Magazine article The Spectator

Murder in Madison Square Garden

Magazine article The Spectator

Murder in Madison Square Garden

Article excerpt

Triumvirate by Mosette Broderick

Alfred A. Knopf, $40, pp. 640,

ISBN 9780394536620

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. …

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