In Victorian and Edwardian England architects did not get themselves murdered. They weren’t playboys, they didn’t have it off with their clients’ wives, they were in no way fashionable even if designing for fashionable people.They were solid members of the professional classes. Lutyens, with his grand marriage and his socialising, was an exception, but his Peter-Pan philanderings with Lady Sackville in the 1920s pale beside the stormy sex life which brought Frank Lloyd Wright into the headlines in 1909.
No English architects inspired a novel or a film; a Secret Life of William Butterfield would be unthinkable; John Galsworthy’s Bosinney had no model in real life. But Ayn Rand went to Chicago architecture to make Louis Sullivan the hero and Daniel Burnham the villain in her lurid bestseller The Fountainhead. Stanford White is not short of biographies, and there was a film in 1955, The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing, with Joan Collins as a beautiful chorus girl; reading Mosette Broderick makes one see why. There is all that one could wish for of colour, sex and tragedy in the rise, decline and finally murder of the third partner in the renowned firm of McKim, Mead and White.
Broderick is concerned with the whole firm, not just with White. Her book is the result of years of research; it leaves one fascinated, even if longing for even more and bigger illustrations. She covers the partners (not much about Mead, a grey man who ran the office) their assistants, their buildings, their clients and the background of all of them. The result is a fascinating cross section from East Coast and especially New York life — and one that helps to explain White’s personal disaster. In the 40 years from 1870 small fortunes were becoming, or being taken over, by big ones. More and more millions of dollars poured into New York, in a rising wave which lifted the three men from modest backgrounds to become the chosen architects of what became known as the Gilded Age of the 1890s and early 1900s. Their lifestyle and their architecture changed as they rose.
The partnership made its name providing wooden holiday houses for prosperous rather than opulent families. Charming houses they were too, their deep verandahs and shingle-clad gables redolent of a world of croquet, tennis and sailing boats, an intricate network of innocent enjoyment radiating out from social centres such as the delicious Casino at Newport, the chef d’oeuvre of the firm’s early years. But as fortunes grew, clients wanted something more impressive, and McKim, Mead and White were at hand to sell them the idea of being the new Medici, living, working, shopping, holidaying and eating out in palazzos —and then of being the new Romans, and of ancient Rome recreated for an America that was assuming world status.
The firm has had a lot of stick as a result, for living in the past when the bright boys in Chicago were pioneering a new world of steel and glass. Today one can relax and enjoy the professionalism with which they wielded the classical vocabulary, with so much more gusto and inventiveness than English neo-Palladians today. The AIA Guide to New York neatly epitomises their University Club on Fifth Avenue as ‘beyond the Medicis’ wildest dreams’, and it is amusing to find Le Corbusier on an American visit, remarking, as reported by Broderick, ‘they do it better in New York than in Italy’. The University Club and much else survives, unlike the masterpiece of the firm’s Roman manner, the Baths of Caracalla recreated as the Pennsylvania Railway Station, and demolished in the 1960s.
McKim was a dry, workaholic widower who could ride the millions; White could not. As well as catering for the super-rich he endeavoured to share their company, lifestyle and enjoyments, with disastrous results. His particular brainchild and plaything was the combined theatre, concert hall and roof-top restaurant known as Madison Square Garden. It was rich with arcades and cupolas; from one corner soared up a slender tower, the second highest building in New York. In the uppermost storey of this, White had a bachelor apartment, inappositely sited beneath its surmounting statue of the chaste goddess Diana. There, and in other hide-outs scattered around the city, he introduced his rich friends to young ladies from the chorus line, and frolicked with both boys and girls himself. By the time he was 50 he was rotten with drink and high living, and a million dollars in debt. On 25 June 1906, he was was sitting in the roof- garden restaurant of his own creation. Harry K. Thaw, the half crazy husband of one of his former fancies, Edith Nesbit (‘the face of an angel and the heart of a snake’) stepped out of the shadows and shot him dead.
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