A new exhibition now on display at Vassar College’s libraries puts a spotlight on the history of architecture and the many architectural influences that resulted in the buildings on campus. The Architect’s Library will be on view through May, 2014. In connection with the exhibition, Anthony Vidler, professor of the humanities and art and architecture history at Brown University will deliver a lecture entitled: "What Do Architects Read: Architectural Libraries from Vitruvius to Venturi." This event will be held on Monday, February 24, 2014 at 5:00 p.m. in Taylor Hall, room 203.
“The foundation of Vassar College required special sensitivity to architecture; the buildings had to provide a suitable setting for a population that typically had not been educated outside of the home,” explained Nicholas Adams, Professor of Art on the Mary Conover Mellon Chair.
Matthew Vassar (1792–1868) carefully considered two different plans for the campus, one by the architect Thomas A. Tefft (1826–1859) and a second, the one that was executed, by James Renwick (1818–1895). Vassar thought books on art and architecture were also an essential requisite for the education of the new students and to make that possible he procured part of the collection of the Rev. Elias L. Magoon (1810–1886), one of the College’s Charter Trustees. Much of the Magoon collection came from the estate of the English antiquarian John Britton (1771–1857) and was specialized in English and French gothic and gothic revival, the style that Vassar thought could best set the moral tone at the new institution. Magoon had worked as a mason in his early years and architecture was, he thought, the “emblem of the divine on earth.” So in addition to books of architectural importance, Vassar also obtained books with an overt message like Francis Close’s Church Architecture: Scripturally Considered from the Earliest Days to the Present Times (London: Hatchard’s, 1844). The founder could be assured that the collection would provide uplifting lessons.
From this nucleus, the collections grew. Prominent gifts from alumnae/i and friends brought notable works to the College. Matthew Vassar’s own collection contained the works of the landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing and others who believed in the virtues of modern rural living. Professor Herbert E. Mills (VC faculty 1893–1931) assembled an extraordinary collection of the works of the nineteenth-century British utopian socialist, Robert Owen (1771–1858). Vassar’s fifth president, Henry Noble MacCracken (1915–46), donated an early edition of the works of the Renaissance architect Sebastiano Serlio. Francis Fitz Randolph (1889–1973) donated the volumes by Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Phyllis Lambert (VC ’48) donated a rare folio of the work of John Hejduk, and many other books. In 1935, concurrent with the construction of a new library dedicated to art and architecture (1937), the first at an undergraduate institution, the college obtained a significant grant from the Carnegie Corporation and added the major works of early modernism. The result we see today is an outstanding, well-rounded architectural library with significant holdings from all periods of Western architecture.
This exhibition and its accompanying catalogue celebrate the most notable of these books. Exhibition and catalogue begin from the premise that books have long stood close to the heart of an architect’s knowledge. It was the way architects learned about the buildings of the past or buildings from another country; it was the way new ideas were launched and advanced to the profession and to the public. Every architect had a library for pleasure and for practical use. Large or small, the architect’s library was both a place of ready reference and a place for reflection and meditation. The exhibition imagines an architect allowed to browse our shelves and pluck from them the volumes that might serve as reference material for a timeless architectural office.
The Architect’s Library is being held in four locations on campus. In the Special Collections Study Room are some of the first books on architecture held by the College; in the cases in the Main Library are a broad selection of books, from the sixteenth to the twentieth century; in the Art Library are books from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is a small exhibition devoted to the works of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, his followers and predecessors.
A catalogue of the architectural collection entitled The Architect’ s Library: A Collection of Notable Books on Architecture at Vassar College, edited by Nicholas Adams, is available from The Art Department or Special Collections. The catalogue has contributions by students in Art 370 (Spring 2013), professor Brian Lukacher, Art Librarian Thomas Hill, and Vassar graduates Sean Weiss (City University of New York) and Lindsay Cook (Columbia University).
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Vassar is located at 124 Raymond Avenue in Poughkeepsie, NY, and directions to the campus can be found at http://www.vassar.edu/directions.
Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential, liberal arts college founded in 1861.