Stanford White was born on November 9, 1853, and died on June 25, 1906. He was an American architect, the most imaginative partner in the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White which was one of the most significant Beaux-Arts firms. He was carefully trained as an architect by Henry Hobson Richardson. In June 1880 he joined Charles Follen McKim and William Rutherford Mead in founding this new architectural firm that soon became the most popular and prolific one in the country. Until about 1887 their organization concentrated on designing large country and seaside mansions in what was called the Shingle style. White designed one of the subtlest of these informally planned structures, the Casino (1881) at Newport, Rhode Island. Subsequently, the partners, aided by their gifted draftsman Joseph Morrill Wells led the American trend toward Neoclassicism and away from styles then being developed in Chicago and elsewhere. He designed many houses for the rich, in addition to numerous civic, institutional, and religious buildings. His temporary Washington Square Arch was so popular that he was commissioned to design a permanent one. His design principles embodied the “American Renaissance.”
Stanford White’s father was the noted Shakespearean scholar and essayist, Richard Grant White. Based in New York City, the Whites had ready-made connections to influential people. Young Stanford skipped college and as a teenager in 1870 joined the office of architect Henry Hobson Richardson just as Richardson was beginning the Trinity Church Project in Boston. In l880, after learning the magnificence of masonry structures, Stanford White became a partner with Charles Follen McKim and William Rutherford Mead in New York City.
Like his buildings, Stanford White’s personal life was lavish. A red velvet swing hung from the gold leaf in his Madison Square Garden apartment, an opulent den where he entertained many beautiful young women. Some people insist that his motives were lascivious and perverted. Today, White’s affairs are often considered acts of rape, if not child molestation. White’s killer was the millionaire husband of Evelyn Nesbit, a popular actress who as a teenager had fallen prey to the charms of an architect in his 40s.
Stanford White’s scandalous life and shocking murder captured news headlines and
often eclipsed the brilliance of his work. Nevertheless, he left America some of its most remarkable buildings, including lavish summer homes for the Astors and the Vanderbilts. White became one of the most prominent architects of America’s Gilded Age and the American Renaissance. Stanford White’s architecture is remembered everywhere and anywhere in America where grand, opulent structures are present-none more visible or accessible than the arch at Washington Square, the central gathering place of New York City’s Greenwich Village.
White’s personal story is legendary-the grist for movies and innumerable books. America’s fascination with architects as personalities also known as “starchitects,” remains an odd phenomenon to this day. Yet White’s architecture stands alone, as does his flamboyant expression and personality.
The architectural firm McKim, Mead, & White designed relaxed summer homes, many in the Shingle Style, and grand public buildings in the more ornate Renaissance Revival and Beaux Arts styles. McKim’s style was often more traditional compared with Stanford White’s chance takings. Many of the firm’s buildings have been razed, making new spaces for the Modernist movement.
Landmark McKim, Mead, & White examples include these:
1885: Tiffany House (demolished 1936) on 72nd Street in New York City
1890: The second Madison Square Garden (demolished in 1925) at Madison Square Park in New York City
1894: New York Herald Building (demolished 1921), the newspaper offices near the present Herald Square in New York City
1895–1903: Rhode Island State House, Providence, Rhode Island
1889: Washington Square Arch, entrance to Greenwich Village, New York City
1898–1902: Rosecliff, Newport, Rhode Island
1902–1904: Astor Courts, Rhinebeck, New York
1910: Pennsylvania Station (demolished in 1963) at the site of the 1968 Madison Square Garden in New York City
1917: Tesla’s Wardenclyffe, laboratory, and transmitter tower on Long Island, White’s last project
In 1906, White was shot and killed at the Madison Square Theatre by Harry Kendall Thaw. This occurred in front of a large audience during a musical theatre performance. Thaw was a wealthy but mentally unstable heir of a coal and railroad fortune. He had become obsessed by White’s alleged drugging and rape of and subsequent relationship with, the woman who was to become Thaw’s wife, Evelyn Nesbit, which had started when she was about 16, (four years before her 1905 marriage to Thaw). By the time of the killing, Nesbit was a famous fashion model who was performing as an actress in the show. With all of the elements of a sex scandal among the wealthy and the public killing, the resulting sensational trial of Thaw was dubbed “The Trial of the Century” by contemporary reporters. Thaw was ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity.
White’s reputation was severely damaged by the testimony in the trial, as his sexual activities became public knowledge. The Evening Standard spoke of his “social dissolution”. The Nation reconsidered his architectural work: “He adorned many an American mansion with irrelevant plunder.” Newspaper accounts drew from the trial transcripts to describe White as “a sybarite of debauchery, a man who abandoned lofty enterprises for vicious revels.”
Few friends publicly defended White, as some feared possible exposure for having participated in White’s secret life. The autopsy report, made public by the coroner’s testimony at the trial, revealed that White was in poor health when killed. He suffered from Bright’s disease, incipient tuberculosis, and severe liver deterioration. It is a shame that such a gifted and talented architect’s life came to such a tragic end. For all his knowledge and talents, Stanford White was a flawed man and in the end, that was what stopped him from achieving his life of success. We appreciate his legacy and the architectural styles he left us with.
We at Scarano Architect, PLLC, value the legacy left by Stanford White and hope you will find the time to read more about this fascinating and talented architect. Of course, if you need an architect for a project, please feel free to contact us. We are always here for you!