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How Three Colleges Brought Modernist Design to the U.S.

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A rendering of the Wheaton College art center designed by Hornbostel and Bennett. Image via Wheaton College.

The Great Depression of the 1930s hit everyone, and hard—even architects and draftsmen found themselves out of work as development and construction dried up amid vanishing capital. They found a partial solution in the Historic American Buildings Survey and Historic American Engineering Record, two programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration that involved surveying and cataloging the country's existing infrastructure. These programs, however, were a long way from the prestige, creativity, and financial rewards that came with new architectural commissions. The work available was limited, and what work existed was focused on the architecture of the past, not designs for the future.

To fill the need for prestige, creativity, and funds came architectural competitions. They allowed as many architects as possible to vie, on an even playing field, for the few commissions that existed around the country. Competitions ranged from calls to design the American city of tomorrow to simpler requests for single buildings. A surprising number of these contests came out of America's academic institutions. Three little-known design competitions—at Wheaton College, the College of William and Mary, and Goucher College—pitted the biggest names in modern architecture, including Richard Neutra, Eero & Eliel Saarinen, Pietro Belluschi, Walter Gropius, and others, against one another.

These competitions, which began in 1937, were the first of their kind since the Chicago Tribune building competition in 1922. Unlike the Tribune building, though, most of the collegiate competition-winning buildings were never built—even though the designs, at one point forgotten for nearly 50 years, marked the beginning of the Modernist movement in America.


[A blueprint for the Wheaton art center.]

Wheaton College, in Norton, Massachusetts, held the first of the three collegiate competitions. Wheaton, founded as a women's seminary in 1834, was one of the oldest institutions for women in the country. With its design competition, the school looked to modernize by building a new art center. Conducted by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Architectural Forum, the competition was championed on campus by art professor Esther I. Seaver, who found Wheaton's campus of Georgian-colonial designs to be lacking in function. A 1938 press release from MoMA called for designs for a single building, or a group of buildings, with stadium seating capacity for 500, a smaller theater for concerts, a library, exhibition galleries, studios, and classrooms.

When the results were announced, Walter Gropius, who had previously founded the German Bauhaus movement, came in a noteworthy second place in the competition. Wheaton's winning design came from young architects Richard Bennett and Caleb Hornbostel, whose design boasted the trademarks of the International style—an austere structure and strict adherence to function over form. The building was to be rounded so that it could sit perfectly between the two lobes of the campus' Peacock Pond. But the reception of Bennett and Hornbostel's plan was acrimonious—resulting in Professor Seaver's resignation, a convenient and 'mysterious' disappearance of all design records, and a moratorium on the art center's construction. It wasn't until 1961 that construction on a new art center finally began at Wheaton College. This art center, though it shared a Modernist spirit with Bennett and Hornbostel's 1938 design, was the work of an entirely new firm, Rich and Tucker and Associates.


[The Saarinen plan for the Goucher competition. Image copyright Cranbrook Archives.]

The second competition, in the summer of 1938, was for Baltimore's Goucher College. Goucher was founded in 1885, and, by its 50th anniversary, had outgrown its Romanesque-style downtown campus and was looking to modernize on 421 acres in the suburbs. Although Goucher's competition was not exclusively Modernist, it was the most ambitious of the three, calling for an entire campus plan over 500,000 square feet of building space, including at least eighteen buildings for the various scholastic departments, the library, the administrative offices, a chapel, an auditorium, a student union, a gym, an infirmary, five residence halls (each with their own dining hall) to hold around 140 students, a President's house, and a faculty club. Goucher considers itself particularly "forward-thinking," which may be why, architectural historian James D. Kornwolf notes, the school was the only one to retain an extensive record of its design submissions. Those records indicate that over 150 architects submitted credentials to Goucher, 50 of them were invited by the College to participate in the competition, and ultimately 35 submitted designs. There were Modernist designs by Richard Neutra, whose plan was the first known example of large-scale environmental design in the U.S., Harrison and Foulihoux, William Lescaze, Mellor and Meigs, Walter Gropius, and Eliel and Eero Saarinen, who placed second in the competition. The winning designer was Moore and Hutchins for an informal Modernist design; it featured the use of local Butler stone. Construction on the Moore and Hutchins' design—Goucher was the only one of the three schools to ever break ground on these competition winners—began in 1941.

The College of William and Mary held the third and final collegiate competition in late 1938. The Williamsburg, Virginia-based school was founded in 1693 by King William II and Queen Mary II; after Harvard, it is the second-oldest institution of higher education in America. A vestige of colonial America, the College of William and Mary was in desperate need of a modern outlook; they sought it with designs for a new festival theater and fine arts center. For William and Mary, the Modernist competition represented a dramatic break from tradition and its colonial roots, just as nearby Colonial Williamsburg was undergoing renovations to restore its colonial heritage. The College of William and Mary's competition for a festival theater and fine arts center, announced in Architectural Record in November 1938, was championed by the American National Theatre and Academy—the only one of the three competitions to be championed by an entity outside of the institution itself. But the American National Theatre and Academy received virtually no funding to support its new theater design. As a result, the winning, state-of-the-art design put forth by the team of Eero Saarinen, Ralph Rapson, and Frederic James was discarded.

These three collegiate architectural competitions breathed life back into the nation's struggling architects by, as Kornwolf writes, helping to birth the fledgling Modernist movement in America. Just before the first competition in 1937, Harvard's School of Architecture boldly hired one of Europe's foremost Modern architects, Walter Gropius, igniting Modernist fervor. The competitions saw the submission of 416 total designs, the largest concentration of Modernist-designed work in the country at that point. The novelty and promise of Modernism represented a break not just from America's traditional past, but also from the gloom of the Depression.

The designs were jarring. Of the College of William and Mary designs, American philosopher and literary critic Lewis Mumford wrote at the time:

By now the only people who think there is any other way to design a building are the old-timers who haven't died off yet and the suburban real estate speculators who have never sold a modern building for the good reason that they have never built one and don't believe it can be done. The real news is that competitions are now being held in which the judges refuse to be bamboozled by elegant renderings in color, whose greatest architectural achievement is the sky [...]The fact that no one was tempted to fit the new building into seventeenth-century Williamsburg by even adding as much as a pineapple to the forthright façade is naturally, all to the good.

In fact, many of these Modernist designs sparked discord at their respective institutions. College donors and trustees were put off by the then-new genre of architecture, making the actual financing of the winning buildings that much more difficult. After the designs flopped, some of these institutions went so far as to erase all evidence that these competitions had existed in the first place. Drawings and competition records disappeared altogether. But it is perhaps because most of these buildings were never erected—and were, instead, fought over—that these competitions advanced the conversation on Modernism more than tacit acceptance of these designs could have done.

·Looking Back at Richard Neutra's First US Competition [Curbed LA]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]