The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family

Lessard, Suzannah

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn
  • Date of entry: Feb-18-2009
  • Last revised: Feb-12-2009


The famous New York architect, Stanford White (1853-1906) died when he was shot in the face at point blank range by the vengeful husband of actress Evelyn Nesbitt. The author is White’s great grandaughter in a matrilineal line.

She seeks to explore the meaning for his descendants of this man’s violent end and his voracious appetite for luxury and sex. The family history emerges through detailed and sympathetic sketches of White’s widow, their daughter, her daughter and husband (the author’s father) who is a gifted musician. The author herself is one of many daughters. An uncle with severe mental illness is portrayed with sensitivity.

The salacious, sordid tale of Evelyn Nesbit and her angry husband is developed; she had been seduced by White as a teenager, and the belief that he had “ruined” her governed his assasin.

White’s numerous affairs and extravagances are juxtaposed to the pain brought to his widow and children by the media scrutiny after his death. The family home on the Hudson river designed by White is central to the story with nostalgic vignettes of its history, form, renovations, and contents.

The author and her niece embark on a tour of White’s architecture. They end in the remarkable opulence of the Bowery Savings Bank, a classical revival building in which she begins to sense the splendid motivation behind White’s genius.  At the same time a remarkable confession emerges from her sibship.


The writing is engrossing, but the peculiar blend of character study, family history, architecture, and personal memoir at first seems perplexing.

Gradually, the book takes on a therapeutic aspect, as if it had been composed as an exercise in recollection, beyond the writer’s own life and into the events inscribed on a family’s collective memory (in a Jungian sense)--as if it is instrumental to excavating something suppressed.

In this story, so many worthy women accept lives with men whose cravings diminish and objectify them; their acceptance seems connected to an understanding that exceptional artists have exceptional needs. For them, the men are not inadequate, they are geniuses.

The sisters are surprised to confess that, one by one, they were sexually abused by the father whom they all loved. Remarkably, the tone is explanatory and revelatory rather than angry.


Weidenfeld & Nicols

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