McKim, Mead & White's Architectural Citizenship

By Lewis, Michael J. | New Criterion, September 2006 | Go to article overview
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McKim, Mead & White's Architectural Citizenship


Lewis, Michael J., New Criterion


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 elan 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.

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