William Mitchell Kendall never delivered a single piece of mail, but he gave the United States Post Office its most famous motto.
Born in 1856 in Jamaica Plain, Mass., to a prominent family – the nephew of astronomer Maria Mitchell – Kendall trained at Harvard and MIT. In 1882 he joined the New York architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, the preeminent design firm of its day.
The principles – Charles McKim, Stanford White and William Mead – were men about town, flashy and larger than life. Their focus was more on broad architectural statements, not on minor details. But they hired the best draftsmen in the world. Kendall was a detail man, credited with smoothing and polishing the work of the firm’s other architects.
William Mitchell Kendall, Partner
Stanford White died in 1906 in an explosive murder, and Kendall rose in the firm to fill his shoes as partner. But he had none of White’s panache or flair for high living. By then the work of the firm began to decline in originality. Mosette Broderick, author of When Architecture Could Fashion a Nation, noted that the firm’s work began to look like a parody of its earlier designs.
“Kendall was a mean, small-minded man who took precedent as his only cue,” she wrote. “They began repeating themselves in the 1890’s, and you can spot the details on their later buildings lifted directly from their earlier ones.”
Nevertheless, American institutions clamored for the Beaux-Arts architectural style that the firm executed. Cities, universities, railroads and libraries filled the firm’s schedule with demands for public buildings.
McKim, Mead & White’s style reflected the chip on the American shoulder as the nation emerged as a world power starting in 1880. The firm’s buildings had rich decorations with grand arches and entryways, facades laden with sculptural ornamentation and detailed design.
Kendall’s work can be seen throughout New York and New England. He contributed to the design of the Boston Public Library.
He designed the Fleming Museum in Burlington, Vt., as well as the city’s City Hall. Kendall designed the canopy that sits atop Plymouth Rock. Kendall also designed the Arlington Memorial Bridge, complete with its gold statues, that crosses the Potomac River between Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Neither snow nor rain
Perhaps his most lasting contribution to American culture however, is found in New York City where he designed the James Farley Post Office. Originally named the General Post Office, the building opened in 1912. It gave the postal service its unofficial motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
The line is translated from the work of Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote a similar line describing the courier system in ancient Greece. It was a logical fit with Kendall’s grandiose style, and he ordered it inscribed on the facade of the building. And ever since the motto has been associated with the U.S. Postal Service.
Kendall would continue working right up to his death in 1941 in Bar Harbor, Maine, at the age of 85. His later works can be found in several European cemeteries, in the form of memorials to the World War I war dead.
Images: James Farley post office By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK – Old Post Office, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64140947. Sketch of William Mitchell Kendall The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “William Mitchell Kendall.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. This story last updated in 2022.
Yes, Kendall was by all accounts a difficult man, but to say that the firm of McKim, Mead & White “…began repeating themselves in the 1890’s, and you can spot the details on their later buildings lifted directly from their earlier ones…” is both cruel and misleading.
By the 1890’s, the McKim, Mead & White firm was one of the most influential in America. They were known for their superb handling of various architectural styles popular with their wealthy and fashion conscious clients. Their work became even more spectacular in the early 1900’s.
The firm’s earlier work is much admired today because of what modern observers describe as its excitingly new ‘Americanness.’ However, McKim, Mead & White’s later designs are derided as derivative and unimaginative, not as ‘exciting’ as their own early, ‘pioneering’ work. Yet this early ‘pioneering’ work was also derivative and eclectic. It had its origins in the English Queen Anne style and the nacent Colonial Revival style, and much of the ‘Americanness’ of this work was inspired by the then new designs of H. H. Richardson.
A large nail in the coffin of their modern reputation was the 1893 ‘World’s Columbian Exposition. The fair dazzled visitors with its spectacularly lush architecture. No one had seen anything like it. Its vast Neo-Classical buildings and exhibit halls would have been at home in ancient Rome. McKim, Mead & White’s design for this fair was an enormous Neo-Classical style building. Their work and the fair are blamed for the popularity of the Neo-Classical style architecture virtually overwhelming what we now admire as modern design.
Modern critics have had a love affair with the work of H. H. Richardson, Adler & Sullivan, and their pupal Frank Lloyd Wright. In short anyone whose designs they feel led to the architecture of our modern era.
However, McKim, Mead & White’s clientele had not changed. They still wanted in the 1890’s what they had wanted in the 1870’s, architecture that was thought of as ‘MODERN.’ So the firm continued to design what their clients wanted.
Finally, the large number of unbuilt Frank Lloyd Wright designs demonstrates that even if you are famous, it does not follow that you can stuff an ‘exciting’ design down a client’s throat!
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