The Gilded Life of Stanford White
by Paul R. Baker; The Free Press; 483 pages.
Paul Baker opens his authoritative biography of Stanford White by thrusting a heavy mantle upon him: “More than anyone else at the turn of the century, he was tastemaker for his age.” This is not an exaggeration. As Baker goes on to show, White’s sensibilities were central to the artistic and architectural design of Gilded Age America.
His genius was not long in developing. As a teen-ager in the early 1870s, White served as an apprentice to the prominent architect H. H. Richardson. Soon he was helping to design Boston’s heralded Trinity Church. By the time he was twenty-five White had started his own firm with Charles McKim and William Mead. The triumvirate attached their names to an astonishing number of major new building projects in the nation over the next quarter-century. White would eventually tackle everything from creating clubhouses and mansions for wealthy private clients to constructing commercial centers such as the Tiffany Building and the old Madison Square Garden on Twenty-third Street in New York City. Some of his work was more public-minded: municipal beautification efforts in city parks and contributions to college campuses like West Point and the University of Virginia.
Beyond his talents as an architect, White was in demand as an interior decorator and as an expert designer of objects ranging from picture frames to statue pedestals. He was also a celebrity who moved in the highest social circles. But the opulence and splendor of his architectural design translated into something close to hedonism in his personal affairs. Somehow it balanced out for a while. “The turmoil and loss of control in his private life,” Baker writes, “only seemed to spark more creativity and consummate artistry in his professional work.”
Then, at the age of forty-seven, White became involved with a sixteen-year-old model, Evelyn Nesbit. Their affair was brief, but a few years later Nesbit married Harry K. Thaw, a deranged Pittsburgh playboy. One night in June of 1906 both men chose to dine in the elegant Roof Garden restaurant of White’s own Madison Square Garden. In a jealous rage Thaw murdered White. The sordid imbroglio made headlines for months, and it even looked as if White would be remembered only for the way in which he died. But in time history, and historians like Baker, placed Stanford White in his proper context, as a great American builder and a casualty of the excess of his era.