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#113 William Rutherford Mead Shaped the Landscape of New York City

Jeff Dobbin 200 Things about Norwich, Norwich Was There

William Rutherford Mead was born and raised in Brattleboro, Vermont. He attended Norwich from 1861 to 1863, after which he joined up with the 14th New Hampshire Volunteers to serve in the Civil War. Norwich would later grant him an honorary master’s degree in 1910. Following his Civil War service, Mead completed his bachelor’s degree at Amherst College and trained as an architect through apprenticeship in a New York City firm.

In 1872, his training complete, he began what would be a lasting and influential partnership with fellow architect Charles McKim. Stanford White joined them in 1879 to form McKim, Mead & White. The firm would shape the Beaux-Arts era of American architecture.

Washington Square

Washington Square Arch in New York City

Mead and his colleagues constructed the New York City of the Gilded Age. Some of their more noteworthy projects included the Washington Square Arch in Washington Square Park; the city’s iconic main post office building on 8th Avenue, with its famed inscription about “snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night”; and 11 branches of the New York Public Library.

They also did extensive work outside the city, including the Boston Public Library and the Rhode Island State House. In 1895, they designed the transformer house for fellow Norwich alumnus Edward Dean Adams’ groundbreaking power plant at Niagara Falls, and in 1902, the firm was tapped by Theodore Roosevelt to renovate the White House.

While a number of the McKim, Mead & White’s creations have made way for more modern buildings, two stand out. In 1890, White designed a large indoor arena called Madison Square Garden, the second of what would become four different buildings to bear that name. White kept an apartment in the building, and was murdered in its rooftop garden theater in 1906. The building was razed in 1925 to make way for a new Madison Square Garden, which itself would be demolished and replaced in 1968.

Penn Station in 1910

New York City’s Penn Station in 1910

The other missing McKim, Mead, White masterpiece is perhaps the most famous missing building in all of New York City: the original Pennsylvania Station. It was completed in 1910 and occupied two city blocks in midtown Manhattan. It was considered a masterpiece of Beaux-Arts architecture.

Due to declining train traffic, the controversial decision was made in 1963 to raze the above-ground portions of Penn Station. A new, entirely underground rail transit center remains in operation on the site to this day. In a twist of fate, the above-ground site is now occupied by another stand-in for a McKim, Mead & White building: the fourth Madison Square Garden.

Mead retired in 1920 and died in Paris in 1928. Following in his footsteps, Norwich University started its first architecture degree program in 1991. Today, the program is a hub of innovation on campus. In 2016, students in Professor Tolya Stonorov’s design-build class won an award for designing and creating an energy efficient “tiny house”. Just this year, Norwich hosted the inaugural Governor’s Institute on Architecture, Design & Building for 36 Vermont high school students.