Sex and Power: The Queerness of McKim, Mead & White
The men who set the tone for American architecture for almost half a century were queer. Or at least they were what we would today call metrosexual. That’s the conclusion you can reach from reading Mosette Broderick’s Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White. The other conclusion you can come to is that it's all about who you know. While the first realization was, at least to me, a surprise, the latter is an affirmation of the old verity in architecture; it is the built affirmation of the social, political, and economic status quo.
Does an architect’s sexuality matter? Not in and of itself, but it does tend to shift his or her mode of operation and preferences. Stanford White, the most flamboyant and the three original partners, was more of what we would today call an interior decorator than a maker of forceful form for autonomous objects. The path of interior decoration has long been a preferred one for gay men and women, as I tried to show in my 1995 book, Queer Space: Architecture and Same-Sex Desire. It combined their interest in making objects placed upon the land, traditionally a male pursuit, with the desire to create a sensual and sensible place within those objects, something we in our society associate with femininity. The emphasis on decoration and the assemblage of disparate objects, as opposed to the imposition of abstract order, often also parallels same-sex desires. I have speculated that some of the reasons for this include the need for gay men and women to create their own version of a home and identity for themselves, as they could not rely on one built around the traditional family, and the mirroring effect of seeing oneself as an object of desire in another man or woman.
These remain speculations on the edge of architecture, as many gay men and women were marginal in their positions, both aesthetic and political. Yet McKim, Mead & White were responsible, as Broderick quotes New England Brahmin Joe Choate saying, for answering “an ambition to improve and adorn the buildings, both public and private—to make them worthy of the municipalities and of the country” after the Civil War. This was the Gilded Age’s house firm, designing both city palaces and country “cottages” for the robber barons, while marking their power with structures such as the Equitable Life Building, Pennsylvania Station, and much of Columbia University. Their influence spread throughout America and set the tone of the newly coalescing country as a hybrid classicism, based on a combination of French, Italian, antique, and even English sources, assembled into solid, self-confident, and often richly ornamented blocks.
I had always thought of the firm as the epitome of correct, even at times boring, architecture, the evil big brother that squashed Louis Sullivan’s sensual, Midwestern forms and rolled over the Shingle Style’s attempt to create an authentically American gallery of forms by importing elements wholesale from Europe. This they certainly did: they abandoned their early foray into wooden rambles, Broderick describes the partners cribbing wholesale, and White became as proficient as a furniture and antique dealer as he was at helping to direct a design studio.
Broderick shows the work to be (slightly) more varied than I thought, but she also shows how the triumvirate worked, played, partied, bought, and dined itself into the core of the American effective elite at the moment when this country was becoming the richest and most powerful in the world. That this involved not just the high-minded pursuits that led, as Henry Adams said of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, to “American thought tending to unity,” but more, well, entertaining pursuits, is something the author also makes abundantly clear. She describes the seemingly omnivorous White’s sprees with a gay demimonde, including the sons of some of the country’s great families (such as the Astors), and their den of debauchery, an informal private bolthole called the Sewer Club.
The other partners were less overt in their pursuit of pleasure. Of the silent Mead, Broderick asks only if there was “another story” than the absence of Mrs. Mead during his whole career, while there were rumors about McKim as well. Other architects in the offices, such as Thomas Hastings of Carrére & Hastings, as well as many of the firm’s artist collaborators, were apparently more “out,” but in general all the men seemed to play both sides. (White was notoriously assassinated by the husband of a former girlfriend.)
To be practical about it, homosexuality created bonds among the men who were the elite, while marriage let the partners buy into respectability. The pursuit of young men and women afterwards then provided them with an escape valve and let them luxuriate in their achievements. Sex and power were bound up together.
The reason this matters is that there were concrete products of this intertwining of pursuits: large buildings that set the tone for American architecture, for better or worse, for much longer than the partners worked and lived. Even to this day, the McMansions of your average suburb, as well as the remaining symbols of civic power, derive at least in part from McKim, Mead & White’s work—though it is remarkable how almost every building Broderick discusses was torn down. If nothing else, this book—light on architecture and heavy in a meticulously researched way—should make us realize that the influence of gay subcultures, modes of behavior, and models of coherence on American architecture were much larger than at least I had thought.