Category: Kip Stowell


Artist, Architect, and Mayor of Harpers Ferry

Trip-Kip cover

Kip was born ‘Walton Danforth Stowell’ in Massachusetts. He lived a long life as an artist, architect, and politician; settling in Harpers Ferry, WV. This biography spans 73 years of Kip’s life, from 1936-2009; and is a summary of people, places, and art related to him. As an architect he worked for the National Park Service, but also maintained private practice. Kip loved entertaining people, and was loved for his enthusiasm for design. Among his most famous designs are the Charles Town War Memorial, Turf Race Track Hotel, Bolivar Community Center, and Harpers Ferry Town Hall. His greatest contributions to Historic Preservation may have been to protect the Town of Harpers Ferry and the Peter Burr House for all time and for all people. Kip saw Architecture as Art you live in; Sculpture that provides shelter.

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~ I sat beside him, through the night.

Listening, praying, thinking.

He’s dying,” I said to God and myself.

 

My brother: the architect; the mayor; historian; artist; husband; father… my brother.”

 

Please, take care of him.”

 

Then I thanked Kip, in unspoken words;

for teaching me to be patient,

for going with me to New York City (so I wouldn’t be alone),

for showing me how to use my imagination,

for always being happy to see me,

for giving me unconditional love.

 

Then, as the gray of the icy January morning receded,

I turned on the television,

so Kip could hear history being made,

only an hour away.

 

I think he passed on peacefully that night;

leaving behind his devoted family, his beloved town, and his country;

all well-prepared to build new structures;

strong and beautiful, enduring and dynamic;

formed from the truths he believed in and passed on,

to all of us. ~

Kip Stowell 1936-1960 Biography

Self Family Culture Class (Grade A)

RWU Nov. 1995 (updated 2013)

 

Walton (Kip) Danforth Stowell Sr.

 

My father was born on January 30, 1936 in Worcester City Hospital, Massachusetts. His was a caesarian birth (unusual for the time). During this interview, my father made a point to say he was a ‘breach baby’ (turned the wrong way in the womb); this fact was important because without the operation he said he might not have survived birth.

 

Walton Danforth Stowell was his birth name, directly from family last names. His Grandfather Walton came downstairs one fine morning afterwards, and upon seeing my father’s baby blue eyes said, “Boy he looks kipper this morning!”; and so my father got the nickname ‘Kip’. Kip grew up in the small neighborhood precinct Baldwinville, of Templeton, Massachusetts. Kip was the oldest of three brothers. His mother was Helen C. Walton, and his father was Dwight K. Stowell.

His father, Dwight (Kenneth), attended the Stockbridge School of Agriculture (which later became the University of Massachusetts), and specialized as an orchardist. Kip’s father became the supervisor at the Walter Furnell State School (working farm for mentally disabled and minor criminals, to produce fruit and vegetables). Kip had fond memories of the Furnell Farm, including the old farm houses, the dormitories, and the gymnasium where movies were shown. My Dad got piggy-back rides from one of the inmates, but all of the inmates that he encountered were friendly or respectful.

It was on this State Farm that my grandfather Dwight sprayed arsenic of lead, and unknowingly poisoned himself. Grandpa spent a long time in the hospital before World War II, and eventually recuperated (although never fully). Dwight was later a teacher of vocational agriculture, teaching boys how to maintain and operate general farm machinery. Both Dwight and Helen always stressed how important education was to young ‘Kippy’.

Kip’s mother Helen wished she had gone to college, but did not let it stop her from being a hard worker. My Grandmother Helen worked as the town telephone operator, and always seemed to know the latest gossip. Helen loved to play cards (Bridge), and entertain visiting guests, but most of all she loved her three sons. Her sons meant ‘the World’ to her, and she wanted to give them the best of everything she could; to her this mainly meant a good education. Helen firmly believed that with a good education, her sons could do anything.

When Helen’s father (Grandpa Walton) died, Dwight and Helen bought bought the house, and lived there with Grandma Walton, and Kip’s Great Grandmother. This was an interesting living situation, because there were four generations living all in the same house when my father was a kid. Kip recalled traditions, like visiting his Great-Grandma’s bedroom for candies from a glass container.

Everyday at Two-o’clock sharp, Great-Grandmother Anna Whitcomb would wake from her nap, and announce that she was “Ready to see the boys”. Young Kippy and his brothers would receive her vocal call, go to her bedroom door, and knock. Then she would call them to open the door, and come in to her room where they would sit. Great-Grandma Whitcomb would then ask them questions of how their day went, and ‘the like’. To my father she seemed like Queen Victoria, and was a very strict Puritan and a hard worker. Great-Grandma Whitcomb was absolutely against smoking, alcohol, and playing cards on Sunday. She was always neat and tidy, and would end their visiting session by asking if they wanted candies, and rewarding them for their obedience by giving them each candy. She seemed to have an endless supply of candies.

Kip’s parents were both of New England Puritan background, with predominantly English ancestry. His mother Helen was Baptist, and his father was Congregationalist. Christian Religion was a strong basis for daily traditions, as with the ‘Puritan Work Ethic’ (driving willpower for intense and continual labor).

Another Christian tradition was going to Church on Sundays, and for children Sunday-School. It was traditional in this patriarchal society, to attend the father’s church; so our family was Congregationalist. Also British ‘tea-time’ heritage was still practiced, with bread-based snacks (like cinnamon, sugar, and butter toast).

In the mornings the women did most of the chores (like washing clothes, modern appliances take less time) wearing a ‘morning dress’ (for rugged work). In the afternoon they would change into an ‘afternoon dress’ (more formal); and there was ‘tea-time’ for social visitors or ‘callers’. The general ‘Puritan Work Ethic’ included religious maxims like “Idle hands make for the Devil’s work.”, and “Children should be seen and not heard.”. This hard working mentality stems from harsh New England conditions, and allowed them to survive hard times like the Great Depression. Respect for elders was part of it as well.

During World War II (WWII), two things stopped Kip’s father Dwight from being drafted. Dwight was a farmer so he was needed to help supply food for the troops, and his lead poisoning incident proved to be harsh on his health constitution. So the main concern for Kip’s family during WWII was for relatives. My Dad recalled seeing letters sent by Lila Whitcomb from overseas; they were cut open, edited, and censored by US officials before the mail arrived at the house. Lila was like a daughter to Kip’s Great-Grandmother Anna Whitcomb (although Lila was her grand-daughter), so they were all very upset when Lila was stationed as a nurse at Pearl Harbor the day it was bombed! Windel Walton Jr. (nicknamed ‘Junior’) was a B-17 Flying-Fortress pilot, which was shot down into waters. Junior survived the crash, and got to the land where he was rescued, and later became a Franciscan Monk. Both Lila and Junior made it through WWII, alive and well. My father was fascinated by the news-reels of bombed-out ruins, because it revealed the true section of building structures.

Twice monthly, Kip visited his father Dwight’s parents on the Stowell Farm in New Salem, Massachusetts. Kip’s Grandmother Bertha Whittier Stowell invested in the stock-market, rented rooms with ‘boarding’ (meals) for rich Bostonians, and basically ran the farm. Kip’s Grandfather Dwight Arthur Stowell was a retired farmer, by that time, and was able to pursue his hobby as a historian. Kip did many chores on the Stowell Farm during summer visits. Kip cleaned the animal stalls, milked the cows, and helped his Grandmother Bertha in the garden (which he enjoyed).

So Kip’s family was an upper middle-class American family, established mostly from inherited wealth and property. Their ‘Puritan Work Ethic’ ensured employment, and financial stability. It also helped that they did not gamble, travel, or spend much. They were responsible for themselves, and generally thrifty. Kip’s parents only had one car at a time, which they did use to make an annual pilgrimage to Lake Sunapee, NH. Our family two-story ‘cabin’ on the waters edge, was called ‘Summer Savory’ or simply ‘The Camp’.

My father, and his brother Jay, sold ‘The Camp’ to their brother Chan’s daughter Kim. I was glad that ‘Camp’ could stay in the family, even though I do not like to drive the 12 hours just to get there anymore. Some family traditions will continue to the next generation (Kim’s kids). Both Dad and annually visited Sunapee since we both were born. I stopped going to Sunapee in college, and Dad stopped going when he died in 2009, but his spirit is forever there and we had a ceremony where we put his ashes in the ferns like he did with his parents. Lake Sunapee is a sanctuary place of tranquil refuge, and nature-based fun.

Kip wanted to increase the middle-class standard of living he inherited from his parents, and so he traveled more frequently and celebrated life with more extroverted exuberance. He thought his own work ethic was established in middle-school (6th or 7th grade) when he first got his paper route, with his middle brother Chandler (Chan). Their youngest brother Jay was often left out of things they did, simply because he was younger. A major difference between me and my parents, is that they had siblings, and I am an only child. I am happy I was an only child; but it may make it harder for me to share space with others. I like privacy, but my father always wanted all doors open.

Buses and trains were the primary modes of transportation when Kip was young. Now we have more reliance on cars, and added commercial airlines to the list. Kip’s entertainment was marble games, Sunday radio, and early television shows (like Howdy-Doody). My main forms of entertainment were somewhat similar, with outdoor games and board and card games, but mostly tv and computer games. During his life, Kip witnessed the development of inventions like television, electronic home appliances (washer and drier machines), commercial airlines, computers, and other digital devices. Automobiles and the building of Inter-State Highways using large earth-moving machines were big things ‘in his day’. One of his favorite things about cars were the freedom for his family to go on Sunday drives to visit friends, and stopping for hot-dogs and ice-cream.

Sometimes when he was frustrated with me, my father would remind me that the original purpose for his paper-route was to start earning money for him to go to college. He also mowed lawns, and worked in the local drug store on weekends, and sometimes summer weekdays during grade-school years. However most of the time, my father told me that he did not want me to go through the agony of having to work as hard as he did, and feel forced to work at places I did not want to work. He wanted me to have a better quality of life than he did, yet I chose to study architecture in college as a way of understanding my father better, and wanting to feel closer to him in the old tradition of inheritance and apprenticeship.

My father was more of an architect than an artist, and I am more of an artist than an architect. He knew he wanted to be an architect during his youth, playing with blocks and building models. Dad started constructing his own building models in grade-school; like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and Greek temples. Later while attending Templeton High-School, he made the Roman Colosseum, and Gothic cathedrals. He even built an underground sand bunker in his back yard, as a full-scale hang-out hide-out place for he and his friends to smoke, and be themselves.

Kip was encouraged by everyone to pursue his interests and become and architect. He was especially inspired by his relative Bill Gas, who was the architect that restored historic Deerfield. Bill gave my father his first collection of Sweet’s Catalogs. Dad’s 7th Grade teacher made an impression on him by read from Richard Halbert’s World Travel Journal. Kip’s taste in antiques was inherited literally from his parents’ collection (he told me). Somehow along the way, Kip became convinced about his convictions regarding the importance of imagination, creativity, interest in problem-solving, eye for beauty, love of history, and taste in furniture.

Despite WWII, he considered the 1940’s a ‘fortunate decade to have grown up in’. Dad considered himself lucky to be a product of the 1950’s and early 1960’s. He attended the University of Pennsylvania for Architecture. Kip felt as though his soul was free, although it was hard to leave his cozy town. The same was true for me, although thanks to my parents I had already travel long distances and stayed away from home (although not without them very often). So I had traveled more than he did, and he and my mother were more liberal than his parents were. So in terms of freedom, perhaps it was more extreme or drastic for him when he went to college. He told me of some of his college adventures, and that when he got involved with Communist Russians and the CIA, his grades were failing, and his father had to drive down, rescue him, and bring him home to help him get ‘back on track’ with architecture studies.

My RWU college experience matches what my father went through before me, and he empathized with my pain in architecture, as well as my joy of freedom, learning, and sharing. College made us realize how many choices we have to make, and politics and philosophies to consider in life. Kip taught me it was ok to ask ourselves questions like “What are you going to do with your life?” I agree with my parents, and grandparents, that education is vitally important (although I may disagree when it comes to the price of tuition). Once you get education, options can be eye-opening. Knowledge is power, and hind-sight is 20/20. I have chosen to inherit many of my father’s values and interests. Architecture is indeed a culmination of all of my interests, and my father was a unique yet archetypal architect. He was perfectly himself.

Kip Stowell Resume (1981 long version)

RESUME  (written by Kip in 1981)

Walton “Kip” Danforth Stowell Sr., AIA

769 Washington Street

Harpers Ferry, WV 25425

Education

Templeton High School, Worcester County, Massachusetts

Graduated June 1954

University of Pennsylvania, School of Fine Arts

Philadelphia, PA Graduated June 1960

Bachelor of Architecture

Continuing Education

Attingham Park National Trust for Historic Preservation Summer School

Shropshire, England

Study and Travel / Historic Houses of England

Summer of 1962

Construction Specifications Institute

Engineers Club, Philadelphia, PA

Specification Writers School

1968-1969

Employment

Historic American Building Survey

United States Department of the Interior / Library of Congress

Summer student assistant architect

1958-1959

Cornelius W. Bucklet, AIA, architect, Worchester, MASS

Architectural Draftsman

1960-1962

C. Wesley Dingman, AIA, architect, Princeton, MASS

Architectural Draftsman and Designer

1962-1963

Philadelphia Planning and Service Center

National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior

Historical Architectural Draftsman and Interior Designer

1963-1969

Interpretive Design Center, Harpers Ferry, WV

National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior

Architect, National Park Planner, and Exhibit Designer

1969-1990s

Foreign Travel

Canada, Mexico, Republic of Haiti

England, The Netherlands, France

Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan

Registered Architect

Licensed to practice architecture in 6 states and the District of Columbia

Virginia 3408

Pennsylvania EX5613

Maryland 2445

West Virginia 1025

Massachusetts 3195

New Hampshire 874

District of Columbia 2181

National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, Washington DC

Certificate Number 11472

File Number 14806

Professional Organizations

American Institute of Architects (AIA) Corporate Member

National AIA Committee Member / Architecture for Arts and Recreation

West Virginia Society of Architects (WVSA) Board Member

American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) Potomac Chapter

Board of Directors:  1972, 1973, 1974, 1975

Treasurer:  1976, 1977

Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) Member

Association for Preservation Technology (APT) Member

National Trust for Historic Preservation  (NTHP) Member

Civic Activities

Harpers Ferry Town Council 1975-1977 / 1977-1979

Bolivar-Harpers Ferry Public Library

Board of Trustees 1975-1981

Harpers Ferry Merchants Association Member  1970-1979

Vice President 1976

Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce Stowell Galleries 1974-1976

Harpers Ferry Historic Landmarks Commission 1980-1981

Educator

International Institute of Interior Design

2228 R Street, Washington DC

Faculty (part-time) 1972-1975

Board of Trustees  1974-1980s

Chairman, Board of Trustees 1976-1979

Northern Virginia Community College

Stirling Park, Virginia

Curriculum Advisory Board Member for Interior Design Department 1976-1980

Shepherd College

Shepherdstown, WV

Adult Education Instructor / Architectural History Fall 1980

Adjunct Professor of Architectural History 2004-2005

Private Interests

Stowell Galleries / Contemporary Art

769 Washington Street, Harpers Ferry, WV

Co-Owner with Evalina Manucy Stowell (Nena)

Stowell Architects, AIA, Architect and Interior Designer

769 Washington Street, Harpers Ferry, WV

Proprietor with Partners

Designed and Built Projects / A Selected List of Private Clients

1.  Stuart House, Gardens and S. Facade, South Main Street, Baldwinville, MA 1960

2.  Baldwin House, Restoration,  South Main Street, Baldwinville, MA 1963

3.  CJ Moore House, Exterior & Interior Renovations, 401 Pine St. Philadelphia, PA 1966

4.  Ataviano House, Restoration & Renovation, 4th St. Philadelphia, PA 1967

5.  McClure House, Restoration & Renovation, Spruce St. Philadelphia, PA, 1967

6.  Grossman House, Exterior Restoration, Spruce St. Philadelphia, PA, 1967

7.  Henderson House, All New, Front St. Philadelphia, PA, 1968

8.  Scarpulla House, Restoration & Renovation, Spruce St. Philadelphia, PA, 1968

9.  Just Now Boutique, Jane Druryea, Interiors, Walnut St. Philadelphia, PA, 1969

10. Perelman Antique Toy Museum, Restoration, 2nd St. Facade & Doorway, Philadelphia, PA, 1969

(for John Lloyd, AIA)

11. Hirsch House, restoration of 2nd St. Doorway, Philadelphia PA (for Carl Massara, AIA) 1969

12. Curtis-Waterston House (Tannery), Renovation & Reconstruction, Main St. Burkittsville, MD 1974

13. Silvers House, Restoration & Renovation, N. 29th St. Richmond, VA 1974

14. Dunn House, Addition, Charles Town, WV 1975

15. Locust Grove Nursing Home, Addition, Bolivar WV 1975

16. St. James Catholic Church, addition and interiors, St. George Str. Charles Town, WV

17. Lavine & Jackson Law Offices, interiors, K St. NW Washington DC 1976

18. Fiori-Jackson Law Offices, interiors, Cathedral Place, Conn. Ave. NW Washington DC 1976

19. Harlow House, addition / renovation, Bakerton, WV 1977

20. Hopkins House, addition, Percelville, VA 1977

21. Hadley House, addition / restoration / interiors, Summit Point, WV 1978

22. Jackson House, restoration / interiors / landscape, Charles Town, WV 1978

23. Musick House, restoration / interiors, Union St. Bolivar WV 1979

24. Bolivar Community Center, assembly hall, Panama St. Bolivar, WV 1979

25. Fox Guest House / Studio, renovation / addition, Blue Ridge Acres, Harpers Ferry, WV 1979

26. Cassidy House, new house, Ridge Street, Harpers Ferry, WV 1980

Designed but Un-executed Projects / select private clients

1. Shank-Matthews Gazebo, garden house, Boonsboro, MD 1976

2. St. John’s Episcopal Church, addition / new church-school, Washington St. Harpers Ferry, WV 1977

3. Dresden Town House, restoration / renovation / interiors, Spruce St. Philadelphia, PA 1968

4. Durso House, new house, Spruce St. Philadelphia, PA 1968

5. Pritchard House, new house on stone barn foundation / passive solar, Jefferson County, WV 1979

New Projects in Design Stage / select private clients

1. Beallair Manor, restoration / renovation / interiors, former estate of Col. Lewis Washington

The Kennards of McLean, VA

2. Res. Reformed Church & Town Hall, restoration / renovation, Burkittsville Heritage Society, MD

3. Jackson House, additions, Charles Town, WV

4. Waterston Boathouse Pavilion, new structure, Burkittsville, MD

Research

1.  Petersham Historic District Plan, Petersham, MA (Haines 1963)

2.  Historic Structures Report, Customs / Scale, Salem, MA NPS 1959

3.  Historic Structures Report, Adams Mansion addition, Quincy, MA NPS 1968

4.  Architectural Advisor, Burkittsville, MD Historic District

5.  Architectural Advisor, Charles Town, WV “Pride In Action”

6.  Architectural Advisor, Harpers Ferry, WV Historic District

Exhibit Designs & Museum Interiors / select NPS projects

1.  Norris Basin Museum, Yellowstone, 1969

2.  San Cristobal Museum, San Juan, PR 1970

3.  Parachute Key & Royal Palm, Visitor Centers, Everglades 1971

4.  Portable Exhibits Chalmette Battlefield, LA & C&O Canal MD (airports, malls, schools) 1973

5.  Nelson House, basement lounge, Yorktown, VA 1974

6.  Second Bank Portrait Gallery, Independence Hall, Philadelphia, PA 1975

7.  Guilford Courthouse, Greensboro, NC 1976

8.  Fort Point, Golden Gate, San Francisco, CA 1977

9.  Fort Larned KA, (project manager) 1978

10. Assateague & Chincoteague Tom’s Cove Visitor Center, exterior & interior renovation 1979

11. Cowpens Battlefield, Visitor Center, Chesnee, SC 1980

12. Olympic Pioneer Visitor Center, Port Angeles, WA 1980

AWARDS

Award of Excellence, Federal Design Council for Interiors & Exhibits for Second Bank Gallery 1975

Artwork Exhibited

“Animal” wood sculpture, Worcester MA Regional Show 1962

“Elm Memorial” wood sculpture, Jefferson County Arts Council, Woodbury Mansion Show, 1977

Leetown, WV

Work Published

1.  Design for a modular building toy, Industrial Design Magazine, Spring 1955

2.  HABS drawing of Bryan House, Gettysburg, PA Journal of AH Fall 1957

3.  Articles in Two Centuries of Philadelphia Architecture, Museum of Art, 1964

4.  Photo of Moore House kitchen, Designing Interior Environments, Harcourt-Brace 1972

5.  Notes on concrete block house construction, Assoc. Preservation Tech Journal, Spring 1974

6.  Second Bank Portrait Gallery, exhibits, Interior Design Magazine, June 1976

Experience and Training Background

A. Architect (August 1969 – )

Office:  Harpers Ferry Center, Division of Exhibits, NPS

Immediate Supervisor:  Robert G. Johnson

  1. Provide architectural recommendations related to exhibit design
  2. Plan interior spaces and provide furnishing plans
  3. Prepare plans for adaptive uses (museums) of historic buildings
  4. Prepare electrical plans and work with a/e contractors
  5. Work with and function as occasional Staff Curator
  6. Prepare construction drawings for exhibit structures and interiors
  7. Produce design concepts for Staff Curator, Regions, or parks

B. Architect, 11/63 to 8/69

Office: Philadelphia Planning and Service Center, NPS US Department of Interior

Immediate Supervisor:  Lawrence B. Coryell and Donald Benson

  1. Prepare research notes and reconstruction drawings for historic structures
  2. Provide working drawings for construction jobs
  3. Work closely with engineers, landscape architects, and architects
  4. Design and write specifications for visitor center interiors

C.  Draftsman-Designer, 1/63 to 11/63Office:  CW Dingman AIA, Architect, Princeton, MA

Immediate Supervisor:  C. Wesley Dingman, AIA

1. Design Schools and Houses (Kiebler House, Princeton, MA)

2. Inspect construction of schools  (Paxton School, MA)

D.  Draftsman-Designer, 5/61 to 1/63

Office:   CW Buckley AIA, Architects, Worcester, MA

Immediate Supervisor:  CW Buckley

1. working drawings for schools, public buildings, clubs, (Lithuanian Club, Worcester, MA) 1961

Special Assignments with NPS

While working for Philadelphia Planning & Service Center (design & construction; Donald Benson, Chief of Design Office) was assigned to Division of Historic Architecture (Branch of Restorations; Lee Nelson Supervisor) for purpose of making evidence drawings and working drawings during restoration of Independence Hall. (Supreme Court Room and Second Floor Hall) * Invaluable experience in architectural preservation and Street Lighting.

While working for Division of Museums was assigned to represent Office of Planning and Design (Washington DC; Donald Benson, Chief of Architectural Design) to review architectural needs on several Virgin Island projects. * excellent opportunity to work on park planning

Assigned to design and install “Environment” exhibit with NPS Office of Environmental Interpretation (DC; Chief Hugh Muller) for the Second World Conference on National Parks, held at Jackson Lake Lodge, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming 1972.  * involved with environmental education

Member of interpretive planning team for Naval Live Oaks and Davis Bayou, Gulf Islands National Seashore (with Denver Service Center). Architect for schematic plans and architectural directive for a/e contractor. Member of interpretive prospectus team for Gateway National Recreation area NYC June 2, 1977. Designed special bi-lingual exhibit “Discover Gateway” which was installed in the Gateway Welcome Center (formerly Navy Exchange Building for Floyd Bennett Field). Planned adaptive use spaces (arts & crafts social room and exhibits).

Military Service

Reserve Duty, 6 yrs non-combat

  1. Massachusetts Army National Guard; Transportation Unit; Gardner MA

6 months training at Fort Dix, NJ 1960;  3 months on the job training as cook; training as APC Driver (Armored Personnel Carrier) and truck driver (2.5 ton).

  1. Pennsylvania Air National Guard (transferred from MASS ANG 1963)Willow Grove Naval Air Station, PA; served as draftsman & designer with Base Engineer. Airman of the Month Award, June 1966 Flight Sergeant – Tactical Air Command, Honorable Discharge 1966.

Hobbies

Horticulture and Landscape Gardening; collect photos of plants, yard furniture, folly structures; have designed several gazebos and ornamental garden-scapes. Clients include G. Stuart (Baldwinville MA), J. Shank, and J. Matthews (Boonesboro MD), E. Lancaster (Berkeley Springs WV), Stowell Galleries (Harpers Ferry WV). Attended the International Conference on Preservation and Restoration of Historical Gardens and Landscapes, sponsored by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the American Horticultural Society (1975).

Turn of the Century House

Published in a local paper

By Walton Stowell Sr.

 

One of the greatest minds to influence much of 20th century architecture was that of Swiss-born Le Corbusier (1887-1965). He had this to say about architecture and architects: “Architecture is an attitude of mind and not a profession.”

Corbu said it is the architect’s duty to “give themselves so passionately to the study of reason for things, that architecture will rise as a spontaneous consequence”; and that “by its inherent radiance, gaiety, and grace; architects will bring joy, and not merely efficiency to men of the new machine civilization.”

Twentieth-century architecture in the United States has seen several separate movements of major creative activity. Radical theoretical pronouncements usually heralded these inventive moments, and distinction was achieved primarily through looks of the buildings that resulted together with use of new building technologies.

The first few years of the new century saw the last gasp of the romantic, eclectic, monumental Beaux Arts style with Bernard Maybeck’s Palace of Fine Arts at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915: and McKim, Mead, and White’s waiting room of the Pennsylvania Railroad Station in New York City modeled after the ancient Roman Bath of Caracalla.

 

Since the 20th century is the century of so-called ‘modern architecture’, the first milestone occurred about 1907, with the works of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Sullivan had already refined a vertical expression for the Chicago skyscraper, that most distinguishable of American symbols. Wright was promoting his low horizontal land-hugging prairie houses which was later to be developed into what he called an “organic architecture” (see Maddox House).

Both men believed in the axiom that “form follows function”, or perhaps more significantly that “form and function are one”. Ornament became integral with their architecture, not designs pasted or stuck on as an after-thought. For both of these architects, ornament was emotional in nature. If the ornamentation was well conceived, not only the poetry, but the character of structure was enhanced. The building’s plan and elevations spring forth from a well-ordered program based on human needs. These in turn must be appropriate to the materials chosen for construction and the site. Landscape was important to Wright, and he built into a hillside or beside it, never on top.

A little later into the century, architects were trying to establish an urban architecture. How to build in the big city. The office was a new space to deal with, as well as cultural institutions. Raymond Hood won the Chicago Tribune Tower Competition of 1922, and contributed to the vast and complicated designs for Rockefeller Center of 1932. Using roof areas for gardens was one of his ideas.

The third climatic period of modern architecture occurred at the mid-century when the building boom of post World War II converged with the genius of men like Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. Both men had left Nazi Germany to start anew in the United States. Gropius was founder of the Bauhaus, or the so called ‘international school of art and architecture’ in Germany in the 1920’s. He had assumed a major role in the Architects Collaborative’s most important and challenging projects – the Harvard Graduate Center – in 1949. Here a series of individual brick dormitories linked by covered walks, formed quadrangles that sought to conform the spatial sequence and scale of Harvard Yard.

The second and third floor sometimes seem to float about the lawn, resting on simple cylinder columns which provide better ventilation and shade in the enclosed spaces.

At about the same time, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was designing elegant steel and glass boxes and towers in Chicago. Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and the Farnesworth House in Plano, Illinois represented an idea of paramount importance that Mies had been developing since the early 1940’s – the principal of Universal Space. It heralded a break with a singular concern for function. Contrary to Luis Sullivan’s idea that “form follows function”. Mies said that while form cannot change, function does: “We do not let the function dictate the plan. Instead, let us make room enough for any function.” This might seem to cover all the bases.

Van der Rohe’s buildings are an under-statement in simple elegance and detail, which prompted the axiom, “Less is more”.

A fourth climax came about the mid-1960’s and is manifest in the projects of Louis I. Kahn and Eero Saarinen. Kahn brought a sunloving solid geometry and pure poetry back to architecture. The catch-phrase “servant spaces and served spaces” is expressed in his Richards Building at the University of Pennsylvania. The exhaust and stair towers, the central utility tower, and deep tresses are the “servant spaces”, and the laboratories are the “served spaces”. The mechanical services such as air conditioning, artificial ventilation, and heating needed in a building today are numerous and complex. To Kahn, these services must be made a part of the order of the structure. They must give “shape and light” to the served spaces. The served spaces themselves, raison d’etre of the building, must emerge gracefully. Kahn had no use for the conventional skyscraper. He called them vertical boxes wearing girdles. There was no reason, save economy, that they should go straight up. He made a study featuring a city tower whose plan was a hexagonal shape which shifted its position as it rose at intervals of 33 feet. It combined tetrahedron and octahedron space frames. The helical structure was designed to allow varying uses and positions to exist within its triangular growth. The result was a futuristic looking zig-zag Tinkertoy construction.

Eero Saarinen’s commitment to basics, to certain easily grasped, fundamental design forms, showed itself not only in his finished work but in his design process. Dulles International Airport outside Washington, DC is as flamboyant a form as he created. The attempt to evolve a monumental style of architecture appropriate to the ceremony of air travel succeeds here in a way that it has not at any other airport. The system of ‘mobile lounges’ to move the passengers from terminal to plane was not as successful as the building, but if nothing else, it stands as evidence of Saarinen’s deep commitment to programming. He offered a new kind of airport operation.

The remainder of the century will be divided architecturally. There are the ‘high-techs’ led by Richard Meier and Helmut Jahn, inheritors a refined international style incorporating a sleeker, shinier machine technology and detailing. Meier’s Atheneum in New Harmony, Indiana and Jahn’s Illinois State Office Building in Chicago, are good examples of high-tech modern architecture.

The other camp is known as the Post-Modernists. They also are inheritors of the international style, but they capitalize on a more simple (often forced) symmetrical geometry with more pop-art, neo-classical, and Beaux Arts overtones. Michael Graves’ design for the Public Service Building in Portland, Oregon has a sense of humor – there is a classical swag, or gigantic ribbon, tied around the top. Robert Venturi’s  mother’s house in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania is an abstract fragment derived from the monumental facade of Blenheim Palace in England. With our renewed interest in historicism and post-modern mannerism, architecture may have come full cycle in the past 100 years.

Kip” Stowell is a Harpers Ferry architect who, together with his partner, Daniel Hart, prepared the recently completed historical survey on McMurran Hall. Photos of skyscrapers are from the collection of Walton Danforth Stowell (Kip).

– From a local newspaper article (or arts magazine in newsprint) page 11