Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College
Making It Modern

Academics

Early Modernist Initiatives

President J. Edgar Park Wearing a Top Hat. Unidentified Photographer. Photograph. c. 1940.The agreeable-looking fellow to the left is President J. Edgar Park. President Park was not only instrumental in the development of traditional architecture, but was also responsible for the promotion of Modernist initiatives during his tenure at Wheaton, which covered 1926-1944. He presented a proposal to the Board of Trustees for a Modernist alumnae building and art center, which eventually led to the 1938 Competition. He also oversaw the competition as president.

-Shannon Ryan, Class of 2010

Esther SeaverEsther Seaver, Professor of Art History and Head of the Art Department, was instrumental in creating the architectural competition that eventually brought Modernism to Wheaton College. The college’s first professionally trained art historian, Seaver made her presence known on campus soon after she arrived. She demanded improvements to the facilities used in Science Hall for teaching art classes, developed an art major, and introduced Modern and Contemporary art to the curriculum. Insisting on better art facilities, Seaver objected to every design proposed by Cram and Ferguson. Unknown to President Park, Seaver met with representatives of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and others to organize an architectural competition for a Modernist art center that would include art, music, theatre and dance. In an unsuccessful 1937 request for funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, Seaver claimed that a new art center would give “architectural expression to the ideology of our own time, just as the great traditional forms in architecture did to those of the periods that produced them."

-Jessie Landau, Class of 2009

Arts Conference Program for New Horizons in Architecture. Esther I. Seaver. Paper, ink. April 1937.Arts Conference Program for New Horizons in Architecture. Esther I. Seaver. Paper, ink. April 1937.Arts Conference Program for New Horizons in Architecture. Esther I. Seaver. Paper, ink. April 1937.

The program above is from the New Horizons Conference, which was held at Wheaton on April 16 and 17, 1937. It included lectures by the likes of world famous architect Walter Gropius; professors from Harvard, Columbia, and Dartmouth; and the director of the Brooklyn Museum. Dean Joseph Hudnut of Harvard University's Graduate School of Design even presided over the conference.

-Shannon Ryan, class of 2010

Elevation of Proposed Alumnae Hall. Cram and Ferguson, Architects. Graphite, paper, cardboard. 35.9 x 49.7 cm. 1929.Elevation of Proposed Alumnae Hall. Cram and Ferguson, Architects. Graphite, paper, cardboard. 42 x 72 cm. 1935.

During the 1930s, before Wheaton held the competition for a new art center, the architectural firm of Cram and Ferguson presented several designs for a new alumnae building and art center. The drawing to the left represents the traditional Georgian Revival style that dominated Wheaton’s campus at that time. Here, representations of a swan and a woman with a parasol riding in a canoe on Peacock Pond romanticize the scene. Cram and Ferguson had been the official college architects since 1907, and claimed the right to design the alumnae building and art center. Because they knew Wheaton needed such a building, they presented proposals like this one hoping to win the commission. Although these designs were unsolicited by the college, a prospective large donation in 1931 encouraged President Park to present their ideas to the Board of Trustees who voted to begin planning for such a center. However, because Professor Esther Seaver, Head of the Art Department, objected to “outmoded” traditional architecture, she rejected all of Cram and Ferguson’s designs in hopes of obtaining a Modernist building on campus.

In 1935, architects Cram and Ferguson presented another proposal for an alumnae hall. The drawing to the right is a vivid illustration of a proposed plan for an alumnae building by Cram and Ferguson that would have been too close to Georgian Revival style for Esther Seaver’s approval. Despite Cram and Ferguson’s enthusiastic — and multiple — attempts to present a successful design for this building, Wheaton’s administration gave the honor of designing an alumnae building to the winners of the 1938 Arts Center Competition, Hornbostel and Bennett.

-Jessie Landau, Class of 2009 -Evan Morse, Class of 2009

Comments are closed.