Conserving Modern-period Buildings
Marie S.A. Sorensen AIA contributed to the research and commentary for a recent feature article on Landmark College, a mid-century modern campus designed by renowned architect Edward Durell Stone in Putney, VT.
“Tiny Landmark College Boasts a Campus Designed by Midcentury Master Edward Durell Stone” – Seven Days – Vermont’s Independent Voice – July 31, 2013 – by Amy Lilly
“Edward Durell Stone’s Vermont Campus” – reprinted in the docomomo-US E-news Brief – August 2013
Vermont is not known for its modern architecture. Whether that’s because the era — roughly the 1920s through the 1970s — corresponded to a statewide economic nadir or because Vermonters just didn’t care for the aesthetic is unclear. Either way, it’s difficult to imagine the Green Mountains as a setting for, say, the austere minimalism of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House near Chicago, or the sleekly functional midcentury modern buildings designed by Richard Neutra and others in Palm Springs, Calif.
But recent critical reappraisal of the era’s most prolific American architect, Edward Durell Stone, has brought new appreciation to a little-known treasure of Vermont’s architecture: the Landmark College campus in Putney.
In 1960, Stone was at the height of a high-powered international career that included commissions such as the American Embassy in New Delhi, India; corporate headquarters for Standard Oil in Chicago and General Motors in New York; and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. That’s the year he designed Windham College (as Landmark was then called), a small campus set in the hills above the two-street town.
Vermont state architectural historian and modern-era specialist Devin Colman puts the oddity of Stone’s involvement in perspective: “It’s like West Glover decides to build a college [today] and they hire Frank Gehry. It’s pretty amazing.”
Stone was perhaps the least likely of modernists to have made his mark in this small, unassuming state. One of the first practitioners of the International Style in the U.S., he codesigned the original Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1937.
But after the war, unlike his contemporaries Philip Johnson and Louis Kahn, Stone tired of the spare boxes of the era’s dominant style and infused his modernist vocabulary with classical symmetry, serial forms and even decoration. His metal grilles and screens, gilt, and other ornamental touches antithetical to the modern movement helped create grand, ceremonial spaces.
These tendencies did not endear Stone to the architectural establishment, but they did land him heaps of work. “Modernism’s populist architect,” as Stone is called in the subtitle of Mary Anne Hunting’s 2012 monograph about him, designed hundreds of buildings between 1946 and 1976, when he died at age 78.
Landmark, a 450-student liberal arts college for dyslexics, is one of at least three entire campuses Stone designed that are still in use. The others are Harvey Mudd College in California (1959) and the State University of New York at Albany (1961).
When Stone drew up his first plan for Windham College in 1960, he had appeared on the cover ofTime magazine just two years before. His design for the circular U.S. pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair had earned him international renown.
Why did Windham founder Walter Hendricks — who also founded Marlboro College, near Brattleboro — call on the most popular architect of the day for his new campus? Seven Days raised that question during a recent tour led by Landmark College president Peter Eden, senior vice president Brent Betit and VP for administration and finance Jon MacClaren.
Accompanying the group was Boston architect Marie Sorensen of Sorensen Partners. She is the coordinator of the New England chapter of Docomomo International, an organization founded in 1989 and dedicated to cataloguing and preserving modern-era buildings, sites and neighborhoods. Under her former employer, EYP Architecture & Engineering, Sorensen recently completed a preservation/renovation concept design for Stone’s SUNY Albany library.
“Walter Hendricks was a visionary. He had some high-powered friends,” Betit offers in explanation of the college founder’s chutzpah.
Betit, a native of nearby Whitingham who served as the facilities manager for Landmark’s first 12 years, has a point. Daniel Toomey, an assistant English professor at Landmark who has been researching Hendricks’ life for years, elaborates. Hendricks’ “high-powered friends” included Putney native George Aiken, a U.S. senator and former Vermont governor; and poet Robert Frost, under whom Hendricks studied at Amherst College in 1917. Windham’s first two buildings, which opened in 1963, were the Frost and Aiken residence halls. A photograph inside Frost Hall shows the poet at the groundbreaking ceremony, sweaty and hatless in his academic robes with a dirty shovel slung over his shoulder.
Another of Hendricks’ friends was Ellsworth Bunker, an early trustee of Windham, who, as the American ambassador to India from 1956 to 1961, was the first to occupy Stone’s embassy building in New Delhi. Toomey says it’s not entirely clear how the Windham commission came about. Hendricks later claimed he had written a letter to Stone’s firm “cold,” but it’s also possible he reached the celebrated architect through Bunker.
In any case, Hendricks was looking for a striking new home for what was then known as the Vermont Institute of Special Studies. He’d started the school in his Putney home in 1951 to provide English-language instruction to students from abroad.
Hendricks’ bold idea of conceiving a whole campus from scratch, Toomey adds, could have been an outgrowth of Frost’s influence. “Frost was a great believer in the American shoestring start. He believed our essential purpose in life is to create.”
Stone would have concurred. According to his son, Hicks Stone, an architect in Roxbury, Conn., the elder Stone never turned down a job. In November 2011, Hicks published the first monograph about his father, the surprisingly objective Edward Durell Stone: A son’s untold story of a legendary architect, and visited Landmark College on his book tour a month later.
“You definitely could see evidence of Dad’s planning,” Hicks Stone recalls by phone, describing his first impression of the campus. However, he adds, Stone’s “full-blown scheme was never executed.”
Red brick and glass dominate the modest-size yet formal campus one sees today. It consists of five residential halls, beginning with Frost and Aiken, which are placed in angled rows along a steep ridgeline overlooking a main quad. The quad’s central grass rectangle is defined on three sides by a flat-concrete-roofed colonnade. Walking between its repeating brick piers creates a sense of procession.
The colonnade links five main academic and administrative buildings, paired symmetrically across from each other on the far sides of the walkway’s two longest arms. (A sixth academic building was planned; the space now holds tennis courts.) Most of the buildings also have flat concrete roofs, but with pyramidal skylights. Their exterior walls exhibit a repeating module of ground-to-roofline brick piers alternating with windows, emphasizing a stately verticality.
The roofs’ cantilevered edges display an eye-catching detail that, Sorensen notes, also distinguishes Stone’s Albany campus library. They are punctured with narrow rectangular cutouts that the architect labeled “slots” in his Mylar blueprints. (Landmark facilities director Corrado Paramithiotti provided access to them.) Some buildings’ slots have been filled in owing to water problems. But in the afternoon sun, the remaining slotted overhangs cast an appealing pattern on the sides of the buildings, recalling Stone’s preference for screens.
Much has changed on this 50-year-old campus. All that red brick was originally painted white, and still was when the campus’ last building — the fine-arts center — went up in 1972. Hicks Stone guesses the paint was a cost concession for his father, who would have preferred the white marble that characterizes so much of his other work — including the National Geographic Society Building in Washington, D.C., which is clad, ironically, in Vermont Marble Company marble.
The savings apparently didn’t help, however. Windham, which had nearly 1000 students at its height, went bankrupt in 1978, and its buildings were auctioned off. Landmark, a Boston-area school for dyslexic students in grades 2 through 12 looking to expand into higher education, bought the campus in 1984 and immediately began chemically stripping the white paint. The idea was to save on repainting costs, according to Betit, who managed the project.
Landmark’s subsequent presidents added eight new buildings to the campus, and Eden plans to add another. An impressive sports facility built in 2000 unfortunately now meets the visitor’s eye first; breaking up what was intended to be a formal approach. A second story was added to Aiken, and contemporary HVAC hardware interrupts the planar rooftops.
Meanwhile, the colonnade remains incomplete, and a planned amphitheater, which would have been carved into the grass off the far end of the colonnade, was never built. The amphitheater appears in two drawings of the planned campus. One, from 1960, depicts a much more neoclassical campus with an arcade instead of a colonnade and pitched roofs intended to convey “a more domestic and rural feel initially,” Hicks Stone guesses. The second rendering, more modernist and from the late 1960s, hangs in Betit’s office.
Despite these missing and changed elements, Eden says he recognized the value of Stone’s campus immediately upon his arrival two years ago.
“I’m a huge fan of modern architecture,” the president declares. “When I saw the picture of the campus, my first, visceral thought was Cool. I never thought I’d come up here and find this. It’s a gem.”
Eden leads the touring group to the fine-arts building, where a disused rectangular fountain lining a sunken courtyard is visible from the main entrance. “I’m determined to resurrect this,” he announces, pointing at the fountain.
MacClaren, representing the college’s financial concerns, expresses doubt. “Having water in a basement space…”
“It’s going to happen,” Eden replies with an impish smile.
“The question is, how slavish are we going to be to Durell Stone?” MacClaren returns. “Preservation has never been a goal of Landmark College.”
“We have this conversation all the time,” Eden jokes, turning to enter the building.
The interior reveals a space crafted for ceremony. An art-exhibition area, entered by descending either of two matching staircases, faces the sunken courtyard through glass walls and doors. A theater on the upper level still contains a curved screen made of vertical walnut slats.
More original walnut details endure in the library’s central atrium, attractively set off by the campus’ only remaining white-painted brick. The wood lines the second-story balcony opening, the pyramidal skylight above it (though these beams have been painted white) and some nearby supporting piers. Sorensen points out a minimalist detail in the piers’ design: The wood panels cover all four sides but aren’t joined at the corners. The negative spaces left behind gesture toward verticality, as does the campus itself.
The library used to have two grand entrances on opposite sides of the atrium, with nine-foot doors opening into foyer spaces. The foyers have since been partitioned into offices, but it’s easy to imagine the effect of a ceremonial entry into a high-ceilinged space; Betit likens it to entering Stone’s Kennedy Center.
Asked about his interest in architecture, Betit says, “I’ve developed it here. You can’t be around something with such a strong architectural statement without developing an interest in it.”
Stone’s statement is strong because it is “monumental,” according to Sorensen. Inside Frost Hall, she notes the dorm rooms’ seven-and-a-half-foot doors. “The extra height is very Stone,” she says.
The detail is indicative of Stone’s legacy, Sorensen adds. “A lot of contemporary avant-garde projects by Rem Koolhaas and others in the global south descend from Edward Durell Stone’s fearlessness in campus planning.”
Hicks Stone and Mary Anne Hunting both posit in their books that Stone’s legacy was to anticipate postmodernism. In the 1970s, other architects would follow his turn toward the incorporation of ornament and historical reference, including Philip Johnson.
Whether prescient or populist, Stone’s Vermont campus still impresses with its imposition of formal grandeur on a secluded, rural setting ringed with hills. At least, it impresses the few who realize it’s there. Even Sorensen — a Stone admirer who has traveled to see his North Carolina capitol building, among other works — hadn’t heard of its existence until Seven Days reached her.
“It’s classic Vermont. Everyone’s so modest here,” says Eden with a chuckle. “There are these wonderful things here, and people just don’t know about them.”