How Three Colleges Brought Modernist Design to the US

Though modernism was developed in the 1920s, and was popular among many architects by the time the 1930s arrived, in many places it took years for the style to gain favor among clients. In the USA, people often point to the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower Competition as a turning point, the winning entry was actually a neo-gothic design. In this article, which originally appeared on Curbed, Marni Epstein looks at another potential turning point: three high-profile competitions in the late 1930s where modernist designs were (sometimes controversially) successful.

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.

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.

Read the rest of the article over at Curbed.

About this author
Cite: Marni Epstein-Mervis. "How Three Colleges Brought Modernist Design to the US" 29 Sep 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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