Boston’s Gilded Age splendor

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America’s Gilded Age spanned three decades of the late 19th century, leaving a legacy of grand structures. Its so-called Beaux-Arts style references a time when citizens were experiencing a spiritual and cultural Renaissance. Post-Civil War dust had settled while improving finances for some allowed for amenities to soften memories of harsher times.


The East Room of the Morgan Library & Museum. (Courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum)

Architect Charles Follen McKim and his associates, William Rutherford Mead and Stanford White, were the most prominent influencers of the Beaux-Arts style of architecture in America. Their firm, McKim, Mead and White, masterminded two of the Gilded Age’s most impressive monuments, the Morgan Library & Museum in New York and the Boston Public Library.

These visionaries aspired to surround themselves and their clients with beauty. The work they produced in gardens, with sculptures, and buildings reached beyond utilitarian colonial construction, harkening back to the grandest palaces of Paris and Rome.

Their inclusion of European flourishes in building designs reverberated throughout communities in New England and New York, changing how people worshiped, and how families spent time together. McKim’s vision of a beautiful society forged his legacy of civic responsibility and embraced the opportunities of public education.

McKim grew with aspirations to and illusions of building a life of beauty. Taking a circuitous path to architectural fame and fortune, the rhythm of his life frequently followed the trail of the Underground Railroad.

He was born in 1847 near Philadelphia to a family of elevated principals. The causes of his father, a Presbyterian minister described as a professional abolitionist, defined the family. The minister’s anti-slavery mission led him from Philadelphia through New York to Boston and throughout Europe. Men he became acquainted with included landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Both would feature prominently in the adult life of McKim.

McKim found himself unprepared for the rigors of Harvard College in 1866. Inspired by an awareness that scholarly life within its Lawrence Scientific School required an investment of time as well as talents he didn’t possess, McKim left his dorm on Kirkland Street in Cambridge to head home.

The work (McKim, Mead and White) produced in gardens, with sculptures, and buildings reached beyond utilitarian colonial construction, harkening back to the grandest palaces of Paris and Rome.

In Philadelphia, he petitioned his parents to fund a tour of Paris. He feared failing his Harvard courses would ruin a reputation he had yet to build. McKim reasoned his year at the Ivy League school had sufficiently familiarized him with the principals of engineering, while it also provided social connections to wealthy and refined Americans.

What he valued more than a return to Cambridge was a chance to study at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where, coincidentally, Saint-Gaudin was a student.

European enhancement of his social caché and exposure to the truly great styles of refined architecture prepared McKim to work as an assistant to Henry H. Richardson on the Brattle Street Church in Boston. McKim worked tirelessly, steadily learning the architecture trade from Richardson, who’s appreciation of Beaux-Arts principals underscored his own.

When client budgets allowed, Richardson embellished his work with Romanesque designs in glass, murals and sculptures. Successful completion of the Boston church earned the team a commission to build Trinity Church in Copley Square. On that project, McKim learned the value of socializing with building-committee members and clients. Richardson and his abolitionist friend Olmstead soon dubbed their young protegé “Charles the Charmer.”

The exterior of the Boston Public Library.

The exterior of the Boston Public Library.

By 1872, an ambitious McKim had broken away to begin a working relationship with partners who added administrative, decorative, and drafting skills to his talents. The McKim, Mead and White “triumvirate,” as they are referred to by author Mosette Broderick, earned their reputation by building beautiful shingled homes in Newport, Rhode Island, and New Jersey for wealthy New Yorkers. Although their designs built on copied patterns, the firm became synonymous with fine homes.

Their summer cottages were typically wrapped by grand porches that maximized the merger of high-powered social affairs with the romance of soft summer breezes. It was on one of those verandas in 1874 that McKim met his wealthy, socially prominent wife-to-be, Annie Bigelow. The marriage produced a child within a year, yet was doomed to fail. Their divorce spawned the first of McKim’s many psychiatric breakdowns.

Anxiety and depression frequently disabled the architect. Often, traveling to France, Italy or England provided a remedy. While he recuperated, he studied not just the local architecture, learning to appreciate tapestries, art, and music. His associates maintained the firm’s accounts, cultivated new clients and brought in superbly talented apprentices technically more architecturally proficient than the partners, ensuring they could continue to deliver fine homes to prominent clients.

After 13 years of building prestigious summer homes the anxiety-riddled, highly disciplined and flamboyant partners won the chance to design the Boston Public Library in 1887. McKim based his proposed design on the Bibliotéque Sainte-Geneviéve Nationale in Paris.

The library’s perfectly proportioned, elegant facade included side windows copied from Italian architect Leon Battista Alberti. The design also featured engravings and sculptures by Saint-Gaudins, McKim’s longtime friend and collaborator. The structure’s vaulted interior has pink marbled floors that meet walls richly decorated and crowned with Raphael-inspired murals.

The library’s rooms feature allegorical figures of music, poetry, knowledge, wisdom, truth and romance. Twin lions perch atop pedestals flanking the great arched central staircase, echoing the sculpted beasts that guard the main entrance, while a deep interior courtyard is partly surrounded by arches atop classical columns.

In the library, McKim’s design added a monument to Boston’s embrace of the cultural Renaissance of America’s Guilded Age. Reputation enhanced, his firm moved on to more industrial projects, including the construction of college campuses, New York’s Harvard Club, shopping centers, apartment buildings, and the original Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan.

The East Room of the Morgan Library & Museum. (Courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum)

The East Room of the Morgan Library & Museum. (Courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum)

Financier J.P. Morgan made a fortune in railroads, dominating the world of mergers and consolidations and an early focus of federal trust-busting efforts. Morgan has been criticized for creating monopolies. Although known to be parsimonious, he collected art, including sculpture and rare manuscripts. Price was no object when it came to his quest for the world’s best art.

When his vast collections outgrew his homes, Morgan decided to give some works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also commissioned McKim’s firm to design a library as glorious as the one in Boston, to hold his manuscripts as well as prints by Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, Ruben and Picasso. The firm built a triple-tiered library considered to be a landmark of American decorative arts.

Like the Boston structure, the Morgan Library’s classical revival exterior is aesthetically exquisite. Outside the building on Madison Avenue between East 37th and 36th streets in Manhattan, two lions greet visitors before a Palladian arched entrance. The library’s limestone blocks are set with inconspicuous amounts of mortar giving the building a seamless appearance. Like the Boston library, the interior is richly decorated, its rotunda painted with inspirational murals. In 1902, it cost $1.2 million – or about $65 million in today’s dollars, based on gold prices.

At the time of his death in 1913, Morgan had amassed a net worth of $68.3 million, or about $1.6 billion by today’s standards.

Among the beneficiaries of his fortune were Harvard and its medical school. He also instructed his son to convert the stunning library into a museum.

Along with the Boston Public Library, the Morgan Library & Museum is registered as a National Historic Landmark. Both provide a lasting tribute to McKim’s architectural triumvirate, which grew to surround us all by beauty.

Diane Kilgore is a Boston-area blogger.