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Stanford White, Penn Station and more…

“Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”

– “Farewell to Penn Station,” New York Times editorial, October 30, 1963

Stanford White (November 9, 1853 – June 25, 1906) was an American architect and partner in the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, the frontrunner among Beaux-Arts firms. He designed a long series of houses for the rich and the very rich, and various public, institutional, and religious buildings, some of which can be found to this day in places like Sea Gate, Brooklyn. His design principles embodied the “American Renaissance“.

In 1906, White was murdered by millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw over White’s affair with Thaw’s wife, actress Evelyn Nesbit, leading to a trial which was dubbed at the time “The Trial of the Century”.

In 1963, one of New York City’s finest buildings was demolished to make way for a new $116M sports arena and entertainment complex. Sound familiar?

Pennsylvania Station, the monumental 1910 Beaux-Arts masterpiece of architects McKim, Mead and White, was leveled, and replaced with the fourth incarnation of Madison Square Garden.

In the 1950s the rise of the automobile and the frenzy of highway building had severely threatened the viability of passenger railways. The owner of Penn Station, the Pennsylvania Railroad, was near financial ruin. In the late 1950s the four blocks of land the station covered in Manhattan had become too valuable not to sell. (Likewise, the automobile’s rise precipitated the downfall of the T. Eaton Company, as it clung to its downtown department stores despite the flight of retail shoppers to the suburban malls with their easily accessible free parking.)

Rosecliff

Commissioned by Nevada silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs in 1899, architect Stanford White modeled Rosecliff after the Grand Trianon, the garden retreat of French kings at Versailles. After the house was completed in 1902, at a reported cost of $2.5 million, Mrs. Oelrichs hosted fabulous entertainments here, including a fairy tale dinner and a party featuring famed magician Harry Houdini.
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