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Enfield author reconstructs a Gilded Age masterpiece

  • Suzanne Hinman, 71, of Enfield, N.H., is the author of "The Grandest Madison Square Garden: Art, Scandal and Architecture in Gilded Age New York." The former associate director of the Hood Museum of Art will launch the book with a lecture at the museum on June 20. Hinman was photographed at her Enfield, N.H., home Tuesday, May 6, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Suzanne Hinman, 71, of Enfield, N.H., is the author of "The Grandest Madison Square Garden: Art, Scandal and Architecture in Gilded Age New York." She began writing a novel on the subject 18 years ago, but has returned to it with a non-fiction approach. Hinman was photographed at her Enfield, N.H., home Tuesday, May 6, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A postcard for a circa 1900 show at Madison Square Garden in New York City highlights architect Stanford White's work with Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Diana sculpture atop the tower. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

  • A scene in New York City's Madison Square Garden during the holding of the first auto show in November 1900. (AP Photo)



Valley News Correspondent
Friday, May 10, 2019

In appearance and demeanor, Stanford White and Augustus Saint-Gaudens were like cheese and chalk.

White was the immaculately turned-out, highly-sought-after architect and one of the most famous men of the Gilded Age. Saint-Gaudens was the rough-hewn Irish-born artist who created some of the most stirring, monumental American sculpture of the late 19th century. White basked in the spotlight of public acclaim and notoriety. Saint-Gaudens shied away from it. White made no secret of his omnivorous appetites for luxury, food and drink, money and sex. Saint-Gaudens, outwardly, was flintier, more modest.

Yet, the two men were kindred spirits, transformed by their encounters with the art of the Italian Renaissance, driven by a compulsion to be at the top of their game, with a complete and sympathetic understanding of the other man’s heart and mind.

A new book by cultural historian Suzanne Hinman, The Grandest Madison Square Garden: Art, Scandal and Architecture in Gilded Age New York (Syracuse University Press), looks at the close relationship between White and Saint-Gaudens as they collaborated on the design of what would be the tallest, most dazzling building in a city accustomed to superlatives.

Hinman, who was associate director of the Hood Museum from 1993 to 1998, has been working on the book for nearly 13 years. Her goal was not to write an academic tome, but to appeal to a general readership.

“It seemed like a wonderful story and I love to tell stories,” the 71-year-old historian said in an interview in her home in Enfield.

The book has its origin in a number of subjects dear to her heart. Her love affair with Italy. Encountering the work of Saint-Gaudens on a larger scale when she moved to the Upper Valley and began learning about the Cornish Colony. A sense of kinship with the art and artists of the era. And, not least, Hinman’s lifelong fascination with Diana, goddess of the hunt, patron of women and of animals. (During the interview she wore on a sweater, a small pin replica of Saint-Gaudens’ statue).

Hinman said that she wanted to explore the saga of the birth and death of Madison Square Garden, coupled with the professional and personal relationship between Stanford White and Saint-Gaudens “because there really hadn’t been a full story of Madison Square Garden and Diana, and (White’s and Saint-Gaudens’) relationship,” she said.

White, one-third of the famed architectural firm McKim, Mead and White, was the Garden’s architect and interior designer. Saint-Gaudens contributed the 18-foot statue of the Roman goddess Diana that stood atop the Garden’s bell tower, poised on one foot, her bow and arrow taut, drapery fluttering, engineered to move in the wind like a weather vane. It was his first nude sculpture.

The White/Saint-Gaudens Garden, which abutted Madison Square on 26th St., (also home to Saint-Gaudens’ monument to Civil War hero Admiral David Farragut), opened to great fanfare in 1890.

The controversies that swirled around Stanford White and Saint-Gaudens, in particular, and the Gilded Age in general echo today, Hinman said.

The wide gulf between the haves and the have-nots, concerns about domestic unrest and terrorism, the role of women in society, and the role of the tabloid press in fomenting scandal.

“There are so many things that ring bells for us,” Hinman said.

A perennial question that Hinman’s book also addresses is the contradiction between public reputation and private behavior. Can you separate the art from the artist?  Both White and Saint-Gaudens had their share of peccadilloes, but should it affect how we view their work? And can we judge artists’ work in isolation from their private lives?

“Artists’ personal lives are reflected in their work. It would be an incomplete valuation to deny or ignore that part,” Hinman said.

Madison Square Garden was one of the most ambitious projects in both men’s careers. It was the second of four Madison Square Gardens.

The first was built in 1879 on the same spot later occupied by White’s Garden, but was razed because it lost money. The third was built uptown at 50th St. The fourth incarnation, the current sports and music arena, judged by nearly all to be an aesthetic train wreck, was built over the ruins of White’s Pennsylvania Station at Eighth Avenue and 33rd Street, torn down to great outcry in 1963.

The first Madison Square Garden was a venue for sports and performance, with rooftop gardens and public walkways. What White gave the public in his Garden was all of that, and more: public art and spectacle of the first order, a place to commune, to see and be seen (rather like today’s High Line in lower Manhattan). The catchphrase for it at the time was, “a palace of pleasure.”

The architecture, interior design and color schemes married Italianate, Spanish and Moorish influences (the tower was modeled on the bell tower of Seville Cathedral), with the most up-to-date inventions.

The Garden, to many, was yet another signal of the growing prominence of American civilization, drawing on European culture, but proclaiming its own identity.

The book also examines the history of Diana’s statue, and the brouhaha at the time over her nudity, and the boyish proportions of her figure.

Actually, as Hinman writes, there were two Dianas. After the first Diana made her debut atop Madison Square Garden, she was then sent to Chicago for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, where she held a position of glory atop McKim, Mead and White’s Agricultural Hall.

But, there was a second Diana, which Saint-Gaudens had made to correct some flaws in the first statue. Diana Two took the place of Diana One atop Madison Square Garden.

When White’s Madison Square Garden was torn down in 1925, because it was hemorrhaging money, Diana Two went into storage in Brooklyn. Eventually she made her way in 1932 to the then Pennsylvania (now Philadelphia) Museum of Art, where she now graces the Grand Stair Hall. An effort by New York to retrieve her in the 1960s was rebuffed by the museum and the city of Philadelphia.

What happened to the Chicago Diana after a succession of fires destroyed the Exposition in 1894 is unknown. “The First Diana has mysteriously disappeared. There are theories on what happened to her. She may or may not still be in Chicago,” Hinman said.

But, all of that turmoil was still well in the future on opening night in June 1890. When the electric ceiling lights flooded an arena that could hold up to 10,000 people, the audience gasped at the brilliant display. Diana, the architecture, the roof garden, the public amenities: all triumphed.

Even in careers that went from strength to strength, for White and Saint-Gaudens the opening of Madison Square Garden was a high point in their public fortunes, and bound them together in the public eye.

There is some evidence to think, Hinman said, that the two may have had a bond that went beyond the artistic. There seems to have been a sexual component to the White and Saint-Gaudens friendship, which emerges in their letters to each other, through graphic drawings and written, intimate expression. The purpose of the book is not to traffic in salacious detail, she said, but to look at how closely intertwined the two men were.

Both men married and had children, but declined to be bound by conventional societal standards of the day. They wanted to be free to pursue their desires and impulses.

White had affairs with men and women, and belonged to sex clubs. Apart from his architecture and work on interior design, he is arguably best-known for his untimely end, shot to death in 1906, aged 52, by the husband of his then-mistress, the young beauty Evelyn Nesbit.

Saint-Gaudens had a long marriage to Augusta Saint-Gaudens, whom he met in Italy and married in 1877, but carried on affairs with some of his models, including a woman named Davida Johnson Clark, the model for Diana’s face.

That the relationships the two men had, with others and with each other, were fluid was part of their story. Although they fell out of touch toward the end of their lives, when Saint-Gaudens was dying of cancer (he died at 59 in 1907), they protected and defended each other from critical and public opprobrium.

Hinman has been drawn to art since she was a child in Los Angeles. Her mother had been a child actor on the radio and in the movies in Chicago and moved west with her family in 1939 to make it in the movie business. That didn’t happen, but she worked on the margins, at the famed Brown Derby restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard, a watering hole for people in the movie business.

Hinman’s father, whose family had lived in Los Angeles since the teens, managed Schwab’s Pharmacy in Beverly Hills. But Hinman was drawn instead to the East Coast, and to the high culture that New York represented in the popular imagination. She recalls sitting on her bed in elementary school, trying to memorize a map of Manhattan. When she was a child, she began studying Italian in school, collecting art and postcards and listening to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast.

She received a bachelor’s degree in art history at UCLA, and a master’s at Berkeley. She married an Air Force pilot and they moved to Texas. When they separated after more than 15 years of marriage, she moved to New Mexico, where she earned a doctorate at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. She then opened a gallery in Santa Fe. Eventually she became a director of the Old Fort Museum in Fort Smith, Ark. While in Arkansas, she saw a notice for the position of associate director at the Hood.

She met her future husband and a Dartmouth alumnus, Jeff Hinman, when she was working at the Hood. She left the Hood in 1998 and accepted a job as director of galleries at the Savannah College of Art and Design, but moved back a year later to marry Hinman.

In addition to working on the book, Hinman is also a member of the Enfield Heritage Commission and has written a walking tour pamphlet of Enfield Village titled “Tangled Skeins: Enfield Village & the Shakers.”

That interplay between history, art, culture and place, and characters and story, fascinates Hinman, whether the subject is Madison Square Garden or more remote, rural New Hampshire. Above all, she relishes exploring the role that art plays in maintaining a civic good.

“I think beauty can be a wonderful balm for us, in a way, in trying times,” she said.

Hinman will read from the book and speak as part of an Osher at Dartmouth Literary Evening at the Dartmouth Outing Club on Wednesday. Other Upper Valley authors will also read from their work. The evening begins at 5 p.m. There is a $10 registration fee. Go to: osher.dartmouth.edu/events to sign up, and for more information.

Hinman will give a talk and read from the book on Thursday, June 20, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Hood  Museum of Art. The event is free and open to the public.

For more information on The Grandest Madison Square Garden: Art, Scandal and Architecture in Gilded Age New York, go to suzannehinman.com.

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.