10:07am

Sat January 1, 2011
Author Interviews

These Architects Designed A Nation

The architecture firm of McKim, Mead, and White defined the look of Gilded Age America.

Charles McKim, William Mead and Stanford White designed New York's original Penn Station. They built mansions in Newport, R.I., for robber barons and industrial tycoons. They were even invited to renovate the White House in 1903.

Stanford White may be best known today for the scandal surrounding his murder-- he was shot by the jealous husband of a former lover-- but 100 years ago, he and his colleagues were designing a nation.

A Bridge Between The Old World And The New

Architecture professor Mosette Broderick tells NPR's Jacki Lyden that the three men took much of their inspiration from Europe, at a time when traveling to Europe could be a grueling ordeal.

"Thirty-foot waves! No fresh food! No baths," says Broderick. But that didn't stop McKim, Mead, and White from traveling all over the continent. "They see the first world; they see the old world; they see things that are medieval, things that are Baroque, the Roman amphitheater at Arles," and as trans-Atlantic travel grew easier, they began to bring some of this architectural booty home with them.

"They see themselves as a huge Santa Claus, with a backpack," says Broderick, "and they put the buildings and the style and the things that they can buy in this backpack, and bring it to the Americans."

Ready To Be Barons

When the three men first crossed the Atlantic, America was still relatively unsophisticated. "We were basically a rural nation, with little wooden houses in the country. Not country houses!"

But by the time McKim, Mead, and White set up their architecture firm, Broderick says, their customers were ready for a touch of European grandeur.

"They didn't work very well with the Edith Wharton set," she says. "They worked for the new money, and the new money wanted to be barons, and these buildings made them barons." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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