Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between roundups of historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.
It’s almost impossible to talk about historic architecture without mentioning—at some point—Stanford White. One of the most prominent architects of the Gilded Age, Stanford White was a partner at the prolific firm McKim, Mead & White, which built some of the most important and impressive buildings across America during the early 20th century. They were behind projects like the Boston Public Library, New York’s original Penn Station (R.I.P.), and the expansion and restoration of The White House in 1902.
This Saturday marks the 110th anniversary of Stanford White’s death; White was, notoriously, shot on the roof of Madison Square Garden by Harry Kendall Thaw, the millionaire who was married to the woman with whom White was having an affair. If the situation sounds like a movie, it was! The drama served as the inspiration for the 1955 film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, which chronicles the whole calamity. We’re taking this week to remember Stanford White, and we think there’s no more appropriate way of commemorating him than by looking back at some of our favorite rooms that he designed.
While some of Stanford White’s colleagues—like Charles McKim—designed rigid buildings like the Low Memorial Library at Columbia University and the University Club on New York’s Fifth Avenue, Stanford White was known for his flamboyant use of decoration, his imaginative sources of inspiration, and his unsurpassed ability to marry aesthetics and rigorous architecture.
“There are great planners, talented ornamentalists, and heroic architects,” said Samuel White, architect and partner at PBDW Architects—and great-grandson of Stanford White. “But I would challenge you to think of another architect in the history of the Western cannon who brought ornament into their architecture in the way that he could.”
One of our favorite rooms that he was behind is—funnily enough—not even in a house of his own design. Before his days at McKim, Mead & White, Stanford White worked for prominent architect H.H. Richardson. The banker William Watts Sherman commissioned Richardson in 1875 to design a cottage for him in Newport, Rhode Island. White was in charge of the library. What he came up with was a room that drew upon Japanese, art nouveau, and American colonial design motifs to inform its decorative scheme, which is based in green and gold.
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“Look at the ceiling and how the gold is just on the edge of the moldings,” said Tom Kligerman of architectural firm Ike Kligerman Barkley. “The gold is like a pinstripe—an accent in all of that green. The room is exuberant and celebratory, but also restrained. And for Stanford White, it was really hard for him to restrain himself.”
It seems like the walls are covered by a thin skin of wood with cut-outs, overlays, and intricate designs carved into it. The geometric patterns repeat on a variety of scales and are reflected also on the ceiling in a way that creates an intimate and cohesive room.
Just seven years later—and right down the road—White would design the Isaac Bell House while a part of McKim, Mead, & White. The house features similar design motifs to the library at the Watts Sherman House. “White used a lot of refined patterns at the Isaac Bell House, and he borrowed design elements from various places like at the Sherman house,” said Kligerman. “His green library at Watts Sherman was really a precursor to the other work he did on Bellevue Avenue.”
But Stanford White wasn’t just a talented ornamentalist. He also knew how to design buildings, no matter how grand, on a human scale. “A single person is very comfortable being in even the largest of his spaces,” said Samuel White. “But at the same time, they are fabulous places for an assembly.”
One such location is the Gould Memorial Library, currently owned by the Bronx Community College but originally built in 1899 as the library for New York University, which until the mid-1970s was based in the Bronx. The central rotunda of the space is defined by a double row of green marble columns, and the space is capped by a gilded dome with deeply recessed coffers.
While the library—which was gifted to New York University by alumna Helen Miller Gould—is undeniably grand, White used the columns to break the space down into an interior rotunda and exterior envelope. He then divided the room further into smaller interstitial spaces like seminar rooms and offices for faculty.
“There are these incredible little spaces that relate to the whole plan of the building like the parts of a cell that support its life,” says Samuel White. “There is this amazing activity—or potential for activity—running around the great central rotunda.”
Even more impressive is Stanford White’s ability to pull light into almost every corner of the building. One trick he used was installing glass floors in the library stacks so light could filter from floor to floor. A similar device was used 11 years later at Pennsylvania Station, designed by Charles McKim. There, glass block floors were installed in the grand concourse to allow light to pass onto the train tracks below.
A Stanford White design has an undeniable sense of personality to it. Often, that personality is defined by the purpose of the space and the cross-section of people using the space. A good example is his approach to the design of the libraries at the various clubs he built—like New York’s Metropolitan Club, which was founded in 1891 by J.P. Morgan.
Stanford White looked to Europe to inform the design of the Metropolitan Club, which was inspired by the shape of an Italian palazzo. “At this point in his career, Stanford White is showing people how to live,” says Kligerman. “At the Metropolitan Club, Stanford White is recreating palaces in Europe for millionaires in New York.”
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On the second floor, tucked away into a side wing, is the library. Bookcases rise about halfway up the wall. A fireplace is at one end, and an incredibly ornate ceiling is pierced by an oval skylight.
“The metropolitan uses books as kind of architecture ornament. The books are all there on shelves—detailed perfectly,” said Samuel White. “It seems more to be designed as a place where somebody would sit down and write a really big check rather than somewhere to browse the shelves and read for a while.”
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One of the most charming aspects of the library is its intimate scale and location within the club. It’s a space tucked away—somewhere to retreat, or even to conduct business, as White jokingly suggested to us. Rather than being an imposing, daunting space, it’s cozy. The library stacks don’t tower over members but are kept at a more human height. You won’t need a ladder to reach the top shelf here.
“His designs have an energy that gives back and magnifies the human energy of the room,” said his great-grandson Samuel White. “I always say you have more fun at a party in a Stanford White room than any other.”
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Watch: Architecture that comes to life in Game of Thrones
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