Architects rarely made the papers in the early 20th century, so it’s unusual that there were two articles about them in autumn 1906, and both involved some matter of controversy.
As described earlier, another casualty of the 1906 earthquake was the peripatetic career of William H. Willcox, a world-class architect who somehow landed in Santa Rosa. When the disaster struck, he was on the verge of having enough money committed to build a grand convention hall which could have allowed Santa Rosa to host statewide, even national events, as well as providing a civic center. He had also proposed a dam on Santa Rosa creek to transform it into a central park for the town, complete with electric lights, a swimming pool, and a bandstand. Alas, nothing more was mentioned of either project in the post-quake newspapers. Willcox was pressed into service as building inspector. He resigned after two frenetic months of quake inspections and supervision of all that new construction, not to mention creating Santa Rosa’s first building code and reviewing 23 blueprints. That’s a lot of work, even if Willcox was a man younger than his 74 years.
All the while, Willcox was advertising his services as an architect. It’s unclear whether he won any commissions (architects being rarely newsworthy, remember) but an ambiguous mention suggests he might have designed the new vaudeville house, which was a building on Fourth street between today’s Mac’s Deli and Stanroy Music. And although he received no credit, let’s hope that he was paid by Occidental Hotel architect L. S. Stone, who completely ripped off the design of his proposed convention center.
Even someone unschooled in architecture can see that these two buildings are nearly identical. The same old mission style, twin cupolas with spires, triple arches, even light fixtures are almost exact; architect Stone only miniaturized Willcox’s design slightly to accommodate wings for retail stores with hotel rooms above – additions which have nothing in common with the style of the core building. Imitation may be flattery, but copying another work this closely is today called plagiarism.
(The Occidental Hotel was on the corner of Fourth and B streets, and this detail from a colorized postcard shows the main entrance on B.)
The other adventure in controversial architecture has no local angle, except that an item about it appeared in the 1906 Santa Rosa Republican. It was also old news; the event had taken place twelve years earlier. Even though it’s far off-topic here, this tale deserves telling because it’s such a good story, and so thoroughly forgotten – as far as I can determine, it was published only once in the last century.
The story needs a running start: That 1892 architectural controversy was resurrected because of its tangential relationship to the 1906 murder of Stanford White by a man named Harry Thaw. Everything concerning the murder and two lengthy trials mesmerized the press, including both Santa Rosa papers – recall the media frenzy surrounding the O. J. Simpson case and multiply it tenfold. The wire service story printed by the Republican didn’t even concern victim White directly, but the architectural partnership of McKim, Mead & White.
Like no other architects, McKim, Mead & White defined the look of America in the Gilded Age, including most of the best examples of East Coast Shingle Style, which is the design used in Comstock House. Among their greatest work is the Beaux-Arts style Boston Public Library, which ranks among the finest 19th century architecture built anywhere.
The Bostonians hated it.
It was too expensive, critics complained in 1891 as the city debated floating a second million-dollar bond to finish the building, which was already more than double the architect’s estimate; the mayor and other officials began micro-managing the project, seeking to eliminate features, even doors, to save money. Librarians complained that it was a bad library because the building was so beautiful that it would distract readers. The pious set were outraged that children visiting the library would see naked statuary, and later that a life-sized statue of a nude woman was to be the centerpiece of the courtyard (the famed sculpture was instead given to the Metropolitan in New York, but a copy was eventually allowed in Boston, although the library’s official arts guide still doesn’t mention it). The yellow press in the city competed to expose the “Public Library Octopus,” even when they had to invent outrage – and often did.
In the midst of this superheated atmosphere, it was discovered that McKim, Mead & White had subtly placed their names on the building – or, in the view of the hysteric press, turned the library into a billboard for themselves.
On the exterior of the building beneath the window arches are ornaments meant to be tablets inscribed with the names of the great masters of art, science, religion, statesmanship, printing, and so on. On one of these tablets, a reporter for the Boston Evening Record discovered an acrostic – that read vertically, the first letter in each name spelled MCKIM MEAD WHITE.
A journal from 1892 described the backpedaling:
The Discovery of the acrostic on the new Public Library building, with the initial letters of the famous men of old spelling the names of McKim, Mead & White, the architects who planned the structure, first gave amusement to the public and then aroused indignation. But the architects say that it was no subtle scheme of theirs to obtain an enduring advertisement carved in stone, but must have been the practical joke of a young draghtsman in their office who arranged the names purposely in acrostic order, but kept the joke to himself.
There was much ado, regardless of who was responsible, and sadly the names were removed – but not before wags in the newspapers suggested that the city could pay for their white elephant library by selling an acrostic bearing the name of the most widely-advertised brand of soap.
HOTEL BIDS OPENEDContract for New Occidental Will be Made Next Week
Architect L. S. Stone stated Saturday that the bids for the erection of the new Occidental Hotel in this city had been received and that contracts would be entered into early next week for the construction of the hostelry.
This will be good news to Santa Rosans and all the traveling public, as there is a great need of a large up-to-date hotel here at this time. The plans for the new Occidental call for a two-story building extending from Fourth to Fifth street on B back to the alley. The main entrance will be in the center of the block on B street. The bids show that the hotel can be erected as planned for about $90,000.– Press Democrat, September 30, 1906
NOVEL ADVERTISINGHow a Firm of Architects Got Its Name on a Building
Close observation on the part of a newspaper man in Boston several years ago revealed a striking device employed by the firm of McKim, Mead & White, the noted New York architects, of which Stanford White, who was murdered by Harry K. Thaw in New York recently, was a member. The device, says the Pittsburg Gazette-Times, was an acrostic of names famous in history, literature and art by which the firm’s name was to be engraved on the Boston Public library. As may be observed, the arrangement defied literature, history and philosophy in arrangement, and this was the thing that attracted the newspaper man’s attention. The names were conglomerated from all nations and ages into a seemingly neat ornamentation for the fine building. Beginning at the top of a space to be devoted to names famous in the world in various lines were the following:
These names, through their initials, formed the first part of the acrostic, spelling plainly “McKim.” A slight space appeared before the next list of names, which was:
The initials of these names brought out the second name of the firm, “Mead.” Another slight space, and the following name appeared:
Here was the name “White” also engraved, the whole device bringing out the firm name of “McKim, Mead & White” in connection with the world’s famed men. It was in 1890 [sic], just before the building was completed, that the discovery was made and published. The list of names was changed.
Erasmus– Santa Rosa Republican, November 28, 1906