In 1906, American architect Stanford White was murdered on the roof of a building he had designed sixteen years earlier. The now well-known story goes like this:
White, a founding partner at the celebrated firm of McKim, Mead & White, met the beloved model and actress Evelyn Nesbit when he was forty-seven and she sixteen. The first time Nesbit visited White’snow-demolished apartment building on Twenty-fourth street in Manhattan, he fed her lunch from Delmonico’s before guiding her up to a room housing what Nesbit described as a “gorgeous swing with red velvet ropes around which trailed green similax, set high in the ceiling.” From there, he took Nesbit to his bedroom, the walls of which were covered in mirrors, where he drugged her. Nesbit recalled, “When I woke up, all my clothes were pulled off me.” Years later, Nesbit’s husband, Harry Kendall Thaw, shot White at a rooftop performance at Madison Square Garden. As the New York Timesreported the next morning, witnesses overheard Thaw saying of White, “he ruined my wife.”
The details of White’s murder are dramatic enough to invite obsession, even by publications whose purview does not usually include turn-of-the-century architects. People magazine, for example, published this account of White’s relationship with Nesbit in 1996:
There wasn’t a chance they wouldn’t collide. He was New York’s greatest architect, a fast-living genius with “a voracious appetite for beautiful young girls,” in the words of his great-granddaughter Suzannah Lessard. She was New York’s latest dazzler—a ruby-lipped innocent who, at 16, had graced enough magazine covers to earn her the sobriquet Girl Model of Gotham. Stanford White invited Evelyn Nesbit to lunch in 1901. Before the decade was out, their affair had mesmerized the world—and cost White his life.
The blithe tone of People‘s account is odd, considering the disturbing nature of White’s relationship to Nesbit. But it is unsurprising given the American penchant for romanticizing the elite class of citizens whose extravagance defined the Gilded Age—a trend evidenced by films like Martin Scorsese’s 1993 adaptation of The Age of Innocence and Richard Fleisher’s 1955 film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, which fictionalized White’s murder. It is with fascination, if not outright nostalgia, that many Americans look back on the era in which unprecedented prosperity for the few cloaked the social ills that plagued the many. The lives of powerful men like Stanford White—and their relationships with young women like Evelyn Nesbit—are no exception to this contemporary reverence.
Neither is architecture. The elegant Beaux-Arts buildings that began to populate American cities at the turn of the century are today viewed with unyielding reverence. The most admired of those buildings—like New York’s original Penn Station—were designed by Stanford White’s firm, McKim, Mead & White, a name that has, for many years, signaled grandeur and opulence. When scores of the firm’s buildings celebrated centennials in the 1990s and early 2000s, they experienced a new wave of praise. In their 2003 book McKim, Mead & White: The Masterworks, Elizabeth White and Samuel White Jr. went so far as to declare the firm’s name “synonymous with perfect architectural taste” in American society.
The accolades bestowed upon McKim, Mead & White are certainly not without merit. Referencing Paul Letarouily’s text Edifices de Rome Moderne, the architects thoughtfully and precisely translated classical and Renaissance European architecture for a modernizing American society. Despite its European origins, their style was always consciously American. At the Madison Square Presbyterian Church, for example, White rejected the Gothic style that so many American churches employ, instead turning to early Christian Byzantium for inspiration. The now-demolished building featured a green and yellow tiled dome and polished green marble columns; White cited the style as “natural to belonging to the religion which it represents and to the county in which it is built.”
The intricacies of McKim, Mead & White’s attempts to Americanize a European style are part of a much larger narrative of late nineteenth-century American architecture—one in which, as Richard Guy Wilson writes, “American architects, landscape architects, painters, sculptors, and craftsmen joined together to create an iconography that would represent their nation as the rightful heir to the great themes of civilization.” Echoes of this ideology are visible along the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where columned porticos celebrate American civilization as akin to that of the Romans.
But for a style and era so wrapped up in notions of “civilization” as a whole, many of McKim, Mead & White’s buildings are strikingly exclusionary. Although the firm is remembered most readily for its glorious public buildings, a closer look at their body of work reveals an elite clientele: the Astors and Vanderbilts commissioned the firm to build their mansions in the Hudson River Valley, J.P. Morgan called upon the firm to design his personal library, and the most exclusive gentlemen’s social clubs in Manhattan offered McKim, Mead & White steady work. Up and down the east coast, McKim, Mead & White designed spaces for the nineteenth century’s one-percenters to live and play.
Although most of the social clubs did not admit women until the 1980s and nineties, the exclusionary nature of so many of the firm’s buildings derives not just from policy but from design. Morgan’s library on Madison Avenue is surrounded by an iron gate, his collections locked inside. Massive academic buildings on Columbia University’s Morningside Heights campus deliberately face inward so that they are inaccessible from the street. At the University Club of New York, ornate emblems for each of the Ivy League universities remind passersby of who is welcome. Stalwarts of old money Manhattan, these buildings have become more inclusionary only slowly, if at all; stock footage of Stanford White’s Villard Houses (now home to the Palace Hotel) is still used in many a Gossip Girl scene to signal that viewers are entering the world of New York City socialites.
“The Gilded Age” (a term coined by Mark Twain in his novel of the same name), refers to the era in which a veneer of material prosperity (visible in an estate like Vanderbilt’s) covered burgeoning American social problems. Stanford White’s architecture and personal life might be described in the same terms. The scandal of his very public murder and the dramatic legal battle that ensued (often called “the trial of the century”) cloak the disturbing reality of his relationship with the teenage Nesbit. In the same way, the celebration of McKim, Mead & White’s architecture as the pinnacle of American elegance conceals its exclusionary underpinnings. Just as a steel frame—the industrial centerpiece of modernity—hides behind many of McKim, Mead & White’s historicist stone facades, so too does an unsettling past.