbalance in its coverage.Verdict While this is a most welcome overview of the work of these artists from the 1880s until the 1920s, it seems incomplete. By the author's own admission, it could have been expanded to two or more volumes, thus making it the essential volume on the firm and its legacy. However, this book should be well regarded on its merits by architects, historians, and other academics, while the authoritative work on McKim, Mead & White remains to be written.—Richard Drezen, Brooklyn, NY
Sam Roberts
…a star-studded social and architectural narrative of America's Gilded Age.
—The New York Times

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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6.60(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.70(d)

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In the early 1890s Columbia College and New York University moved to the northern region of the city to create campuses that they hoped would give them academic credibility. Two Roman domes built upon upon hilltops in New York, two libraries built to preserve the thoughts of the ages; two magnificent buildings meant to shape the identity of recently acquired wealth in the nineteenth century. The two colleges prepared to take themselves seriously. For their physical presence, both college presidents turned to the most prominent architectural firm in America, McKim, Mead & White, to give their respective schools a vision for the future.

One might think that each school would want a different architect, but the partnership had two distinct personalities, that of McKim and that of White. Stanford White’s commission came first from his father’s college, New York University, which had given him an honorary degree despite the fact that Stanford had not even completed high school. McKim’s work at Columbia followed as he edged out the other competitors for the new campus. McKim, whose college career was limited to a single year at the Harvard Scientific School, had no Columbia connection. The two men designed for what were, in reality, impoverished institutions hoping for a donor to make at least the central temple of learning, the library, a centerpiece of the new schools. Who were these men who transformed the colleges of New York?

The name of the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White is almost a household word in America. The practice, which was synonymous with bringing American buildings to a level of design equal to that of contemporary Europe, helped to establish the creation of beauty as a goal for builders of individual structures as well as of whole cities during the Gilded Age. These men who played a major role in shaping the ethos of beauty in America grew, as did the nation, from modest native stock to figures of international reputation.

Charles Follen McKim, William Rutherford Mead, and Stanford White hardly seemed destined for fame. All were born a half generation before the Civil War, all were of intellectual but modest backgrounds, and all had personalities sufficiently flawed to make their destiny seem a surprise. Perhaps it’s even true that none was for long a talented designer. It was the synthesis of their association and their lifelong loyalty to one another that made this firm almost the brand name of architecture in turn-of-the-century America.

The eldest of the three, William R. Mead, remains enigmatic to this day. Known to his partners, affectionately, as “Dummy,”* Mead described himself as the rudder of the ship, the man who kept his partners from making “damn fools” of themselves. These comments were correct. It was Mead who kept McKim, Mead & White afloat from its first days, guiding the firm through a major disaster and into the modern world.

A taciturn soul deliberately insistent on keeping a low profile, Mead avoided the social life pursued to a frenzy by his partners. Moreover, he married out of the loop, selecting as a bride a Hungarian- born woman, Olga Kilyeni, who had no connections to potential clients in the United States. The couple had no children. Mead had no burning personal cause; indeed, he humorously noted in old age that his partner McKim, who stressed that physical exercise was the key to good health, died young, while his partner Stanford White had been true to his motto of a short life and a happy one. Mead just worked hard, had a quiet, perhaps boring life, and long outlived the others.

Abolition was the cause that united many of those in the parental circle of McKim, Mead & White, and brought them some early clients. No one fought the good fight better than James Miller McKim, whose role in the abolitionist movement was his life. Stanford White’s narcissistic fop of a father also embraced the antislavery cause. Among the firm’s early contacts, Augustus Saint- Gaudens, William Henry Furness, Henry Villard, Frederick Law Olmsted, Frederick F. Thompson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Russell Sturgis all knew each other from events connected to the rejection of slavery. Indeed, only Mead’s family’s position toward slavery is unknown, although it was probably liberal. As children, McKim, Mead and White grew up with the war’s noises just out of earshot. They were to turn the fervor of their parents’ abolitionist zeal into the cause for beauty, carrying the banner of art forward as their parents had done with that of freedom for the slaves.

*The nickname probably came from the game of whist, in which three can play a dummy version rather than the expected four players. While we are not clear about the exact meaning of the term to the three partners, the name is certainly humorous and self- mocking. It probably refers to Mead’s lack of loquaciousness as well as the constantly changing moves of the three men.

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