THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Saga of three kings of architecture

By Jonathan Lopez
Globe Correspondent / December 5, 2010

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On the night of June 25, 1906, architect Stanford White attended the opening performance of "Mamzelle Champagne" at the rooftop theater of Madison Square Garden, a grand New York entertainment venue that he himself had designed. As the orchestra played "I Could Love a Thousand Girls," an emotionally unbalanced Pittsburgh millionaire named Harry K. Thaw approached White's table. Recently married to the beautiful Evelyn Nesbit, a showgirl whom White had seduced some years earlier, Thaw produced a revolver from beneath his overcoat and shot White three times in the head at point-blank range. The newspapers called it the murder of the century.

Over the years, the story of White's downfall has been told in countless books — many of them tawdry, but others, like E. L. Doctorow's brilliant 1975 novel, "Ragtime," evocative and deeply insightful. White's professional career with the firm of McKim, Mead & White — architects to the Gilded Age's most prominent families, corporations, and civic organizations — has also received extensive attention, primarily in academic works like Leland Roth's authoritative "McKim, Mead & White, Architects" (1983), a history of the firm's stylistic development, and Paul Baker's "Stanny"(1989), a scholarly biography of White, focusing on his aesthetic sensibility.

In "Triumvirate," New York University professor Mosette Broderick attempts a grand synthesis of all that is best in these trends. She presents the architecture of McKim, Mead & White in a rich social context by interweaving detailed portraits of the three partners, their friends, families, patrons, and other significant personalities. Contending that the firm "gave a distinctive face — at times grand, at times nonchalantly at ease — to a transforming nation," she painstakingly demonstrates how the cultural strivings of America's elite affected the triumvirate's architectural style. Unlike the skyscrapers of Louis Sullivan or the prairie houses of Frank Lloyd Wright, the public and private structures designed by McKim, Mead & White did not propose a bold new American building type but purposefully harkened back to European precedents — Norman manors, Regency townhouses, Renaissance palazzos — to portray the United States as a natural heir to the Old World's finest traditions.

Broderick's discussion of Newport, R.I., the resort community where McKim, Mead & White first made their mark as designers of summer "cottages" — in reality, elaborate mansions — provides an excellent blend of storytelling, cultural history, and visual analysis. Likewise, her narration of the politically fraught process behind the construction of the Boston Public Library shows a keen eye for the real-world difficulties that architects face as they attempt to bring their plans to fruition. This tale of bickering building committees, obstructive city officials, and stringent budgetary constraints makes the masterful edifice in Copley Square seem all the more impressive.

Unfortunately, the book as a whole does not live up to the high standard set by those two episodes. Perhaps because she attempts to tell so many stories at once — the ups and downs of American architecture, the perennial snubbing of "new money" by "old money," the post-bellum tumult of local and national politics — Broderick struggles to distill a clear narrative arc that leads from the book's beginning to its end. A great deal of useful and interesting information can be found here — much of it resulting from impressive original research — but the author's observations and discoveries often seem unmotivated by any overarching purpose, possibly because Broderick does not clearly define what it is she intends her book to say.

In her preface, she writes, "The goal of this study is to focus on the image-making presentation made by the architects." A few pages later she characterizes the book as "a study of the path of the architects." These statements do the book a grave disservice by making the subject matter seem much narrower than it really is; they also leave the reader almost completely in the dark about what is to come.

The book, overall, is remarkably disorganized. Incidents recounted in one chapter sometimes reappear in quite similar form just a few chapters later. On other occasions, information simply fails to appear where it should. On page 71, we are introduced to "Francis Lathrop, brother of the journalist." But the identity of "the journalist" remains a mystery until page 247, when we learn that Francis's brother, George Lathrop, was married to Nathaniel Hawthorne's daughter and wrote, among other things, a book about Hawthorne. These people are of no great importance to the narrative, but the awkward way in which they are introduced makes them a distraction.

Meanwhile, Broderick explicitly instructs readers to discount one of the book's recurring themes. In her preface, she announces that her research has uncovered "a circle of bisexual and homosexual entertainment" that included White and others in the firm. But she concludes that "the sexual orientation of White and the circle he favored is of no importance to the work he did." As a result, one is at a loss to say whether Broderick makes too much or too little of this material when she returns to it repeatedly throughout the book, arguing plausibly that White engaged in a romantic affair with his friend Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the well-known sculptor, and less plausibly that White and almost everyone else at the firm participated in clandestine homosexual bacchanals.

Here and elsewhere, one senses that there may well have been a fascinating, unknown world behind the gilded lives of McKim, Mead, and White — a realm perhaps more revealing than anything dreamt of even in the vivid fictions of "Ragtime."

Jonathan Lopez, editor at large of Art & Antiques, can be reached at contact@jonathanlopez.net.

TRIUMVIRATE: MCKIM, MEAD & WHITE Art, Architecture, Scandal, and Class in America’s Gilded Age
By Mosette Broderick
Knopf, 581 pp., illustrated, $40