Architecture Planning and Preservation McKim, Mead & White
by
Richard Guy Wilson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0041

Introduction

The New York partnership of Charles Follen McKim (b. 1847–d. 1909), William R. Mead (b. 1846–d. 1928), and Stanford White (b. 1853–d. 1906) became one of the most important architectural firms in the United States from the late 1870s to the 1920s, producing more than one thousand buildings. McKim and White were the principal designers and Mead ran the office crew, which at times numbered more than 200 employees. They helped to introduce into the United States an interest in early American architecture and were instrumental in creating what came to be known as the Colonial Revival style with houses in resorts such as Newport, Rhode Island and the New Jersey seashore as well as in New York and Boston. Their early work was picturesque, frequently covered with wooden shingles, but in the mid-1880s they moved toward a more formal approach as seen in the Georgian for houses. Classicism based upon European precedents became dominant by the mid-1880s with works such as the Villard houses in New York and the Boston Public Library, which became one of the most celebrated buildings in the United States. Very involved in the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 they helped in establishing classicism derived from the teachings of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which McKim attended in the later 1860s. Their work grew in scale with the design of the new campus of Columbia University and New York University in the Bronx, along with other major projects such as Pennsylvania Station. McKim directed the renovations of the White House and also served as a member of the McMillan Commission for the renewal of Washington, DC, which served a major influence on the Civic Art, or City Beautiful, Movement. All three of the partners were close friends with leading artists and sculptors and they designed the bases for major monuments. Following the deaths of White and McKim and Mead’s retirement in 1916, the firm continued for many years under the leadership of several men who had worked closely the partners, such as William Mitchell Kendall, Burt Leslie Fenner, and William S. Richardson. The last building designed under the firm’s name was the American History Museum (1955–1964) of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

General Overviews

McKim, Mead & White’s work was extensively published in architectural magazines during their lifetimes with overall views of their work in the Architectural Record (Sturgis 1895 and Desmond and Croly 1906). Between 1915 and 1920 the firm supported the publication of A Monograph in four folio volumes consisting of photographs and plans that included only a small amount of their earlier work and focused on the later classical designs. Scholarly treatment of their overall work can be found in Roth 1978 and Wilson 1983.

Early Work

Aspects of the firm’s early houses, especially country and resort houses, appeared along with the work of many other leading architects in Fuller 1882 and Sheldon 1886. Interest languished for many years until the pioneering scholarship of Scully 1955 and his earlier essay in Downing and Scully 1982. Later evaluations of the early work focusing on McKim’s development is in Wilson 1979.

  • Downing, Antoinette F., and Vincent Scully. The Architectural Heritage of Newport, Rhode Island, 1640–1915. 2d ed. New York: American Legacy, 1982.

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    Initially published in 1950, Scully’s portion is the first treatment in over fifty years of the firm’s extensive work in Newport during the 1880s.

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  • Fuller, Albert W. Artistic Homes in City and Country. Boston: J. R. Osgood, 1882.

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    Contains photographs and plans of a few of McKim, Mead & White’s early homes. The work is labeled “modernized colonial” style homes and later renamed the “shingle style.”

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  • Scully, Vincent J. The Shingle Style: Architectural Theory and Design from Richardson to the Origins of Wright. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1955.

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    A seminal work in American architectural history, it was an outgrowth of Scully’s PhD dissertation with the title, “Cottage Style,” which for the book he invented the term “shingle style” that has remained as the popular name for their early work.

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  • Sheldon, George William. Artistic Houses: Being a Series of Interior Views of a Number of the Most Beautiful and Celebrated Homes in the United States, with a Description of the Art Treasures Contained Therein. 2 vols. New York: D. Appleton, 1883.

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    Contains just interior images of several McKim, Mead & White houses along with work of other firms; focus is on urban projects.

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  • Sheldon, George William, ed. Artistic Country-Seats: Types of Recent American Villa and Cottage Architecture, With Instances of Country Club-Houses. New York: D Appleton, 1886.

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    This book has been republished many times. It contains several of the firm’s Casinos and also houses. The most accessible reprint but without the original text is Arnold Lewis, American Country Houses of the Gilded Age (New York: Dover, 1982).

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  • Wilson, Richard Guy. “The Early Work of Charles F. McKim: Country House Commissions.” Winterthur Portfolio 14 (Autumn 1979): 235–267.

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    A close examination of the developing “colonial” influence on McKim’s work.

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Biographies

The Granger 1913 biography of McKim is one of the earliest published on an American architect, and it was followed by Moore 1929. Mead has almost no coverage except with brief mentions and also the obituaries of the time. However, because of his scandalous life style and murder, White is the most treated among the three with many books on him (Baatz 2018, Uruburu 2008) on his mistress, Evelyn Nesbitt, and his murder by her husband on the rooftop of (the old) Madison Square Garden, which he had designed. White was a colorful individual and, very importantly, imported antiquities and did major interiors (Craven 2005).

Studies of McKim, Mead & White’s Individual Buildings

The firm produced some of the most acclaimed buildings in the United States between the 1880s and the death of the major partners; however, interestingly, very few books have been published on individual buildings.

  • Bergdoll, Barry. Mastering McKim’s Plan: Columbia’s First Century on Morningside Heights. New York: Miriam and Ira Wallach Art Gallery, 1997.

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    A close analysis of one of Charles McKim’s most important designs made for the new Columbia University campus in Morningside Heights beginning in 1891. Contains a catalogue of drawings produced with the assistance of Janet Parks, librarian at the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia.

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  • Parissien, Steven. Pennsylvania Station: McKim, Mead and White. London: Phaidon, 1996.

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    A grand classical structure and one of the world’s best-known stations, it was demolished in 1963.

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  • Willis, Catherine J. Boston Public Library. Images of America. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2011.

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    McKim was the main designer for the library that is the most influential public building done by the firm and the model for many later libraries. Heavily decorated with murals and sculpture by leading artists such as John Singer Sargent, Daniel Chester French, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and others. This is primarily an illustrated book.

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  • Wilson, Richard Guy. “The Conflagration and the Making of the ‘New’ University.” In “Arise and Build!”: A Centennial Commemoration of the 1895 Rotunda Fire. Edited by Edward Gaynor and Christie Stephenson. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Library, 1995.

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    A study of the rebuilding by McKim, Mead & White of the Rotunda and also the design of some new buildings at Thomas Jefferson’s campus after a major fire in 1895.

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  • Wilson, Richard Guy. Harbor Hill: Portrait of a House. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008.

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    Designed by Stanford White in the French chateau style for one of the wealthiest individuals in the United States at Roslyn, Long Island, it was also the second largest. It stood for less than fifty years.

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McKim, Mead & White’s work in the Larger Context

No history of American architecture can avoid mentioning the designs of McKim, Mead & White, no matter the author’s perspective, whether modern or traditional. These general studies will not be listed here; rather, this list deals with their work in different cities such as New York, (Stern, et al. 1999; Stern 1983) and Boston (Bunting 1967), building type studies such as railroad stations (Meeks 1956) and college campuses (Turner 1995).

  • Bunting, Bainbridge. Houses of Boston’s Back Bay; an architectural history, 1840–1917. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967.

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    The firm designed at least six major houses plus a gentleman’s club in the new landfilled “Back Bay” section of Boston. They helped very much to set the tone for the area.

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  • Desmond, Harry W., and Herbert Croly. Stately Homes in America: From the Colonial Times to the Present Day. New York: D. Appleton, 1903.

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    A survey of grand American houses from Mount Vernon to 1903, it mentions and illustrates sixty-three different buildings, but the focus is upon the more recent “mansions” of which eleven are by McKim, Mead & White.

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  • MacKay, Robert B., Anthony K. Baker, and Carlo A. Traynor. Long Island Country Houses and Their Architects, 1860–1940. New York: Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, 1997.

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    The firm designed more than forty buildings for the increasing resort and country house residents of Long Island. They also designed the Garden City Hotel and Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, which was the first purpose-built country club in the United States.

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  • Meeks, Carroll L. V. The Railroad Station: An Architectural History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1956.

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    An extremely important work, this is the first history of the railroad terminal published, and it places McKim, Mead & White’s Pennsylvania Station in the context of railroad station design.

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  • Stern, Robert A. M., Gregory Gilmartin and John Montague Massengale. New York 1900: Metropolitan Architecture and Urbanism, 1890–1915. New York: Rizzoli, 1983.

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    Not as many pages as above but with more dense text layout, the firm’s work dominates with their more classical approach.

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  • Stern, Robert A. M., Thomas Mellins, and David Fishman. New York 1880: Architecture and Urbanism in the Gilded Age. New York: Monacelli, 1999.

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    An amazing 1,164 page study of buildings of the period. About forty of the firm’s work from the early work in the 1870s by McKim alone and then with later partners such as William Bigelow, Mead, and, then, White are treated.

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  • Turner, Paul Venable. Campus: An American Planning Tradition. New York: Architectural History Foundation; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.

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    Very important survey of the development of the layout and buildings of American colleges and universities and puts McKim, Mead & White’s work at Columbia, New York University in the Bronx, and the University of Virginia in context and shows how they helped change the direction of design.

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Interiors of Houses

McKim, Mead & White created some of the most elaborate house interiors that were part of the age of excess, or the “gilded age.” Some of their interiors are treated in books and articles cited in other sections, but of particular importance is Craven 2009 and also McKim’s involvement in the redesign of the White House under President Theodore Roosevelt (Wilson 1995). Also and not well known, McKim was very involved in Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr.’s major book on interior decoration (Wharton and Codman 1897). McKim was a big supporter of Codman and his involvement is detailed in Metcalf 1988.

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