Charles F. McKim (1847-1909), a native of Pennsylvania, was the son of an abolitionist father and a Quaker mother. The radical politics of his parents had little impact on McKim, who became a cosmopolitan architect who traveled in the company of wealthy and prominent businessmen and politicians.
After study at Harvard, McKim enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and traveled throughout Europe. Upon his return to America he worked in New York City with the famed architect Henry Hobson Richardson. In 1879, he formed a partnership with William Rutherford Mead and Sanford White. This trio became nationally renowned for designing grand public buildings and splendid private mansions. McKim and his associates were identified with the promotion of classicism as the basis for American public architecture. The approximately one thousand individual commissions during McKim’s tenure with his firm were mainly from New York City and the Northeast, but the partners designed significant structures in many other states.
After 1887, as both the firm and the projects grew in size and complexity, a single partner would take charge, and the individual hand of each became easier to distinguish. McKim’s dominant motif was the establishment of an architectural imagery appropriate for the United States. The result became known as American Renaissance--an attempt both to emulate and rival Old World culture and artistic standards.
McKim’s strong contacts with Rhode Island began in 1874 when he married Annie Bigelow of New York, the sister of his one-time partner. He spent portions of the next several summers with Anne’s family in Newport before divorcing her in 1879. By that year McKim had gained a reputation for wooden resort houses in Newport and other East Coast resorts, and this type of commission dominated his firm’s early work. The partnership’s early shingle-covered work included such Newport landmarks as its Casino (1881), the Samuel Tilton House (1882), the Issac Bell Jr. House (1882), and Ochre Point (1884). In Bristol, he designed the beautiful (and now demolished) William G. Low house on Bristol Point.
In the late 1880s, McKim moved to the more formal and classical American-Georgian style of the late 18th century and then to Greek and Roman classicism which tended towards austere grandeur. Rhode Island examples of this transition include Newport’s Beacon Rock (1891), and the magnificent Rosecliff, built for Hermann and Thresa Fair Oelrichs between 1897 and 1902.
The firm’s crowning Rhode Island achievement was the State Capitol Building constructed between 1895 and 1900 on Smith’s Hill overlooking Downtown Providence. According to one local architectural historian: “What set the Rhode Island State House apart from the other state capitols was. . . the strength and clarity of the architects’ interpretation. . . . The success of this abstract design owes a great deal to McKim, Mead & White’s organization of Renaissance-and Georgian-inspired sources into a tight, focused composition. . . . More important, the building projected the emerging American Renaissance, a new vision of urban America as the cultural inheritor of Ancient Greece, Republican Rome, and Renaissance Italy.”
Shortly after completion of the State House, McKim was selected by President Theodore Roosevelt to remodel the White House. In 1902-03 he served as president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), an organization that he helped to transform from a small, New York-based gentlemen’s club into a national organization with political influence that promulgated standards for all American architects. McKim died in 1909 at the age of sixty-two.
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