With winter’s cold weather upon us it might be fun to think of a warm weather vacation. On the other hand, imagine escaping the August heat of Mississippi and traveling to Atlantic City, New Jersey. That’s what amateur photographers and brothers Robert Livingston Stewart and William Percy Stewart from Natchez did c. 1900. There they spent time with a Natchez expat practicing architecture in New York City–Sidney Vanuxem Stratton.
This may be one architect pic post where more is known about the photographer(s) than the subject. While Stratton is a fairly significant designer in American architectural history (credited with introducing the Queen Anne style to the United States in the late 1870’s), who had an educational pedigree to match (he was the third American admitted to the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris, behind Richard Morris Hunt and H.H. Richardson), and spent nearly all of his career in New York City as an associate of the gilded age’s most prolific and celebrated architectural firm (McKim, Meade, & White), he has no biography and little has been published about him. Here is what the MDAH HRI has to say about the man:
Stratton, Sidney V. (b.1845 – d.1921)
Architect, New York, NY
Born in Natchez and buried in Natchez City Cemetery. His father was the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Natchez and he grew up in the Presbyterian Manse. During the Civil War, served in the engineering department of the Trans Mississippi Dept. After the war, studied in Europe at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, returning in 1869. He soon joined the office of Richard Morris Hunt. Later, after having met McKim in Paris, he worked during the mid-1880s as an adjunct partner with McKim, Mead and White, with his office at 57 Broadway, NYC, the same address as the famous firm. He returned to Natchez in the early 1900s, but only one building in the city is documented as being of his design. See NR nomination for John Dicks House, Natchez, and Leland M. Roth, _The Architecture of McKim, Mead & White, 1870-1920_.
Most of his documented work is outside of Mississippi, but Stratton has one documented building in his home town of Natchez and several others that can probably be attributed to him. The John Dicks house National Register Nomination quotes Leland M. Roth’s, The Architecture of McKim, Mead & White 1870-1920, painting for us a slightly broader portrait of Stratton.
For several years during the mid-1880’s, the office had what might be described as an ‘adjunct partner.’ His name was Sidney V. Stratton, another highly skilled draftsman who had become acquainted with McKim while the two were in Daumet’s atelier in Paris. They both returned in 1870 and shortly afterward Stratton became friendly with Mead and White as well. He had a separate practice, though he sublet rooms from the firm and his name appeared for a few years on the office stationery, below the names of the partners and separated from them by a line. Moreover, the Bill Books indicate that fees for a few commissions were to be send directly to Stratton, suggesting that he was fully responsible for their design. The arrangement had ended by 1886 when Stratton went his own way, though he remained close to the partners thereafter (Leland M. Roth, The Architecture of McKim, Mead & White 1870-1920 [New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1978], pp. xxv-xxvi).
Stratton deserves more research and it is probably going to be up to Mississippians to do that research, so I’ll probably be dusting off my copy of Triumvirate in 2015 as a place to start. When it was published in 2010, I made a pass at reading Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal, and Class in America’s Gilded Age. The book probably contains the longest biographical outline of Stratton in print, but on the whole was rather dry, which says a lot coming from someone who enjoys reading technical manuals (I thought the book could have been subtitled How to Name-Drop 18th c. Abolitionist Preachers.) The Stewart brothers photographs may be the best way to get an image of Stratton not as a stodgy, pedantic architect who can’t cut loose, but as a normal person who enjoys having fun with friends at the beach.
One of the few period descriptions of Stratton I’ve seen happens to be my favorite. Coming from the September, 1891 issue of The University Magazine, it is as worthy as any epitaph to be remembered by.
Lingering a moment in a parlor of the New York Hotel I was struck with the courtly attentions of a middle-aged man to his venerable father, whose snowy hair and beneficent face recalled the gentlemen of the old school. It was Sydney V. Stratton[sic], the architect, and one of the University Club library’s most familiar figures. Reserved in his manner towards acquaintances, widely-traveled and observant, he is one of the warmest and most interesting of friends.