Photographs & History

Photographs and History

From Iron Fortunes to Railroads: A Brief History on McKim, Mead and White

From modest beginnings with a commission for the Coleman family in the iron rich hills of the Lebanon Valley to becoming one of the most important American architectural firms, McKim, Mead and White began building its legacy in the village of Cornwall, Pennsylvania in 1880.

Stanford White's first commission with McKim, Mead and White was Alden Villa. This interior detail is of the foyer and main staircase. Cornwall, Pennsylvania.

Stanford White's first commission with McKim, Mead and White was Alden Villa. This interior detail is of the foyer and main staircase. Cornwall, Pennsylvania.

It all began when a 25-year-old Stanford White set sail for Europe to visit his long time friend, the American sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1878. White had been working as the head draftsman for the noted architect Henry Hobson Richardson, where he had befriended Charles McKim.  McKim left Hobson in 1872 looking to develop his own firm joining William Rutherford Mead and later in 1877, William Bigelow, McKim’s brother-in-law to create McKim, Mead and Bigelow.  In short time during the course of the partnership with Bigelow, McKim’s marriage failed and as a result Bigelow left the firm. Looking to fill the vacancy McKim joined White at the last minute traveling to Europe in an effort to recruit him to join the firm. Their trip to Paris would be an inspirational time and upon their return, White came on board with McKim and Mead to create one of the most prolific firms in American history. Though McKim was already on his way to being well established and White had a great deal of creative freedom under Henry Hobson Richardson on account of his ailing health they would now be able to fully express their creative aesthetic under the auspices of McKim, Mead and White.

Shortly after starting the firm, White began work on what is arguably his earliest residential commission, a project with Ann Caroline Coleman in 1880 to construct a home for her son Robert Percy Alden and his new wife Mary Ida Warren in the iron hills of Cornwall, Pennsylvania.  Some have theorized White was given the commission because of his status as junior partner having to make the lengthy trips from New York City to Central Pennsylvania, often working on the train to develop his design. Overlooking the Coleman’s profitable iron foundries, the unique home, reflects White’s influence from working with Richardson while drawing from his European travel sketches and his contributions to the shingle style vocabulary that would become typical of the young firm. The house itself and the interiors within had a great variety of styling seen through out the firm’s commissions in the coming years. Alden Villa or Millwood as it would be referred to was a unique formative design that reflected a young and talented architect refining his own vernacular.

During the firm’s most creative period (1879-1915) McKim, Mead and White received nearly 1000 commissions, many of which are considered some of America’s most important buildings. Within the firm, Mead focused on running the office, while McKim and White were the creative minds, designing private homes, institutional and commercial commissions. Among these were estates for the cultural elite of New York, constructing villas on Long Island and Newport, Rhode Island. Highlights of the commercial and institutional commissions included the National Museum of American History in Washington DC, the Brooklyn Museum, New York University, Hotel Pennsylvania, Rhode Island State House and the New York and Boston Public Libraries among others.

Birds Eye View of Pennsylvania Station, NY, NY circa 1910. The colonnades and entries to the station building were the first of three elements in the processional sequence, the portal. Detroit Publishing Company, collection of the Library of Congress.

Birds Eye View of Pennsylvania Station, NY, NY circa 1910. The colonnades and entries to the station building were the first of three elements in the processional sequence, the portal. Detroit Publishing Company, collection of the Library of Congress.

Main Waiting Room, Pennsylvania Station, NY, NY circa 1908-1910. This design was based on the Frigidarium or cold pool of the Baths of Caracalla, Detroit Publishing Company, collection of the Library of Congress.

Main Waiting Room, Pennsylvania Station, NY, NY circa 1908-1910. This design was based on the Frigidarium or cold pool of the Baths of Caracalla, Detroit Publishing Company, collection of the Library of Congress.

Track level and concourses, prior to completion (note panks over track area bottom left). Exact year unknown but roughly between 1908-10.  This space also referenced the baths of Caracalla while acknowledging the modern methods of train shed construction. Detroit Publishing Company, collection of the Library of Congress  .

Track level and concourses, prior to completion (note panks over track area bottom left). Exact year unknown but roughly between 1908-10.  This space also referenced the baths of Caracalla while acknowledging the modern methods of train shed construction. Detroit Publishing Company, collection of the Library of Congress.

Unfortunately tragedy didn’t stop here, as the Pennsylvania Railroad would destroy Pennsylvania Station in 1963 at just over 50 years old. The cash strapped railroad optioned the air rights to Penn Station, calling for the demolition of the head house and train shed replacing it with a new office complex and sporting arena. Plans for the new Penn Plaza and Madison Square Garden were announced in 1962 and demolition began in ’63. A concession for the air rights was that the Pennsylvania Railroad would receive a modern smaller subterranean terminal and 25% stake in the new Madison Square Garden Complex at no cost. What seemed to be an unimaginable act quickly took place as demolition began sparking an international outrage. While the destruction of Penn Station was allowed the act was certainly not unnoticed. Within 18 months of the demolition, New York City would enact the first landmarks preservation act in America making the lost station the poster child for historic preservation. Though a tragic end to an unwinding legacy, the legendary firm of McKim, Mead and White is survived by many of the magnificent buildings they created during their time, including Alden Villa in the village of Cornwall, Pennsylvania, a commission from the iron empire of the Coleman family of Lebanon County.

Conewago and the Lebanon Valley Gateway

Plate#91: View of the Conewago Gorge by photographer William H. Rau, during his first photographic commission with the Pennsylvania Railroad to illustrate the destinations and scenery along the system. Collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc. 

Plate#91: View of the Conewago Gorge by photographer William H. Rau, during his first photographic commission with the Pennsylvania Railroad to illustrate the destinations and scenery along the system. Collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc. 

Leaving Royalton behind the main line begins a sustained climb to Elizabethtown with a ruling grade of .84%. Four miles east from the junction of the Royalton Branch the main line, running on the alignment of the former Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mt Joy and Lancaster Railroad crosses the Conewago Creek valley. Lenape for “At the Rapids”, the Conewago is actually two creeks of the same name: One running from the west to the Susquehanna River in York County the other coming from the east from the headwaters of Lake Conewago in Mt Gretna, Lebanon County, Pennsylvania to the Susquehanna near the village of Falmouth.

Pennsylvania Railroad Track Chart showing the grade and track profile between Highspire and Rheems. Note the junction with the Lebanon Branch at approximately Milepost 90 in Conewago, this branch had an interesting history connected with the Coleman Family iron dynasty of the late 1800's. Excerpts of track charts collection   Keystone Crossings  .

Pennsylvania Railroad Track Chart showing the grade and track profile between Highspire and Rheems. Note the junction with the Lebanon Branch at approximately Milepost 90 in Conewago, this branch had an interesting history connected with the Coleman Family iron dynasty of the late 1800's. Excerpts of track charts collection Keystone Crossings.

(Inset) Post card view of the 1885 Cornwall and Lebanon Railroad station in Lebanon, Pennsylvania designed by noted architect George Watson Hewitt. This building survives today and is on the National Register of Historic Places. 

(Inset) Post card view of the 1885 Cornwall and Lebanon Railroad station in Lebanon, Pennsylvania designed by noted architect George Watson Hewitt. This building survives today and is on the National Register of Historic Places. 

By the 1840’s iron forges to the north of Mt. Gretna owned by various descendants of Robert Coleman flourished in Lebanon with transportation access provided primarily by way of the Union Canal. The area’s close proximity to the Anthracite Regions, the Cornwall iron ore hills, an abundance of timber for charcoal/ coke production and local limestone quarries provided the catalyst for growth and development of an industry, which would become the backbone of Lebanon County and the Commonwealth of PA. To feed the forges William Coleman and cousin George Dawson Coleman constructed the North Lebanon Railroad In 1853 connecting the ore hills and forges near Cornwall to the Union Canal landings in Lebanon. By 1870 the railroad was renamed the Cornwall Railroad, interchanging with the Lebanon Valley Railroad, a line that was absorbed by the Philadelphia and Reading. As mining progressed at the Cornwall Ore Hills Company another line, The Spiral Railroad was constructed in Cornwall to facilitate moving material from the pit mines, loading the raw ore into Cornwall RR rail cars. The material would then head out to Lebanon for processing and concentration to be used in local iron production. By 1884 the Cornwall RR would also construct another route the Cornwall and Mount Hope Railroad, providing access to the P&R’s Reading and Columbia Branch allowing interchange freight and connecting passenger services via Manheim. 

For a long time the Cornwall Railroad ran with no competition until 1883 when Robert H Coleman, a cousin to William Freeman the president of the Cornwall Railroad and son to the founder to the North Lebanon Railroad, would open a competing railroad, the Cornwall and Lebanon, creating considerable angst between the two operations. Running southwest from Lebanon to Cornwall then onto the resort town of Mt. Gretna following the Conewago Creek Valley, the new line provided a direct connection to the Pennsylvania Railroad in Conewago, opening markets in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and points west. Consequently in the following year, the aging Cornwall Furnaces ceased production, unable to compete with larger mills like Johnstown, Bethlehem and Steelton. Lackawanna Iron and Steel purchased the facilities and iron mines in 1894, later becoming a subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel whom operated the mines into the 1970’s.

Postcard view of the Cornwall iron ore mines circa 1922. The railroad in the image likely to be the Spiral Railroad, providing access to the three ore bearing hills at the mine site which then fed the material to both the Cornwall Railroad and Cornwall & Lebanon Railroads. 

Postcard view of the Cornwall iron ore mines circa 1922. The railroad in the image likely to be the Spiral Railroad, providing access to the three ore bearing hills at the mine site which then fed the material to both the Cornwall Railroad and Cornwall & Lebanon Railroads. 

Though the forges shut down Robert H. Coleman’s net worth in the 1880s was over 30 million dollars, owing other interests in the iron business. However his investment in the failed Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West Railroad Railway in Florida and the Financial Panic of 1893 Coleman would lose everything and his assets defaulted to debtors who took control of the Cornwall and Lebanon Railroad. Providing an ideal operation to tap the remaining ore deposits, Pennsylvania Railroad’s board of directors authorized purchase of railroad on Mar. 12, 1913 from Lackawanna Steel Company for $1.84 million; officially merging w the PRR April 15th 1918. The route continued to operate through the Penn Central until Hurricane Agnes wiped out considerable pieces of right of way and flooded the remaining pit mines operating in Cornwall.