The biggest murder trial of the 20th century happened in its sixth year—not its 95th as viewers of the O.J. Simpson trial might claim. On June 5, 1906, Stanford White, the 52-year-old celebrity architect co-founder of the firm McKim, Mead & White and serial womanizer was shot dead on the roof of a New York City building he had designed, in front of a crowd of people, by the husband of his mistress.
What followed was a drawn out trial that saw his murderer successfully use an insanity defense, and his murderer’s mother use her wealth and power to convince a captivated nation that it was White who was at fault, according to Mosette Broderick, a historian and architect at New York University who wrote a book on the history of White’s eponymous architecture firm five years ago.
And now, with this month’s release of McKim, Mead & White, Selected Works, 1879-1915 their works are enjoying a new moment in the light.
The firm was one of the Gilded Age’s most influential and prominent architecture firms, making the trial for White’s murder front page news. Together, the three architects and their large staff designed thousands of buildings between the 1870s and 1920s, introduced and normalized classicism into the American architectural landscape.
“Today, you couldn’t tear down a McKim, Mead & White building,” said Broderick. “The preservationists wouldn’t let you.” But the firm’s long tenure at the top of the architecture field wasn’t always guaranteed. “They were the Ralph Lauren, the Rolls Royce of architecture,” Broderick added. “Then the modern movement started, and boy did they crash. From 1925, when white walls and European modernism began its takeover of architecture, McKim, Mead & White were poison to the profession.”
Theirs was a classical style. Drawing inspiration from Roman and Greek forms, McKim, Mead & White are largely credited with bringing classicism to the fore in the United States. For it, they gained prominent reputations as innovators and geniuses—or copycats and sellouts, depending on who you asked.
Take, for example, Washington Square Arch, the large marble triumphal arch in New York City’s Greenwich Village. For some, it was a grand, heroic, and fitting tribute to George Washington, built to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of his ascendance to the presidency. Others, notes Broderick, lambasted Washington Square Arch as a copy, and its architects as hacks—borrowing liberally from Paris’s Arc de Triomphe, the grand archway inaugurated some 50 years earlier.
But whatever you say about their ingenuity and originality, there’s no denying McKim, Mead & White’s impact on America’s Gilded Age architecture, which the book’s new volumes aim to capture.
Reeling from the negative publicity of the 1906 murder and revealing trial of their name partner, McKim, Mead and younger partners from the firm (which retained its name until 1956, long after the two other name partners retired, and five years before it closed for good) embarked on a mission to restore their reputation. The first help: A year after the murder, they won a bid to design New York City’s municipal building, to house the city government’s growing bureaucracy. It was a resounding success and still houses the city’s employees today. The building was landmarked in 1966. They and the younger partners at their firm then collaborated to create The Monograph, a three foot-tall book highlighting their work. It was first published between 1915 and 1920 in four separate volumes.
It took off, and has since been reprinted multiple times—but never like this. The new four-volumes-in-one captures the full breadth of their work, from their beginnings designing wooden houses for the newly wealthy, to their long period of dominance with huge, skyline-dominating structures like Columbia University’s Low Library and the Rhode Island State Capitol. The enormous pages show incredible photos of their completed projects alongside elaborate plans and opulent interiors, including of their renovations for the White House.
“One measure of the success of McKim, Mead & White is that, a century after publication of the monograph, these classically derived civic buildings are, to a great measure, still occupied and in use,” Leland M. Roth, an architectural historian from the University of Oregon writes in the books’ forward.
Though the firm moved away from the wooden homes of their beginning, they never completely wrote off residential buildings. In fact, during the late 19th century, McKim, Mead & White created many notable private residences in New York City, including the Henry Villard house and the Payne Whitney house.
Ironically, the firm came to define a new class of wealth that developed during the Gilded Age despite humble beginnings. McKim was the son of radical abolitionists; Mead was a poor rural boy; and White came from a middle class family. So how did they come to represent the countries richest and most powerful businessmen and institutions?
In an interview with NPR, Broderick chalks it up to superb networking, particularly on the part of White. In fact, Broderick told CityLab that during his heyday, White would buy antiques from Europe, bring them back to the country, and sell them at significant markups to new-money clients eager to fill their homes with heirlooms and status symbols that could rival the traditionally rich. It’s just one of many quirks that established White as the most flamboyant and outgoing member, while also creating enemies for himself.
But their real legacy, Broderick says, was their commitment to perfection, and their superior design. They introduced “architecture as art, as well as architecture as convenience,” says Broderick, which is why their classical legacy endures.