Walkabout: Brooklyn’s Architects: Stanford White, Part 3

Postcard of Ship Martyr’s Memorial, Fort Greene Park.


    Stanford White was one of America’s finest architects, creating with his partners at McKim, Mead & White, some of the nation’s most important and impressive buildings to be constructed at the turn of the 20th century. This was a time of great change in America, and in many ways, a time like today; with great wealth, great poverty, social gains and ills, and new innovations and inventions. The United States of America was a third of the way into its second century, and was no longer a backwater nation. Her great cities were growing faster than anyone could have ever predicted, with industry and commerce swelling the bank accounts of the rich, creating a new middle class, and drawing millions of immigrants to our shores in search of a better life, and a chance to become the next Andrew Carnegie.

    It was an exciting time to be in the midst of things, and Stanford White had become a mover and shaker; designing homes, office and civic buildings, clubs and churches for some of the most important people and institutions in the country. He came from comfortable wealth, and in addition to his prodigious talents, was a gregarious, charming, and fun guy to be around, with a rich man’s love for the good life, the luxuries of wealth, fine food and wine, and the ladies. His personality, connections and talent got him the important commissions, but his personal lifestyle ended up getting him killed. His final years have been the topic of books, movies and crime lore, but before we get to that, let’s look at the rest of his body of work in Brooklyn.

    The Brooklyn Museum, then called the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Science, was McKim, Mead & White’s largest and most impressive work in Brooklyn. Technically speaking, though, this was Charles Follen McKim’s design, although Stanford White probably had some kind of creative input. White was more responsible for what was going on down the road from the museum – the great entrances to Prospect Park.

    As noted in our last chapter, Stanford White had taken John H. Duncan’s rather stark triumphal arch, dedicated to the Civil War dead, and with the help of his talented sculptors, especially Frederick MacMonnies, made it a masterpiece. He had taken the Roman theme further, and designed massive columns, elegant gazebos and other elements for the Grand Army Plaza entrance, creating a scenic vista that continues to impress and inspire one hundred plus years later. The idea of the Triumphal Arch would be repeated in White’s design for the Arch in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, like Grand Army Plaza, one of the city’s most recognized landmarks.

    White designed the base for the statue of James Stranahan, the Brooklyn politician who is considered the “Father of Prospect Park.” He also designed bases for the statues that grace the Third Street entrance, as well as the design for the often overlooked, but impressive Parkside entrance, where Frederick MacMonnies’ magnificent sculptures, “The Horse Tamers”, greets guests to the park. And he designed the Peristyle, an elegant colonnade and shelter located in the park across the street from the Parade Grounds, designed to be a respite and viewing spot for those watching the events that took place on the Grounds.

    One of McKim, Mead & White’s overlooked Brooklyn buildings was also Stanford White’s design. It’s overlooked because it’s long gone. The building was one of the firm’s many club buildings, built for the wealthy men who belonged to the Atlantic Yacht Club. The building, a rather incongruous, but large and impressive temple faced classical structure, was on a pier at Sea Gate, Brooklyn, overlooking Gravesend Bay. The Yacht Club was home to some of New York City’s wealthiest people, yachting enthusiasts like George Jay Gould, son of financier Jay Gould, J.P. Morgan, Sir Thomas Lipton, and other members of New York’s upper, upper crust. The club was host, and its members were often the winners of some of the yachting circle’s most prestigious races. The building burned down in 1933, in the height of the Great Depression, a bad time for everyone, including yachtsmen.

    Prospect Park was not Stanford White’s only park venture in Brooklyn. In 1905, McKim, Mead & White were hired to spiff up Fort Greene Park, specifically the memorial to the American soldiers and sailors who died on the prison ships anchored in Wallabout Bay during the American Revolution. This was Stanford White’s forte, and he designed a new entrance to the vault holding the remains of 11,500 men. From the vault he designed a huge stairway that leads up the hill to his Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument, which features the world’s tallest Doric column, surrounded by a brass lantern designed by sculptor Adolph Weinman, who would work with the firm on Penn Station and other works. The monument was dedicated in 1908, but Stanford White wasn’t there. He had been dead for over two years.

    “Stanny” White was a brilliant architect and artist, and he loved beauty of all kinds, bringing to his wealthy clients not only great design, but fine art and decorative elements from all over the world. He was well traveled and worldly. Wealthy, although not nearly as rich as most of his clients, he and his family lived the good life, at an estate in Long Island called Box Hill. He had married well; his wife was Bessie Springs Smith, a descendent of a prominent Long Island family for whom Smithtown is named. They had one son, Lawrence, who both adored. But Stanny was a big man with big appetites, and his vice was young women.

    He had a multi-storied apartment on 24th Street, in Manhattan where he brought the many young girls he is said to have seduced over the years. There, in opulent splendor, he would be able to be alone to wine and dine and entertain his young girlfriends. One of the rooms in the apartment held the notorious red velvet swing which was attached to the ceiling, where his girls would swing while he watched.

    Stanny was not overly subtle in his conquests and most of his social circle probably knew all about aspects of his private life, but everyone liked him, men and women alike. He was not especially handsome, especially in his last years, but he was charming, powerful and rich. He had no problem getting girls. One of those was young Evelyn Nesbitt, a popular chorus girl and artists’ model. White seduced her when she was only sixteen, and remained in her life long after the affair was over.

    Evelyn Nesbitt would go on and marry very well, choosing Harry Thaw, the son of a Pittsburgh manufacturing millionaire. Harry Thaw was well known to White and others in their extensive social circle; their money and power made all of them members of an elite club, seeing each other often at events, parties, and places of entertainment. When Evelyn married Harry, White had nothing good to say about Thaw, considering him a poser and wannabe, no doubt, his opinion influenced by the fact that he had never really gotten over Evelyn, and considered her, in some fashion, still his.

    Evelyn had terrible taste in men. Harry Thaw had serious issues, and was highly unstable. Her choice of this young, handsome millionaire soon became a nightmare. He was a cruel and abusive husband. He was very jealous of Nesbitt’s relationship with White, and he didn’t like Stanny’s condescending mocking of him, and White’s ability to lead such a profligate immoral lifestyle, while suffering none of the social scandal or repercussions of that lifestyle. To Thaw’s amazement, no matter whom White seduced, or who he had on his arm in public, or what scandal he was a part of, everyone still liked him and wanted him as a friend. It was maddening.

    On June 26, 1906, Harry Thaw couldn’t take it anymore. He walked up behind Stanford White, who was enjoying a musical at Madison Square Garden, and shot him in the head. Stanford White was dead. What happened after that was a tabloid journalist’s gift from the gods. We’ll have to conclude, next time.

    (Photograph: Atlantic Yacht Club, 1898. Wikimedia)

    Walkabout: Stanford White, part 1
    Walkabout: Stanford White, part 2

    Postcard of Ship Martyr’s Memorial, Fort Greene Park.

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