Visual Culture

The Architect Whose Murder Spurred the Trial of the Century

Alina Cohen
Jul 25, 2019 5:35PM

New York American cover, 1906. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Stanford White was the original American starchitect. His designs were quintessentially Manhattan—the Washington Square Arch, the Metropolitan Club, and his lauded Pennsylvania Station, which was demolished in 1963 and remains one of America’s most significant architectural losses. He was also striking in person, immediately recognizable for his red hair and a bushy mustache that tapered at the ends, and he enjoyed all that high society had to offer, with memberships to more than 50 clubs and organizations. Yet, at the turn of the 20th century, he raped a young actress and suffered near-biblical retribution: He was murdered in 1906, and the legal proceedings that followed became known as “the trial of the century.”

Stanford White, 1985. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


It was White’s work on the second iteration of Madison Square Garden that made him “the best-known architect in America,” according to Suzanne Hinman’s book, The Grandest Madison Square Garden: Art, Scandal, and Architecture in Gilded Age New York (2019). His masterpiece was also the site of his notorious demise. Though his kingmaking project stood for fewer than 40 years, his thorny legacy continues today. In the #MeToo era, White’s sins are particularly damning, raising questions about how he—and his designs—should be remembered.

White, the son of Shakespearean scholar Richard Grant White, was born in 1853. Encouraged by two of his father’s friends, painter John La Farge and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, he began pursuing architecture at a young age. In 1870, before he’d even reached 20 years old, White began an apprenticeship to Henry Hobson Richardson, who worked out of Lower Manhattan and popularized the medieval revival style Richardsonian Romanesque. The experience was formative. He oversaw the New York State Capitol building in Albany and helped out with two major church commissions in Boston, including the famed Trinity Church in the city’s Back Bay.

Exterior of the Brooklyn Museum. 2018. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum. Photo by Jonathan Dorado.

White left Richardson’s firm in 1878, eager for new experiences. He traveled around Europe with sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Richardson’s head draftsman, Charles Follen McKim, before joining McKim’s new firm, run with William Rutherford Mead, the following year.

McKim, Mead & White became Gilded Age legends, erecting grand, Beaux-Arts buildings inspired by European masterpieces. The trio modeled Columbia University’s famous Low Library off of Rome’s Pantheon, and they brought the same dramatic flair to the Brooklyn Museum, the Morgan Library, the Boston Public Library, and a White House renovation.

Hinman credits White’s “imagination, style, and hot-headed energy” for McKim, Mead, & White’s quick success. They worked on a monumental scale, using richly-hued marble, fifteenth-century Italian ornament, murals, and mosaics“to create a grand new eclectic Renaissance Revival style.” Through such structures, they aimed to “certify the country’s role in the world as heir to the greatest of Western civilizations.”

Group photo of architectural firm McKim, Mead and White: Charles Follen McKim, William Rutherford Mead and Stanford White. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Shortly after the three men began working together, in April 1880, New York’s Vanderbilt-owned Madison Square Garden collapsed, killing four people, and injuring many others. McKim, Mead & White won the commission to recreate the Garden with a design that merged Renaissance and Islamic elements and featured a prominent tower that alluded to Seville’s cathedral Santa Maria de la Sede. A sculpture by Saint-Gaudens, of the virginal, Roman hunting goddess Diana, adorned the top.

On June 16, 1890, the new Madison Square Garden opened to the public. Though a third of the complex was yet to be built, between 10 and 17,000 visitors attended for the debut, visiting the amphitheater and watching an orchestral concert and a ballet. Over the next few years, the venue held myriad events ranging from a Barnum & Bailey circus to a flower show to a production of Cleopatra featuring Sarah Bernhardt, the day’s most famous actress. White completed a roof garden in May of 1892, where he would be shot 14 years later.

Postcard of Madison Square Garden II. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Photograph of Madison Square Garden, December 1928. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

White’s principled, awe-inspiring ambitions and structures proved a foil to his sordid personal life. White had been married to Bessie Smith since 1884, and the pair had a son, Lawrence. Yet in 1897, White rented a brownstone on 24th Street where he could bring his extramarital lovers—it famously featured a swing attached to the ceiling by velvet cords.

White may not have restricted his romantic partners to women, either. Saint-Gaudens’s relationship with White was particularly ribald, if not overtly sexual. The pair maintained a correspondence in which the former drew penises on his letters to the latter, while White signed some of his notes to his friend “S.M.C.” for “Suck My Cock.” White biographer Suzannah Lessard calls White’s activities “a form of compulsive consumption,” noting that he was “all over the place, sexually.” Gilded Age acquisitiveness was hardly restricted to money.

Postcard of the Boston Public Library, 1909. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

White met actress Evelyn Nesbit in 1901, when she was 16 years old. A fellow cast member in a musical, Florodora, brought her to White’s secret brownstone. The architect, then 47 years old, let her try out his velvet swing and eventually became her teacher, benefactor and “devoted father-protector,” according to Hinman. One evening, Nesbit passed out at his home after drinking champagne. When she woke up, she and White were naked on his bed, the sheets bloodied. “He had taken her virginity without her knowledge or permission,” Hinman writes. Writer Simon Baatz, author of The Girl on the Velvet Swing (2018), has compared the rape to Bill Cosby’s systematic sexual abuse.

White swore Nesbit to secrecy, and the two continued a sexual relationship. Then, the wealthy Harry Thaw, known for his drug abuse of morphine and cocaine, began sending Nesbit letters, money, and flowers. The pair married in 1905, despite Nesbit’s revelation of her relationship with White—virginity was often a social requirement for marriageability for women of the era.

Evelyn Nesbit, 1900. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

James Carrol Beckwith, Portrait of Evelyn Nesbit, c. 1901. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The following year, White dined with his son Larry at Café Martin in Madison Square before attending the debut of the musical Mamzelle Champagne at the Garden’s rooftop theater. The Thaws, too, were in attendance at the restaurant, then the show. During the performance, Thaw shot White through the eye with a Colt .22. White’s son blamed himself: His father was in the city, and at the Garden, only to see him.

Harry Kendall Thaw, 1905. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Harry Kendall Thaw in jail cell dining on meal catered by Delmonico's. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The subsequent legal proceedings became a sensation. Nesbit accused White of “unspeakably unnatural acts” with girls between 13 and 15 years of age. “White’s privilege and power were claimed to have prevented Garden employees from interfering with the orgies that might have taken place in the tower,” Hinman writes. White’s friends and coworkers defended him based on the quality of his architectural work, but the press sided with Nesbit. White’s name, rightfully slandered in the media, became synonymous with “the morally bankrupt elite.” A hung jury necessitated a second trial, which acquitted Thaw by reason of insanity. The court committed the defendant to an asylum, but he escaped to Canada and finally returned to Pittsburgh in 1917, a free man. Nesbit herself hardly emerged unscathed. She divorced Thaw and attempted suicide (as did Thaw). Her younger brother, Howard—for whom White was a benefactor as well—succeeded in his own suicide attempt in 1928.

Washington Square Arch, 2014. Photo by Matt Joseph, via Wikimedia Commons.

There may be more to the story yet. Hinman suggests that Thaw himself was obsessed with White, and shot him because he felt rebuffed. At the very least, Thaw hired detectives to follow White. Leaving the murder scene, Thaw either told a fireman “He ruined my wife” or “He ruined my life.” Thaw himself was hardly innocent, having maintained relationships with young boys. He flogged both his lovers and his wife.

In 1925, White’s iteration of Madison Square Garden closed to make room for a New York Life Insurance headquarters—the now-famous New York Life Building. His work was demolished by the following year. Yet many of his structures still stand, and remain beloved by New York City residents and tourists. As we consider whether to remove paintings from museum walls, programs from television, and monuments from public plazas based on artists’ and subjects’ misdeeds, architecture offers a trickier quandary. In punishing bad actors, it’s easy to put a canvas in storage, remove a show from the air, or rename anything called “Calhoun.” But how do you acknowledge the crimes perpetrated by a giant of 20th-century landmark architecture? For now, biographers are merely opting to tell the ugly truth about White, alongside gorgeous descriptions of his work. The paradox remains impossible to reconcile.

Alina Cohen