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Charles Follen McKim

Architect

Centurion, 1882–1909

Born 24 August 1847 in Chester County, Pennsylvania

Died 14 September 1909 in Saint James, New York

Buried Rosedale Cemetery, Orange, New Jersey

Proposed by John La Farge and George E. Waring Jr.

Elected 1 April 1882 at age thirty-four

Seconder of:

Century Memorials

Charles Follen McKim was a Pennsylvanian, the child of heroes, for his father was a Presbyterian clergyman who had assisted in founding the Anti-Slavery society and who, daring a savage public opinion, fetched the body of John Brown from the gallows for decent burial; his wife, a strong and gentle Quakeress, accompanying him. Of vigorous intellect, the son took a sound preliminary education of general culture and was then for some months a student in the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard. But, though seeking, he had not found and soon he sailed away to become a student at the Beaux Arts where he did find congenial work and where, exerting the most strenuous diligence, he completed three years of fruitful, exhaustive study. Thus disciplined, he traveled on the continent for two years, gaining knowledge and experience. With this his fine apprenticeship was complete. He was now twenty-five years old and, again, after testing and seeking, he made New York his home, finding first one partner in William R. Mead, and then later a second in Stanford White. What this triad of men was, is written large in the history of American architecture. Such interpenetration of spirit, genius, learning, achievement and interest is a unique example; the completeness of their collaboration stands alone, for to this hour only the initiated even think they know the various sources of inspiration of all the firm’s splendid and varied works. Their tri-une resultant genius has, with the general assent, received the name of McKim and it is no disparagement to the other two if the lay writer should make errors in the distribution of praise. All three Centurions, McKim, sixty-two when he found rest, had been an inspiring comrade here for twenty-seven years. The Century therefore is a partner in their renown, as its rooms have been the scene of their relaxations, their pleasures, their sport and their conversation. McKim was a President of the American Institute of Architects, a body of commanding quality and power, and was the founder of the American Academy at Rome, where acolytes of his profession enlarge their horizon. He received the great medal at Paris in 1900, and, for the promotion of architecture had bestowed on him by King Edward in 1903 the royal medal of the British architects. Thus, without vainglory, and in the humble spirit of the seeker, he found more of earthly reward than is given to most.

For, of him, Lessing’s precept was literally true, he was sure that the seeking was nobler than the finding. The calm, proportioned, broad, majestic style associated with his name was discovered and evolved only after long search, dating really from the erection of the Villard houses, which were only in measure the design of the firm. But when found, it was the language of Olympians; to the end it has been growing in all its essential qualities under their hands and in the expression of his genius. Further, it was likewise discovered to be the garment of a nation’s soul in architecture and over our mighty realms its subtle influences have stolen until they are manifest on every hand.

There is much prating in this world about originality or the absence of it. No sooner is something finished in art or letters than questionings and shrugs make clear how the wiseacres are on the scent of its origin, be it book, building, or composition in music, painting or sculpture. In other arts it may be possible to cut loose from the past, but in architecture the past of necessity binds us, given the material and problem as, with slight variation, always the same: to wit, the substance of mother earth and the housing fitly of men in some form of activity; or of their dead; or of their spiritual aspirations. Lines are either straight or curved, structure may be either concealed or displayed, there may be much or little ornament. Hence McKim’s creative power stood four square on the past, his originality was in the use of his own wherever he found it and those who do not discern the fact, fail to understand that art is one and the same wherever practised; the greatest artist can only impress his own soul on some manner of it and on a small portion of its matter.

William Milligan Sloane
1910 Century Association Yearbook

McKim was born in Pennsylvania, and studied architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris before joining the office of Henry Hobson Richardson in 1870. McKim formed his own firm in partnership with engineer William Rutherford Mead, joined in 1877 by fellow Richardson protégé Stanford White.

Initially, the firm was primarily known for their informal summer houses. McKim became best known, however, as an exponent of Beaux-Arts architecture in styles, exemplified by his first major work, the Boston Public Library, begun in 1887. For this project, he engaged the services of John Singer Sargent and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, among others. In 1891, he designed the old Madison Square Garden; in 1892, he designed the Rhode Island state capitol. In 1901, at the behest of the Senate, he joined with Saint-Gaudens, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Daniel H. Burnham to make recommendations to design Washington, D.C. He was primarily responsible for the central area around the Capitol.

Works in New York include the campus of Columbia University, the University Club, the Pierpont Morgan Library, and the magnificent Penn Station. McKim, with the aid of Richard Morris Hunt, formed the American School of Architecture in Rome in 1894, which has become the American Academy in Rome.

McKim received numerous awards during his lifetime, including the Médaille d’Or at the 1900 Paris Exposition and a gold medal from Britain’s Edward VII. He was elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1877, and received the AIA Gold Medal, posthumously, upon his death in 1909.

James Charlton
“Centurions on Stamps,” Part I (Exhibition, 2010)