x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Architecture and morality in America's Gilded Age

Mosette Broderick chronicles the often ambiguous lives of the men responsible for creating an entirely fresh look for America.

Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White – Art, Architecture, Scandal, and Class in America’s Gilded Age
Mosette Broderick
Knopf Publishing Group
Dh146

In the late 1870s the United States, shaking off both the ravages of the Civil War and the economic crash that followed, began one of its periodic spasms of redefinition. Railroads, shipping and manufacturing booms created an energetic new class of millionaires determined to advertise their affluence. Naturally, their minds turned to architecture. A generation earlier, Thomas Bulfinch and his contemporaries had put new faces on Boston, Philadelphia and New York. By the 1870s, however, far greater sums of money - and far more grandiose ambitions - were involved. A new breed of architect was needed, men who had studied the ponderous grandeur of the Old World and were happy to adapt those conventions to America.

This pairing of tradition and innovation was the defining characteristic of the late 19th century Beaux-Arts style. It's also the fault line running through Triumvirate, Mosette Broderick's big, exhaustively researched, and at times maddening new history of the greatest of these new forces for architectural change, the legendary firm of McKim, Mead & White. This company, which rose to national prominence under the direction of the affable (though sometimes moody) Charles McKim, the steady, reserved William Mead, and mercurial Stanford White, was responsible for creating an entire new look for America in the 1880s and 1890s. Broderick traces their development from a struggling group of newcomers, thankful for whatever contests they could win or work they could get, to their most successful period, at the close of the century, executing dozens of major projects and turning away numerous further offers of work.

As the book's title indicates, Broderick has chosen to tell her story in terms of personalities as much as art, which certainly makes the book vivid and involving in a way that a monograph focused on commissions and awards wouldn't have been. Instead we get the whole of Gilded Age Boston and New York served up as a seemingly endless series of interconnected lives. Here are the robber barons, the newspaper tycoons, the stock market speculators, and dozens of colourful characters (such as the man who called off his engagement to a society heiress by getting drunk in front of her party guests and then urinating in her fireplace) - all the vibrant, contradictory, often barbaric masters whom McKim, Mead and White had to serve.

Yet it's the personalities of the firm's main players, so vital and exaggerated, which give Broderick's book its most distracting quality. The split between tradition and innovation at McKim, Mead & White was really a split between two men: Stanford White, the quick-tempered risk-taker who joined the firm in 1879, and "almost partner" Joseph Wells, who also joined in 1879, never became a full partner, and was to provide the conservative ideological anchor that held the firm together for nearly 30 years. Both men were irascible, acerbic, generous, supportive, and often conflicted, and both clearly leave Broderick nonplussed.

Wells is the discovery here, a seemingly secondary figure who became the glue holding the celebrated triumvirate together and never got the full public credit for his imprint on the firm's work, even though McKim, Mead and even White were fulsome in their praise during his lifetime. Broderick herself is sometimes less clear on the nature - and value - of Wells' contribution. On the one hand she writes that he "had the ability to synthesize forms from history and put them together in ways that had never been seen before, either in the past or in contemporary work in Europe". On the other hand, he "was also the person who snuffed out the creativity of his partners… by showing them that the pages of books contained all the answers, he removed their life force." Broderick must be aware of this contradiction, but she can't help repeating it throughout the book.

This ambiguity, however, is dwarfed by the narrative troubles Broderick has with Stanford White, the dark star of Triumvirate as he was of the firm. His ever-changing moods and outsized personality terrified his employees, exasperated his partners, and revitalised American architecture in the decades before modernism. In assessing all this, Broderick faces a major obstacle.

White was shot dead by "Mad Harry" Thaw, the jealous husband of a woman he was accused of raping, in the Madison Square Garden he himself had created. In the ensuing scandal, White's friends and executors extensively censored the records of his life. They expunged almost all evidence of the many affairs White had, some with women, most with men. This censorship extended to the rest of the firm - McKim, Mead, Wells, and their various affiliated artists such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens - all of whom, it turns out, led double lives to one extent or other. As Broderick puts it, their anxious survivors "pulled the shade down tight over the male pastimes of the Gilded Era". Broderick is adamant from the start: "The goal of this study is to focus on the image-making presentation of the architects; the sexual orientation of White and the circle he favoured is of no importance to the work he did and is best left in simple form here."

To put it mildly, this proves difficult. Early in their marriage, McKim's wife filed for divorce citing his "unnatural acts against the bounds of Christian behaviour". Broderick maintains that nobody believed her, but she also mentions the especially intimate relationship McKim later had with John Cadwalader. Broderick portrays Mead as a family man, but she also includes a photo of him and his office boy Robert "Royal" Cortissoz that speaks more than the proverbial thousand words. Even after all those files were destroyed by family members, the evidence that White was a very active gay man is overwhelming, from the passionate love letters that survive between him and Saint-Gaudens, to the hidden rooms he installed in buildings under his care for the purpose of secret rendezvous with young men, to his membership of the Sewer Club, a very clandestine gentleman's club at the Benedick.

Indeed, the Benedick rooms drive Broderick to her most defensively clinical language: "What went on in the Sewer Club? Clearly no records survive. The rooms at the Benedick were used for purposes that implied secrecy and unwillingness of club members to find themselves observed by others not of the circle. The pursuits shared were probably scandalous by the conventions of the day and may have included homosexual encounters." Given the sheer amount of time, effort, and preoccupation these particular "male pastimes" cost White, readers might be forgiven for doubting Broderick's assertion that they had absolutely no bearing on his artistic life. In any case, it's abundantly ironic that White's antics threaten to derail Triumvirate just as they so often distracted McKim, Mead and White (and the equally priapic Wells) during their heyday.

Yet Broderick's strongest theme is that incredible heyday itself, when the firm created an entirely new architectural landscape for the country. The list of their commissions reads like a guided tour of America's favourite buildings, from New York's Players Club to the central hub of Columbia University to the aforementioned old Madison Square Garden to the Roman arch in Washington Square to the New York Public Library to the mighty Boston Public Library, one of the finest public buildings in the world. They designed opulent city mansions for the Vanderbilts, the Astors, Joseph Pulitzer and Henry Villard, and they transformed the informal sea-shack beach houses of Newport and other resorts into airy palaces, many of which are still prized today.

The firm is also famous for the work that didn't survive - especially the magnificent Penn Station, which was torn down for no apparent reason, an act of destruction which helped to inspire the preservationist ethos of modern American cities. Broderick's book is profusely illustrated, and the ghost of Penn Station becomes more insistent as we read the photo captions - "demolished," "demolished," "demolished", again and again.

The book has its flaws - as mentioned, the language can sometimes be overly clinical in its desire to be discreet, and the humour sometimes goes from dry to dessicated (when referring to the furore the firm's sense of humour aroused in Boston, she writes, "A certain lack of humour was evident"). There are factual slip-ups too (Victoria, for example, was never "Britain's dowager queen"), but these are minor flaws in an otherwise sumptuous monument to a trio of men (and their helpers, both major and minor) who created so many sumptuous monuments of their own.

Steve Donoghue's work has appeared in The Columbia Journal of American Studies, The Historical Novel Review and Kirkus. He is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.