A great biographer of an important cultural producer accomplishes two things: First, he or she explains for the reader the subject’s motivations and shows how that person was able to climb to the heights of his or her field; second, the author provides the reader with the feeling that you are there at the making of a work or works of great importance.
In her new firm biography, Triumvirate: McKim, Mead and White: Art, Architecture, Scandal and Class in America’s Gilded Age, Mosette Broderick, an art historian at New York University, accomplishes just such feats. The book’s subtitle piles up the themes to be addressed in this monumental study, and indeed, they are all considered in a comprehensive account of what the author justifiably styles “America’s greatest designers from the death of Richardson to World War I.”
It has been more than a quarter century since two books on McKim, Mead & White appeared in 1983, one by Leland Roth and another by Richard Guy Wilson. Those pioneering studies were followed by Paul Baker’s biography Stanny: The Gilded Life of Stanford White (1989), and by a spate of more popular accounts of White’s liason with the chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit, whose husband Harry K. Thaw murdered White. In addition, White’s great-grandson, Samuel G. White, has published beautifully-illustrated books with Rizzoli that capture the visual richness of the firm’s work, and art historian Wayne Craven has written Stanford White: Decorator in Opulence and Dealer in Antiquities (2005), which considers the architect’s talents with interiors as well as his extensive practice as an antiquities dealer. The acceleration of publishing on McKim, Mead & White has corresponded to the emergence of architectural postmodernism that made the firm’s historicism critically palatable after the ascendancy and entrenchment of modernism had made it anathema, and also to the expansion of architectural history’s purview beyond its original concerns to include decorating, landscape, and other related fields.
The earlier, sometimes more pious accounts provide in some cases more thoroughgoing formal analyses of the buildings than does this new biography, and certainly more extensive illustrations, but Broderick has truly accomplished what she sets out to do, namely, provide “a study of the path of the architects.” That may sound like a prosaic undertaking, but it isn’t. For one thing, such an effort requires the biographer to get inside her subjects’ head, to understand what led them to make certain career moves and what formal attitudes inspired the look of the work. For another thing, it requires the author to reconstruct the world around the subject in great specificity. Both of these things Broderick has done in astonishing detail, while acknowledging that the historical record for two of the partners—McKim and White—is much richer than for Mead, who left little in the way of either a personal or professional record and who, consequently, is less well understood than his peers. Indeed, this is the kind of book that can only be written over the course of years—even decades—by an author who hasn’t merely studied the material, but lived it. Thus Broderick is able to reconstruct the labyrinth of social relations between the architects, their artist collaborators, and patrons. Moreover, as a New Yorker, she can plot all of their actions in the city itself, recreating its appearance at the turn of the century and helping the reader see how the surviving works of the architects fit into their historical contexts. Broderick immerses us in the social set that McKim, Mead, and White navigated in becoming major American tastemakers.
In so doing, she fleshes out the identities of the three partners: White, the socialite charmer whose high living finally does him in; McKim, who finds solace from personal tragedy by fashioning himself the dean of American architecture in his later years; and Mead, the shadowy but level-headed manager of the firm, who held his partners in check. None of the three emerges as anything less than fascinating dinner company, if deeply flawed humans. Clearly, they could not have survived without their assistants, especially Joseph Wells, who comes across as perhaps the firm’s most talented designer and whose embrace of historical architecture shaped the direction the firm would take. His death in 1890, Broderick suggests, ended its most creative period of production. Without belaboring the point, Broderick shows that the works of McKim, Mead, & White were not the products of three men, or even of their vast office that helped establish a new form of architectural practice, but of an entire social milieu—at once high-minded and scandalous.