On the Persistence of the Stanford White Myth

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Adapted from a talk given to the Skaneateles Rotary Club on January 23, 2014.

There are a number of properties in Skaneateles, in the village and on the lake, which have been attributed to architect Stanford White, although other architects designed them. And it’s a bit like Whac-A-Mole; no sooner is one claim squashed than another one pops up. So in the spirit of getting closer to the actual facts:

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Myth #1: Stanford White designed The Annex, known in later years as Mingo Lodge. An early source for this one was a Garden Club brochure in the 1930s. In fact, in July of 1878, the original owner, Daniel Robbins, began paying the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, for plans and construction of an annex to his main house on West Lake Street, to hold his growing family.

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The architect was Charles Follin McKim. Not until September of 1879, 14 months after the project began, did Stanford White came to McKim, Mead and the firm become McKim, Mead & White. In 1883, the Annex was complete, as noted in The Life and Times of Charles Follen McKim (1929).

Roseleigh

Myth #2: Stanford White designed Stella Maris. He didn’t, but this claim is within shouting distance of the  facts. In January of 1879, Frederick and Mary Roosevelt bought land in Skaneateles from Henry Latrobe Roosevelt.

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In March, they had a summer home designed by architect William Rutherford Mead of McKim, Mead. The house was built in pieces in New York City, shipped to Skaneateles and assembled here in 1880 and 1881.

Roseleigh 1907-house-back

However, the interiors of Roseleigh were indeed designed by Stanford White, who joined Mead’s firm in September of 1879. Roseleigh was the only building in Skaneateles with a proven claim to touches by White.

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In 1952, its third owner sold the house to the Sisters of St. Francis of Syracuse; they renamed it Stella Maris, and have made considerable changes to the building since then.

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Myth #3: Stanford White designed “The Boulders” for Joseph Willetts. The mail boat and the Syracuse newspapers, among others, tell us, again and again, that this is a Stanford White house. No.

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The Boulders was designed by Edward Brodhead Green of Green & Wicks of Auburn, and then of Buffalo, N.Y. On October 9th, 1886, the Skaneateles Press confirmed the identity of the architect in an article about the new library:

“Its construction will probably be in the hands of Mr. Green of Buffalo, whose work is familiar to Syracusans in the Frazer block on Billings Park, and in several unusually pretty dwellings, among them the Willetts residence in Skaneateles, and the Case cottage on Owasco lake.”

Green was not an architect to be ashamed of. He designed the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, the Buffalo Savings Bank, buildings for the 1901 Pan American Exposition and many beautiful mansions in Buffalo.

holdens-cottage

Myth #4: Stanford White designed Fall Brook, also known as Holden’s cottage. In fact, the cottage was designed in 1889 for its original owner, George Hey of Syracuse, by the Syracuse architect Asa Merrick of Merrick & Kirby.

So why do some people cling to Stanford White? I’ll give you three possible reasons.

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One: He was a great talent with a great client list. As an architect of opulent houses – in Newport, along the Hudson River, on Long Island’s Gold Coast – he had few peers. Along with homes for the Vanderbilts, Astors, Pulitzers, Paynes and Whitneys, White did the second Madison Square Garden (1890-1925), the American Academy in Rome, the Boston Public Library, the clubhouse of the Atlantic Yacht Club and the Washington Square Arch in New York City.

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Two: His personal life took him from famous to legendary.

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When White was 47, he took up with Evelyn Nesbit, a 16-year-old model and truly one of the most beautiful women of the age, whose image appeared in countless photographs.

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Unfortunately for White, Nesbit was eventually wooed and won by Harry K. Thaw, a possessive Pittsburgh millionaire who became outraged when he learned White had taken his bride’s virtue before he could. Thaw hired detectives to stalk White, and one evening in 1906 he followed White to the rooftop theater of Madison Square Garden. During the show’s finale, as the chorus sang “I Could Love a Million Girls,” Thaw shot and killed White.

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Illustration from Madison Square Tragedy: The Murder of Stanford White by Rick Geary

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It was described as the crime of the century, and then the trial of the century, in spite of the fact that the century still had 94 years to run. Testimony in the trial included descriptions of Evelyn Nesbit riding a red velvet swing while White watched lovingly from the floor below.

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A film followed quickly in 1907…

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… and in 1955 there was another movie, with Ray Milland as Stanford White…

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… and in 1975 E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime, and in 1981 a movie based on Ragtime with Norman Mailer as White…

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… plus a 1995 documentary and many non-fiction books.

Today, although dead for more than 100 years, Stanford White is still one of the most famous architects in the United States.

Three: White’s talent and fame command a premium in real estate.

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In the New York City area, White’s hand is seen everywhere, even if it wasn’t. Here’s a modest house in Scarsdale with the note, “The previous owners claimed that the house was designed by Stanford White.” The asking price was $2.7 million.

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I love this one: A home in Lloyd Harbor, New York, built in 1917 and “believed to have been done by Stanford White himself.”  Eleven years after he died. And below, two actual Stanford White houses:

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The perks of owning a Stanford White house are obvious. And over the years, thousands of homeowners have engaged in wishful thinking. But in Skaneateles, the facts remain: Stella Maris – William Rutherford Mead, interiors by Stanford White; Mingo Lodge – Charles Follin McKim; The Boulders – E.B. Green; Fall Brook – Asa Merrick.

I have one more claim down the lake to prove or disprove. I’m working on it.

Evelyn-Last

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3 thoughts on “On the Persistence of the Stanford White Myth

    • I’ve heard that one, and traced it back to a written piece in the 1980s that said, “It was a legend based on a rumor.” But there is no actual evidence of that being true.

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