Review article: The New Williams Architecture of the 1960s (Princeton series)

Two distinguished Williams art professors, Eugene Johnson (emeritus) and Michael J. Lewis, shared their appraisals of the quality of the campus architecture in Williams College: An Architectural Tour (Princeton Architectural Press 2018). Predictably, they found the good, the bad, and the ugly, as in any architectural survey. I thank Ned Perry for introducing me to the joys of discovering this fascinating book.

The 1960s—the era of our youth and youngest adulthood—was a time of great change, and Williams with Jack Sawyer at the helm began to move in more modernist architectural directions. Nevertheless, a constraining force was that this occurred at a time when the endowment of the college seriously lagged behind those of the other two schools of the Little Three.

We recall, and have vivid memories of, the construction of the major new landmark buildings of the time: the Bronfman Science Center, since demolished, and the Greylock Quad. But there were other building projects of the period as well. Of course, one decade of the architectural history of an educational institution as old as Williams is a thin sliver of time. The school has since become coeducational, grown in size, greatly increased its endowment, and constructed a wide array of buildings. The book excerpts here discuss only what was the new architecture of the campus when we lived there.

What reflects cutting-edge innovation at any given point in the development of architecture may or may not endure as a worthy example of good design. That is why this academic appraisal, rendered fifty or more years later, provides needed perspective. Of course, we as alumni may have our personal opinions about the utility of these same buildings while we were undergraduates.

1961—Lansing Chapman Hockey Rink (roof). Although the rink had been completed in 1953, it was roofless until 1961. As a result, little black specks from the nearby coal pile had sometimes blown onto the ice. The authors note that the overdue 1961 addition was “a round-arched, vaulted roof, pure in shape and clear in structure.” Unfortunately, enclosure of the ends of the rink only came yet another eight years later.

1961—Brooks House (DKE). Although the authors knew the fraternity had struggled with limited funding for the new building, they offer stinging comment on the compromise that resulted: “… somewhere along the way, the design lost the best aspect of modernism, which is the graceful expression of construction, and retained its worst—a ruthless indifference to context.” The authors add that the design’s columns became “a crudely abstract version of the classical portico of the 1897 house”. Their verdict: “The result, neither modern nor historicizing, is the worst of both worlds. It is a sad comment on the fate of classical architecture in the post-World War II era.” I would note, however, that those of us who were “Brooks Brothers” came to revel in the campiness of the place known campus-wide as “the gas station.”

1962—Prospect House. Johnson and Lewis describe Prospect as “a timid step” by then President Baxter in the direction of modernism.

1963—Fitch Hall (Berkshire Hall) (basement renovation). The renovation created social spaces as part of the Sawyer administration’s conversion of the existing dormitory into an enhanced residential group. The authors do not comment further.

1963—Driscoll Dining Hall. Johnson and Lewis have good things to say about this circular building: “Driscoll was, thanks to Sawyer’s influence, the first really modern building on campus and really the only one to owe a considerable debt to Frank Lloyd Wright.” They write that the rough-cut limestone exterior cladding “created sort of a primitive fortress at what was then at the edge of campus.” They admire the wooded views from the windows, and note that “…the dining rooms provide a pleasant atmosphere for eating in the serene but cozy enclosure of the circles.”

1965—Greylock Quadrangle. The construction of this new complex of multiple residential houses and a dining hall/classroom building reflected the clear line of demarcation between the fraternity and post-fraternity eras at Williams. The project itself posed the site challenge of the steep eastward slope of land toward the theater. The authors compliment Benjamin Thompson, the principal designer, for “arrang[ing] L-shaped towers in an irregular pattern that did not create an actual quadrangle but the feeling of an irregular, relaxed enclosure without closing off views to the surrounding countryside. … This may be the most satisfying outdoor space ever built on the campus; it encloses but never entraps.” The buildings are described as “boxy,” with their “brick-bearing walls supporting reinforced concrete lintels on the exterior.” They add: “Thompson had picked up [Walter] Gropius’s technique of designing flat-roofed, asymmetrical buildings, exemplified by the famous Bauhaus (1926) in Dessau, Germany.” Both the stylistic elements and the layout of the Greylock Quad were certainly revolutionary for Williams College at the time, and the same style of design later appeared in the Bronfman Science building.

1968—Bronfman Science Center building (demolished 2018). The concept of Bronfman—an interdisciplinary center to coordinate the teaching of the sciences—was first proposed by a faculty committee and then championed by President Sawyer. The result was the work of Benjamin Thompson. His challenge was not to overwhelm the existing science quad. In the opinion of Johnson and Lewis, Thompson’s brilliant solution was to break the apparent size of the building down into asymmetrical masses that advance and recede on both the east and west sides.” Their further comment: “Bronfman was a superb lesson in how to make a new building, uncompromising in its fit into an old situation.” They note: “The library was one of the best ‘modern’ spaces on campus, with expansive views north toward Main Street through a two-story wall of glass extended in a dramatic cantilever from the main mass. … A delightful surprise on the top floor of the south wing was the circular skylights, painted taxi-cab yellow, that emphatically brought the color of the sun down into narrow corridors on gloomy winter days.”

1969—Lansing Chapman Hockey Rink (enclosure of the ends). As the authors commented, the rink was a wind tunnel, and finally enclosing it was “much to the relief of both the players and fans.”

One other appraisal from the book: Dodd House (ca. 1869) will serve as the headquarters for our 55th class reunion in 2023. Regarding this building they commented: “In good Victorian fashion, the house of Cyrus Morris Dodd [professor of mathematics] meandered playfully, offering playful bits of incident in its dormers, balconies, and chimneys.”

In the 1960s and beyond, Whitney Stoddard was the leader of the campus forces urging that the college move in new architectural directions. His vision of what good institutional architecture can and should be lives on in the commentary of Eugene Johnson and Michael Lewis.

Professor Stoddard and President Sawyer together pushed the envelope during our college years, in the face of opposition of some members of the Williams community. It is fascinating to revisit the new buildings of those days now, in excellent academic company.

-Bob Heiss

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