Happy 169th birthday Charles Follen McKim!

Get to know the Beaux Arts architect’s seminal projects

The old Pennsylvania Station in New York. Credit: Library of Congress

The loss of the original Pennsylvania Station in New York is among the greatest architectural tragedies of the 20th century. But spare a thought for its architect, Charles Follen McKim, who died in 1909 before he could see his Beaux Arts masterpiece completed.

Beyond Penn Station, the American — along with his practice McKim, Mead and White — left his mark on the urban fabric of the East Coast, particularly in New York, where he designed some of the country’s grandest Neo-classical buildings. Thankfully, many of them still exist.

Tomorrow would have been his 169th birthday and, to celebrate, we look at five of his most seminal projects.

Boston Public Library, McKim Building (1895)

Ever the populist, McKim described his Renaissance Revival design as a ‘palace for the people’. The library, including the majestic coffered ceilings of Bates Hall, was one of the earliest examples of Beaux Arts architecture in the US. A Modernist extension by architect Philip Johnson was added in 1972.

Columbia University campus (1896)

Credit: InSapphoWeTrust

McKim was enlisted to design a new campus for Columbia University in New York’s Morningside Heights neighbourhood during the 1890s. At the heart of the site is the Low Library, a Neo-classical structure packed with references to the art and architecture of ancient Rome and Greece.

University Club of New York (1899)

Left: Interior of the University Club of NewYork. Photograph: C&RB) Right: Renaissance style exterior. Photography: Jim Henderson

During the 1890s, McKim nabbed the commission to design new digs for the growing University Club of New York, of which he was a member.

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger picked the Renaissance palazzo-style building as one of New York City’s 13 greatest masterpieces.

Pierpont Morgan Library (1906)

Credit: Graham Haber

McKim was tasked with designing the private library of JP Morgan on Madison Avenue. Upon the banker’s passing in 1924, the Classical Revival marvel was made public. Today, the Tennessee marble structure is known as the Morgan Library & Museum, and includes an extension by architect Renzo Piano.

Pennsylvania Station (1910) and James A Farley Post Office (1912)

Penn Station waiting room. Credit: Library of Congress

The original Penn Station was revered as much as the present-day incarnation is reviled. Construction began in 1904 but McKim passed away in 1909 before his masterpiece was complete.

Penn Station concourse. Credit: Library of Congress

It was a building of contrasts: its modern steel concourse was a world away from the Neo-classical waiting rooms and service areas.

James A Farley Post Office. Credit: Juan Miguel Lago

His practice — McKim, Mead and White — also designed the adjacent James A Farley Post Office, intended as a twin building to McKim’s Penn Station, which completed in 1912. Today, it’s used as an events space for the likes of New York Fashion Week.

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