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McKim, Mead, and White

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Charles McKim (1847–1909), William Rutherford Mead (1846–1928), and Stanford White (1853–1906) established their partnership in 1879 and soon became the most prestigious architectural firm in the United States, designing a wide array of residential, institutional, commercial, and public buildings in New York and other cities. None of the founding partners were advocates of the skyscraper, but younger partners in the office proposed several tall buildings. The most important skyscraper designed by the firm is the Municipal Building (1907–14) on Centre Street at Chambers Street. This prominently sited Classical Revival building, dating from 1907–14, was commissioned to house city offices. 

McKim, Mead, and White was the premier architectural firm in the eastern United States at the turn of the twentieth century. The firm consisted of Charles McKim, William Mead, and Stanford White. McKim and White studied under Henry Hobson Richardson before forming their own firm. They were associated with the City Beautiful and Beaux Arts movements, that aimed to clean up the confusion of American cities and imbue them with a sense of order and formality.

The Gilded Age was a time of pomp and peace and prosperity. Never before were the gaps between the rich and poor so sharply divided as they were in those quiet years before The Great War of 1917. Without personal income tax to curtail immense fortunes in America’s burgeoning industries, millionaires flourished and paraded their wealth for all the world to see. The magnificent mansions of John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie stand like faded peacocks along New York’s Fifth Avenue to this day, bearing silent tribute to a luxurious past long faded into time.

Stanford White was born into a life of wealth and privilege on November 9, 1853, the son of the Shakespearean scholar and essayist, Richard Grant White. He was a talented and versatile draftsman who in 1880, joined Charles Follen McKim and William Rutherford Mead in founding McKim, Mead and White, which soon became the most prominent architectural firm in the country. His career was rich and full and varied from designing the summer homes of the Astor’s and The Vanderbilts to such formidable structures as The Washington Square Arch, Madison Square Garden and the New York Herald Building.

But Stanford White had his dark side and it was darker than most. He led a double life under the very eyes of his adoring wife, Bessie, who chose not to see but could not fail to suffer from her husband’s incessant debauchery. White’s scandalous “parties,” known for their over-sexed, scantily-clad maidens and bubbling French champagne, were often memorialized on the front pages of the tabloids of the day. He was an extrovert, a lavish entertainer with a penchant for young, beautiful women. On the second floor of his tower apartment at Madison Square Garden a red velvet swing dangled from the gold-leaf ceiling, often occupied by the nubile and willing body of one of his countless girls.

One such occupant of the notorious red swing was a seventeen year old red-headed beauty from a small town in Pennsylvania named Evelyn Nesbit. At sixteen, she had posed for the famous Charles Dana Gibson. At seventeen, she worked as a chorus girl in the Floradora review where she caught the roving eye of Stanford White who soon made her his mistress.

According to Nesbit’s own testimony, their affair started one evening at White’s apartment when he slipped “something” into her champagne. When she awoke on his satin bedcovers a few hours later, he informed her that “now she was his.” Despite this lecherous start, their affair lasted for quite a while and White took good financial care of both Miss Nesbit and her mother. But Stanford White eventually grew bored of his conquest and moved on to more nubile territory. They parted amicably and Nesbit married Henry “Harry” Kendall Thaw, the multi-millionaire heir to a railroad and ore fortune from Pittsburgh.

Thaw was a cruel and temperamental bully with a penchant for dog whips. Many an ex-lover knew the pain of his whip for Thaw had a reputation for beating up on women and men as well as defenseless animals. He was used to getting what he wanted when he wanted it at any price. He set his sights on Evelyn Nesbit and would not take no for an answer. He pursued her endlessly, dazzling her with expensive jewels and finery until she finally accepted his proposal of marriage.

Nesbit’s new husband beat her on their honeymoon until she revealed all the details of her former affair with Stanford White. Although she bore him no ill feelings, Thaw vowed to get even with the man who “spoiled” his wife. His deadly rage consumed him and finally erupted at the supper club theater on the roof of Madison Square Garden on the night of June 25, 1906. Concealing a pistol under a heavy overcoat, Thaw followed Stanford White to the opening of the musical review of Mam’zelle Champagne. He approached his table and fired three shots at close range into his face and head. White slumped to the floor, dead. Ironically, he died in a building that he himself had designed just a few years earlier.

Harry Thaw was sent to the Tombs prison where even as a prisoner he enjoyed a life of privilege. His meals were catered every day from Delmonico’s restaurant in the nine months he waited for his trial to begin. After two jury trials, Prosecutor William Travers Jerome failed to make his case for first degree murder and Thaw was found guilty of the killing of Stanford White by reason of insanity. The case is a landmark in American jurisprudence because it is the first time that a defense attorney (Mr. Delphin Delmas) invoked the plea of temporary insanity and won.

The first thing Thaw did as a free man was divorce Evelyn Nesbit. He returned to a lavish but obscure life and in 1926 wrote a book called ‘The Traitor’ in which he tried to justify his killing of Stanford White. He died in 1947 at the age of 76. Evelyn Nesbit returned to the world of vaudeville where she earned $3,500 dollars per week. She married her stage partner, Jack Clifford, but that soon ended in divorce. As an old woman, she one referred to her life as one that had not been as fortunate as “Stanny’s”, for he had died fairly young and at the peak of his talents. She herself died as a faded beauty in a nursing home in 1966 at the age of 81. Even in death, it seems, we are not equal.

Written by Marjorie Dorfman



83rd Street and West End Avenue; For McKim, Mead & White, Even Minor Was Major 

Published: November 9, 2003, Sunday 

THE firm established by Charles McKim, William Mead and Stanford White in 1879 has an enduring reputation for majestic buildings. But it also designed much more modest works, whether to render services to friends or clients or just to pay the rent. 
In New York, these include four modest apartment houses of 1885 at 167-173 West 83rd Street; a single apartment house, the Wanaque, built in 1887 at 359 West 47th Street; and the little rundown house built in 1886 at 471 West End Avenue, where scaffolding protects passers-by from falling brick from the facade, which is soon to be repaired. 

In 1885, McKim, Mead & White was engaged by the builder George W. Rogers, who was known but not prominent in New York real estate circles. The partnership was already prominent, with major commissions to its credit, and it would go on to design many of New York's grandest buildings, ranging from the Metropolitan Club at 60th and Fifth to the old Penn Station. 

Rogers and the firm filed plans for six row houses at the southwest corner of 83rd and West End, each to cost $10,000. Five of the houses fronted on 83rd Street -- 300-308 West 83rd -- but the sixth, what is now 471 West End Avenue, faced West End only. 

West End was then a street of row houses for the prosperous, with a more expansive sense of architectural innovation than was practiced on the side streets. The Rogers group was executed with broad, sloping roofs of tile and crow-stepped gables, suggesting both medieval and Flemish influences. 

The houses facing the side street were picturesquely differentiated, with a conical roof over an open porch in the corner building, and then steep pitched roofs stretching down the row, punctuated by stepped gables. The houses at Nos. 302 and 306 had balconies at the top floor and sheltered porches with round, tapered columns supporting the roof. The corner house had a long top-floor porch with similar columns, running most of the way along West End. 

The brickwork was, even for an area of inventive design, quite unusual. The bulk of the street wall was in contrasting stripes of brick, a deep red contrasting with a lighter color indecipherable in black and white photographs, perhaps tan or salmon. The red was also used to outline the windows, form the round arches and, most spectacularly, create wild, spiky Florentine arches above the main openings, with staggered edges, giving the impression of a peacock's tail in baked earth. 

To judge from early photographs, the diamond-pattern slate shingles were also in patterned colors, giving the roofs the sense of a restless sea, especially on the ''witch's hat'' corner tower. The houses fronting on 83rd Street were 20 feet wide, and although 471 West End measured more than 23 feet wide, it was still the runt of the litter, with no porch, balcony or sloping flat roof. But it did have the wildly striped brickwork, a checkerboard band across the fourth floor, and Florentine arches on the entry level. 

Close inspection reveals that the shell motif over the original third-floor windows -- usually executed in two or three pieces of terra cotta -- is in fact made up of dozens of individual bricks, each molded in different contours to produce the desired shape. Even though overshadowed by its mates, the solo house was outstanding in terms of comparable buildings. 

Writing in The Architectural Record in 1899, Montgomery Schuyler singled out Rogers's houses for praise, likening them to the simple but appropriate houses erected by Trinity Church in the lower part of the city in the early 1800's. He praised the contrasting brick colors, the ''architectural unity'' of the group and the ''affectionate care'' McKim, Mead & White had given such a modest commission. 

It appears that the first occupant of 471 West End was George Chase, a lawyer and instructor at Columbia College Law School, who caused some controversy in 1891 when he broke away to establish what became the New York Law School. Later in the decade the house was occupied by John Clark Ridpath, a historian. His ''Popular History of the United States'' had been published in 1876 and sold more than 150,000 copies. 

The 1905 New York State census picked up a later tenant, Charles Billson, 40, an advertising agent, who lived there with his wife, Julia, 30, and son, Marcus, 9. They had two servants, Miyake Kurotoro, 31, and Royo Fuzi, also 31. 

The Billsons soon left, for in October 1906 the house was the scene of the funeral of Albert J. Adams, who had committed suicide at the Ansonia Hotel at Broadway and 73rd Street. The New York Times said that Adams, who had been living at No. 471, was ''better known as Al Adams, the Policy King.'' 

After a 1901 raid on his gambling operation, the police estimated that he was making more than $1 million a year, and after his conviction in 1903 it was revealed that he had been released by the judge to stay at the Waldorf-Astoria until sentencing. He got a year in prison. 

In 1924 a new apartment house, 473 West End, wiped out the row fronting on 83rd. No. 471 escaped demolition, but the age of the private dwelling was quickly passing, and in 1931 the architects Van Wart & Wein filed plans to alter the building into apartments. It was probably at this time that the stoop was stripped off and replaced with a basement entrance, and the first floor facade, including the Florentine arches, was slathered with stucco. The window openings were changed, and a mansard roof was added. 

Now the building excites little curiosity from the street, and looks like any old raggle-taggle converted row house with rental apartments. The red brick and intricate terra cotta cornice still appear rich and juicy, but the lighter colored brick, apparently of rougher texture, is deeply soiled, giving it a look of charcoal gray and purple. 

This coloring, the peculiar mansard roof and the faintly medieval character of the altered building make it depart from the characteristic formula for a New York house. In its battered state, it looks like one of the picturesque designs the architect Wilson Eyre might have created in Philadelphia early in his career. 

Scaffolding now surrounds this little survivor, and brick is falling away from the upper left side. The building was bought by Rod Hickey, a real estate investor, about four years ago; his son, also named Rod Hickey, says that repair work will shortly begin, in conjunction with similar work on the adjacent apartment house at 465 West End, an unusual work in the Norman style. 

The younger Mr. Hickey says that he and his father saw No. 471 as a building of minor interest. ''Others are far more interesting,'' he said. ''I would never have guessed that the building had any historic interest.'' 

Published: 11 - 09 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section 11 , Column 1 , Page 7 

Copyright New York Times.