An Architectural Trip Back In Time

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Architect Samuel G. White never met his great-grandfather, but he has always known who he was.

Whenever the roof leaked, the family blamed it on him. After all, it was Stanford White who designed and built it.

An artistic visionary and partner of the architecture firm McKim, Mead & White, Stanford White had an enormous influence on Southampton, and the rest of the country. Beginning in 1870, he became known for designing sprawling estates and landscaping, as well as for lesser-known additions and renovations—all of which were created with his flamboyant, yet tasteful, unmatched sense of ornament.

It was quite the legacy for his great-grandson to live up to, Samuel White said. That’s partly why he consciously ignored the legend’s work until just 16 years ago at the age of 50, Mr. White explained last week during a telephone interview from his Manhattan firm, Platt Byard Dovell White Architects.

“I really felt if I was going to be an architect, I had to figure out what kind of architect I was before I got terribly interested in what kind of architect he was,” Mr. White said. “And I found he was, really, one of the greatest architectural designers in the history of America. I’ve always said, ‘You can have more fun at a party in a room designed by Stanford White,’ and I really believe it.”

Mr. White would know. He was raised in a series of homes influenced by his great-grandfather, starting with what is now the Smithtown Historical Society—“It has these distinctive windows that just would not have been there in 1790 when the house was built,” he said—to “Box Hill,” the family’s summer home in St. James, where Mr. White moved when he was 17.

The family home will be the subject of his upcoming talk on Thursday, August 15, at Whitefield—a 16-acre shingle-style estate in Southampton, and another of Stanford White’s creations.

“Box Hill was a small, non-descript, mid-19th century farmhouse—literally—that he and his wife, Bessie, rented and bought and enlarged in a series of three separate campaigns over 15 years into a summer house,” explained Mr. White, who has written three books about his great-grandfather. “Basically, they were enlarging it along one axis, so it never got thicker, but it got a lot longer.”

The stair hall, living area and dining room—“one of the most beautiful rooms in America,” Mr. White said—are still intact from the architect’s original design, as well as the home’s distinctive exterior. It is known as “pebble dash,” achieved by scattering beach pebbles in wet cement.

During the summer, the house is cooler inside than out, Mr. White recalled. The winter is another story.

“The cold months are not quite as much fun because it’s a big house, 15,000 square feet, with big rooms that nobody in their right mind could afford to heat,” Mr. White said. “But in the summer, it’s just paradise.”

The residence was most definitely a personal project for the senior architect, his great-grandson said.

“This house is about an architect working for himself, which is a process that’s not entirely linear. People say, ‘Architects, they never make up their minds.’ That’s true here, but he can only blame himself.”

As a child, the elder Mr. White was not dreaming of becoming an architect. He was a wonderful watercolorist, who thought he would pursue it professionally because he was simply “that good,” his great-grandson said.

Until painter and family friend John La Farge suggested a different career path after explaining the financially precarious nature of an artist’s life.

In a lucky break, Standford White landed a job as an office boy with H.H. Richardson—“the greatest architect of 19th century America,” Samuel White added. He quickly rose to his chief draftsman.

“He was not a slavish disciple of Richardson,” Mr. White said of his great-grandfather, and laughed. “Richardson was not completely distressed when he left the office because then Richardson would do what he wanted, rather than what Stanford White wanted.”

At the time, architect Charles McKim—Mr. White’s predecessor as chief draftsman—had set up shop right across the hall from Richardson, and the two became fast friends. After six years of working under Richardson, Mr. White escaped for 14 months to Europe on a sketching tour. And when he returned, he joined Mr. McKim and his partner, William Mead.

Mr. White and Mr. McKim were the strong designers of the trio—different paradigms, but sympathetic to one another, the author explained. The firm’s greatest work reflects a tension between the two, he said. Mr. White was showy, spontaneous and interested in surface decoration, while Mr. McKim was reserved, cautious and more concerned with the perfection of form.

“And then Mead, as he said, would spend his career trying to keep his two partners from making damn fools of themselves,” Mr. White said. “It was an amazing office because none of these people could have gotten along without the others.”

In the late 19th century, Manhattan-based photographer James Breese—and a close friend of Standford White—came to the firm with a project: a circa-1858 house in Southampton that he wanted to transform into a summer home. The partners jumped at the opportunity.

Following a period of extensive redesign between 1898 and 1907, in 1915, Country Life Magazine heralded the Southampton-based Whitefield estate, then known as “The Orchard,” as one of 12 significant country houses in America.

The music room, the site of Mr. White’s upcoming lecture, was one of his great-grandfather’s last projects before obsessive jealous husband Harry Thaw murdered the architect on June 25, 1906, on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. It was widely reported that Mr. Thaw murdered the renowned architect because he was having an affair with his wife, model/chorus girl, Evelyn Nesbit.

“He was an extremely unbalanced individual and he was carrying a gun,” Mr. White said, “which is a bad combination.”

Whitefield is now the centerpiece of the Whitefield Condominium complex, standing as a permanent monument to Mr. White’s style.

“It’s a wonderful house,” the author said. “It’s not only a wonderful house in itself, but it is a wonderful house in terms of its tracking of both the taste of the firm and the taste of the American upper class.”

Born 41 years after his great-grandfather’s death, Mr. White was not heavily inspired by the late architect, he said. But he has mused about what might have happened to Whitefield or Box Hill had the architect lived to see additional renovations.

“You’d have to ask him, because his vision evolved,” Mr. White said. “It got to be certain things. Every time he made a significant change, clearly the vision had changed. What would he have done if he had not died? I don’t know.”

All the White family—and architecture aficionados everywhere—can do is speculate, appreciate and hold on to what is left.

Architect Samuel G. White will give a talk on “Box Hill,” the family home of his great-grandfather, architect Stanford White, on Thursday, August 15, at 5 p.m. in the Music Room at Whitefield in Southampton. The lecture will be followed by a catered reception. Admission is $140, or $125 for Southampton Historical Museum members. Proceeds benefit the museum. For more information, call 283-2494.

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