Excellent Letter from the American Architect and Designer, Opining: “The most tastefully lighted building in the world…is…”

Signed by Stanford White

Item: 20816
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WHITE, STANFORD. (1853-1906). American architect and designer. TLS. (“Stanford White”). 1½pp. 4to. New York, November 9, 1899. On McKim, Mead & White letterhead. To HENRY MACCRACKEN (1840-1918), chancellor of New York University.

I was awaiting the result of an experiment in lighting in the well of the staircase of the Hon. Wm. C. Whitney’s house before answering you definitely about the lighting of the dome. I fear, in fact, am certain, that the standards on the desks you speak of would give to the interior of the library too much the effect of a bank or life insurance office. The character of the building is so monumental, that I am sure that the treatment of the lighting should be both monumental and artistic. Since electricity all kinds of new methods of lighting rooms have been experimented with. I am sure that no-one has experimented in this matter more than we have. The result in large rooms has certainly proved that no method of light is equal in effect to that of a bunch of lights held in space, illuminating both the floors the side walls and the roof. Lighting from too high a point has proven to be very defective, casting very bad shadows and requiring too much light; that is, in order to get the proper light on the floor, a much too great amount of light was found necessary above.

The ordinary chandelier is, of course, atrocious, and if some design which will be satisfactory cannot be made for the centre, it seems to me that the only way would be to have a thin band of lights about the level of the top of the cornice, but projecting them enough to avoid objectionable shadows, and that the light for the floor should be obtained by standards.

The most tastefully lighted building in the world, I believe, is Santa Sophia in Constantinople, where numerous lamps are suspended in rims by delicate chains which hardly tell, but at the same time increase the size of the dome.

I will have prepared and submit to you three schemes for the lighting of this interior. We have taken up the matter of immediate bids on the lighting of the Auditorium. I expect to have the perspective of the Ambulatory finished the early part of next week…”

Known for its restrained classical style, despite the prevailing romanticism then in vogue, the firm of McKim, Mead & White designed many prominent New York City landmarks, among them the Century Club, University Club, Boston Public Library, and numerous buildings for New York University’s University Heights campus in the Bronx. Chancellor McCracken established the 40-acre uptown campus in 1894, hoping to create an ideal rural college setting and, to that end, engaged White and his firm. Secretly funded by Helen Miller Gould, an 1895 New York University law school graduate and daughter of the recently deceased financier Jay Gould, construction began on the Gould Memorial Library in 1895.

Gould Memorial Library

With an exterior based on Rome’s Parthenon, the building’s sumptuous Renaissance interior was replete with gilded Corinthian capitals, a glass oculus, stained glass, metalwork, and a gilt-coffered dome (reported by The Times to be based on the reading room of the British Museum), all produced by famed decorative artist Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Our letter discusses White’s treatment of light in the monumental space, which was ultimately achieved by a “band of lights about the level of the top of the cornice,” as suggested in our letter. White also mentions the home of Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of the Navy from 1885 to 1889, William Collins Whitney (1841-1904), located on Fifth Avenue, which White was hired to remodel and modernize – a project that lasted six years.

Hagia Sophia


White’s statement that the Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine basilica in Istanbul, Turkey, is the “most tastefully lighted building in the world,” is noteworthy. In fact, shortly before his death, White designed the Madison Square Presbyterian Church the exterior of which was strikingly similar to the Gould Memorial Library, and which architectural historian Miriam Berman states was inspired by the Hagia Sophia’s dome. Incidentally, the church, also with interior details by Tiffany, who was a congregant, was demolished in 1919 to make way for the Metropolitan Life building, a loss still lamented by White’s admirers.

Although White’s influence on late nineteenth century architecture is profound, his artistic achievements are occasionally overshadowed by the circumstances surrounding his death. On June 25, 1906, he was shot dead by Harry K. Thaw, the enraged husband of White’s former mistress, actress Evelyn Nesbit.

With an abbreviated holographic closing (“Sin[cere]ly y[our]s”). Folded and creased. In very good condition.

White’s letters are uncommon and particularly rare with such outstanding, important content.

Excellent Letter from the American Architect and Designer, Opining: “The most tastefully lighted building in the world…is…”

Signed by Stanford White

$1500 • item #20816

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