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Celebrating a Centennial: Charles Follen McKim and the Architecture of the Academy

March 24, 2014
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Since opening on October 1, 1914, the McKim, Mead and White building has been a crucible for artistic and humanistic innovation, combining essential working spaces for staff, administration and Fellows with communal areas that encourage bonds of friendship and creative collaborations to thrive between Fellows, Residents, Affiliated Fellows, Visiting Artists and Scholars. The architecture firm responsible for its design, McKim, Mead and White, would define the look of America’s Gilded Age and design some of America’s most important buildings, including New York’s Penn Station (1910) and the Manhattan Municipal Building (1909-1915). While the New York-based firm would design very few buildings abroad, each of its founders took an active role in supporting the establishment of the American Academy in Rome, whose eponymous main palazzo is a rare example of their work overseas. All three architects were incorporators of the Academy in 1905, but it was Charles McKim who championed the cause most lovingly until his death in 1909.

Charles Follen McKim (1847-1909) was born a Quaker in Chester, Pennsylvania and studied architecture at Harvard before becoming one of the first Americans to receive architectural training at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. In 1870 he joined the offices of Henry Hobson Richardson, foremost architect of the age, and, nearly a decade later, he formed a successful partnership with William Rutherford Mead (1846-1928) and Stanford White (1853-1906). During his time at the École des Beaux Arts between 1867-70, McKim was able to travel, albeit on a tight budget, through Europe and he fell most deeply in love with Rome, where he reported feeling blissfully immersed in its reservoir of cultural history. On his return, McKim found that his Parisian studies made him unique among his American peers at a time when trans-oceanic travel was a grueling ordeal.

In 1893 McKim was involved in the design of what became known as the White City for the World’s Columbian Exposition with a group of American architects, painters and sculptors who met regularly and discussed the idea of creating an American school for artists to study in Europe. Witnessing the results of these artistic collaborations, McKim became convinced of the importance of this kind of artistic synergy and the experience solidified his commitment to the cause of an American School. After giving a number of gifts to individual young men to study in Europe, he took the lead in establishing an American Prize for study in Rome based on the model of the French École with initial support from Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania. McKim was driven by a patriotic commitment to see American art and architecture rival the marvels of the old world and for the remainder of his life he championed the cause for what would materialize as the American Academy in Rome.

In New York social circles McKim acquired a reputation as “Charlie the Charmer” for his warm, gentle demeanor and he put this charm to use in generating support for the cause. He hosted carefully planned dinners and events to garner patronage from university presidents and private donors, thus demonstrating that his charm was complemented by a dogged devotion to the realization of an institute in Rome where artists and architects could train. Despite McKim’s considerable efforts, funding shortages, interruptions and delays marked the institution’s early years. Temporary rented rooms at the Villa Torlonia welcomed the first three fellows in October 1894 under the direction of architect and painter Austin Willard Lord, but during its earliest years McKim frequently used personal funds to sustain the enterprise.

In 1904 McKim encountered railroad magnate Henry Walters by chance on a train traveling from Boston and took the opportunity to introduce a new idea for an endowment campaign. He proposed to find ten men who were willing to subscribe $100,000 each and thus be recorded as Founders of the American Academy in Rome. Walters replied unequivocally, “I hope you will give me the privilege of becoming the first.” Recognizing it as an opportunity to exploit the patronage rivalry that existed between Walters and financier John Piermont Morgan, McKim went to visit J.P. Morgan the following day. Morgan’s only question was, “What did Walters do?” Only then did Morgan pledge to do the same. Walters drolly insisted that J.P Morgan’s name precede his own at the head of the list of the Academy’s original founders. McKim’s endowment campaign helped to ensure that the American Academy in Rome was chartered by an Act of Congress in 1905.

While the above anecdote may suggest an initial hesitancy, J.P. Morgan proved to be a devout patron of the Academy, underwriting the construction of the main building and purchasing adjacent properties on its behalf. The friendly rivalry between Walters and Morgan ultimately produced and nurtured some of America’s greatest cultural institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Walters Art Museum, Morgan Library and Museum, and American Academy in Rome. McKim, Mead, and White’s legacy was likewise built on partnership and the building that bears their name in Rome was itself the product of extensive architectural collaboration, embodying a spirit of collaboration and camaraderie. Above all, it is that spirit of the McKim Mead and White building and the fruitful fusion of the arts and humanities that occurs inside its walls that the Academy celebrates in this centennial year.