Papers from Fiske Kimball: Creator of an American Architecture
A Symposium held at the School of Architecture,
University of Virginia, 19 November 1995
This paper appeared in the Colonial Williamsburg Research Review (Vol. VI, No. 1, 1995/96)
For Williamsburg storytellers, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and the visionary Dr. W. A.R. Goodwin have personified the restoration of Virginia's colonial capital. Next tier down in the cast of heroes are the Boston architects William G. Perry, Thomas Mott Shaw and Andrew H. Hepburn, who directed the formative stages of the restoration.1
If the contributions of others are less familiar, they were in some cases no less important. Prominent among these was Fiske Kimball, the first scholar to bring vigorous analysis to the study of early American buildings. Kimball's methods are epitomized by his 1916 book on Thomas Jefferson, Architect and his 1922 survey Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies and of the Early Republic. 2
As a practictioner, he was involved in many restorations of 18th- and early 19th-century American buildings, restorations that now elicit mixed reviews. At his best, he had a precise comprehension of historical evidence and the strength of will to make a well-articulated position stick. Both talents played a very useful role in the formative stages of the Williamsburg restoration.
Rockefeller approached the undertaking in a managerial style, seeking advice from the most respected specialists in various fields, architecture being the chief emphasis. At a time when the nature of the Williamsburg venture was still being defined, Fiske Kimball's advice was critically important. By the late 1920s, Kimball had left his position as dean of the fledgling architecture school at the University of Virginia and had begun what would be a long tenure as director of the Pennsylvania Museum of Art, now the Philadelphia Museum. He had also been one of several respected architects who reviewed William G. Perry's initial restoration prosposals before Rockefeller agreed to support the effort. 3 By October 7, 1927, Perry had shown his plans to Kimball as well as to architect Charles Platt. 4 In November, Kimball and Perry convened to review drawings again--this time at the Vanderbilt Hotel in New York. Characteristically, Kimball wrote a forceful letter to Goodwin the same day, enthusiastically supporting the proposed restoration:
I want to tell you before I go home what a privilege it has been for me to see the drawings for the resurrection of Colonial Williamsburg, and how much fired I am with enthusiasm for your wonderful project. Williamsburg in its heyday, with the College, Governor's Palace, and the old Capitol must have been a vision of Colonial beauty, and all this will live again if the designs you showed me can be carried out. 5
This was not, however, an uncritical endorsement, for Kimball proceeded to set down the rules that should govern such an enterprise:
From what you tell me, I judge the work will conform to the best principles of restoration, namely: (1) Reverently to preserve every vestige of the old where it suvives, preferably on its original site; (2)where it does not, to exhaust first every vestige of evidence as to what the old was actually like; (3) where this evidence does not suffice, to work scrupulously in the style of the very time and place, yet with artistic sensitiveness. 6
Here Kimball articulated the very principles and objectives that Perry, Shaw and Hepburn were to espouse in subsequent years. He also exhorted prospective participants to prepare themselves for the work of restoration by studying local examples of early building, and expressed his hope that Goodwin's singular "tact and persistence" would rally support "among men of insight and imagination." 7
On November 21st, Rockefeller met Goodwin at the Vanderbilt to review preliminary restoration drawings for the town and for the main building at the College of William and Mary. On the basis of this conference, Rockefeller authorized Goodwin to proceed with the work.
To review subsequent plans for the restoration and indemnify the project against criticism, the Rockefeller organization soon created a number of advisory committees consisting of recognized authorities in various fields. The Architects Advisory Committee was the most important of these, and Kimball was the dominant member. Clearly he relished this role and was particularly adept at deflecting the arguments of the committee's lesser lights. 8 While all members were concerned with aesthetics, Edmund Campbell and Thomas E. Talmadge were more willing than most to sacrifice historical veracity for the sake of a pleasing design. Kimball was an indispensible counterbalance to these members.
Planning a credible restoration of William and Mary's main building was fraught with political problems, given the influence of Virginia's Art Commission and of the college administration, each with its own agenda. There was, for example, indisputable evidence for a narrow, single-bay pavilion at the front of the so-called Wren Building in the 18th century, and a scrawny cupola above it. Campbell argued that friends knowledgeable in early American design would think him unschooled if the board approved re-creation of this awkward design, and he dug in for a lengthy fight in defense of his aesthetic preferences. Campbell's view created a problem of some consequence due to his chairmanship of the Art Comission and his position as a member of the Architects' Advisory Committee. 9
Kimball emboldened the Boston partners with clearheaded arguments for following the evidence:
You are proposing to widen this pavilion by several bays, and to give a low pediment, so as to [bring] it supposedly more in line with some of Sir Christopher Wren's collegiate buildings in England. I cannot too strongly express my hope that this will not be done. To take an old building and under the guise of restoration, change a surviving feature into something entirely different, seems to me wholly unjustifiable... 10
The subject was referred to the executive committee of the advisory architects, and on May 29-30, 1929, Kimball met with Robert Bellows and Milton B. Medary, along with Perry and Goodwin to hash things out. Three alternatives were defined:
The issue was a contentious one, and all three members of the executive committee submitted their own versions of the proceedings to Perry before the final minutes were written. Again Kimball was the most articulate, arguing that the first alternative was "contrary to the principals of restoration, involving an entire sacrifice of the local character and individuality of the work as Virginia building," while the second would violate important 18th-century additions. Only the third option, he observed, commanded "an adequate body of evidence." 11 Campbell remained unconvinced, and ultmately Virginia Governor Harry F. Byrd had to muscle him aside. 12
Certainly Kimball's logic could be less crystalline when evidence seemed ambiguous or the situation lay beyond his experience. Carl Lounsbury has shown how Rockefeller's architects convinced themselves that the 1707-05 capitol had symmetrical five-bay elevations facing east and west in spite of overwhelming archaeological evidence for asymmetrical facades. 13 Again there was heated debate, this time pitting the Association for the Preservation of Virginian Antiquities and later Goodwin against the architects and their advisors. The amateurs argued passionately for application of the physical evidence in re-creating these secondary elevations, while the professionals insisted, with ahistorical assurance, that "This seems to any architecturally trained mind impossible, as architects in 1700 or before were as little likely to that as architects would be today." 14
This time Kimball weighed in to push aside the arguments of William and Mary librarian E.G. Swem, who spoke for the APVA. On December, 3, 1930, Kimball made the motion to accept Perry, Shaw and Hepburn's symmetrical design, and the committee unanimously agreed, sacrificing "local character and individuality" as surely as Campbell had tried to do at the opposite end of the street. 15
Kimball was not consistently blinded by classical sensibilities. In 1932 he led the critique of a grand Beaux-Arts scheme for the Palace compound developed by construction supervisor and would-be architect A. Gary Lambert. At the committee's October meeting, Lambert presented his plan, which employed speculative geometric methods to achieve a symmetrical disposition of buildings and parterres. While Perry and other members acquiesced, Kimball ascerbically noted the absence of any evidence for geomentric exercises and reminded the committee of clear archaelogical indications that ancillary buildings and work areas were not so formally arranged:
...you have to ignore the plan of the existing kitchen and scullery and put in buildings of which there is no vestige on the grounds. You supply this entirely out of whole cloth and this is a building outside the line which both the Frenchman and ourselves believe to be inside. The arbitrary assumptions are sufficient to destroy what they produce. You can prove its complete correction by sufficient imagining buildings and disregarding buildings that were known to exist. 16
Confronted by Kimball and by evidence form the site, members overcame their architectural training and rejected Lambert's plan. Yet Kimball is the only member whose voice comes through the records as actively opposing Lambert's scheme.
Campbell and Lambert had something of a soulmate in Thomas Tallmadge, who argued that the use of Jefferson's measured plan from the Governor's Palace would result in stairs more at home in a modern schoolhouse than a great colonial edifice.17 Having studied Jefferson's drawings intensively, Kimball was surely among the warmest and most effective advocates for following that crucial document.
Kimball's writings on early American architecture reveal an ability to weigh documentary and physical evidence and to argue persuasively from the data. In debates about restoration, however, it was personal style as much as this expertise that made him such a formidble advocate. Years later, Walter Macomber, the Williamsburg Restoration's first Resident Architect characterized Kimball as having "a Prussian attitude and bearing...crew cut...big jowls and big belly, long legs; really he looked almost like a cartoon and a voice that sounded like a foghorn." 18 The give and take of discourse within a group--a committee--was the ideal vehicle for drawing out and making the most of Kimball's knowledge, analytical capacity, and leadership. Some of his own missteps in later restorations may reflect a dearthof such debate as well as the absence of a professional staff on site to implement his best ideas. In Williamsburg, the Artchitects' Advisory Committee gave both crediblity and direction to the project, at a time when the outcome was far less inevitable than it now seems. To Kimball then belongs much, perhaps most, of the credit for steering the restoration on an intellectually defensible course. 19
The authors acknowledge the contribution of documentary material from Thomas H. Taylor and George Yetter.
1Portraits of these principals hang along with those of landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff and the Foundation presidents in the Colonial Williamsburg boardroom.
2Thomas Jefferson, Architect (Boston: Riverside Press, 1916); Domestic Architecture (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1922).
3 Rockefeller wrote to Goodwin on May 24, 1927, enumerating steps that should be taken without committing to restoration of the town. Among these was that Perry, Shaw, and Hepburn should prepare restoration drawings for the Wren Building in order that "they can be satisfactorily studied and criticized by leading colonial architects and art critics, whose judgments as to the final form which the rebuilt structure should take may be deemed the best obtainable in this country..." (Rockefeller to Goodwin, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Archives [CWFA]).
4 Platt to Goodwin, August 4, 1927, CWFA.
5 Kimball and Goodwin, November 19, 1927, CWFA.
7 Because the architects chosen to implement Rockefeller's restoration were deeply sympathetic to this proposition, field investigation became--and to this day remains--an importnat aspect of the effort to recreate Virginia's 18th-century capital. Kimball to Goodwin, from Vanderbilt Hotel, New York, November 19, 1927, transcribed in Elizabeth Hayes, "Background and Beginnings of the Restoration," CWF, 1933, p. 133. Goodwin had written to Rockefeller and R.W. Gumbel reporting that Perry would have "a final conference with Mr. Fiske Kimball of Philadelphia who is one of the most competent Colonial architects in America, and is enthusiastically interested in the work with which Mr. Perry is doing." Goodwin to Gumbel, from Williamsburg, November 14, 1927, Rockefeller Archive Center, Pocantico Hills, New York.
8 Rockefeller and Kenneth Chorley compiled a short list of town planners, architectural scholars, and construction firms for Williamsburg project president Arthur Woods on January 26, 1928: "In making inquiries as to who are best informed on Colonial architecture I am told that Fiske Kimball has done more research work and is probably better informed on this subject than anyone else." Chorley to Woods, CWFA. Also see W.A.R. Goodwin to Woods, August 6, 1928, CWFA. The initial and most active tenure for the committee was 1928-35.
9 The great Campbell affair is detailed by Charles B. Hosmer, Jr., in Preservation Comes of Age (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1981), v.2, pp. 966-71. Much of Campbell's and Kimball's roles are revealed in their respective correspondence, Edmund S. Campbell Papers, box 45, "William and Mary College: Wren/Spottswood Building, 1928-30," Alderman Library, University of Virginia.
10 Kimball to Perry, Shaw and Hepburn, March 13, 1929, Campbell Collection, ibid.
11 Untitled minutes by Kimball, Architects Advisory Committee file, CWFA. Kimball and other executive committee members also objected to destruction of the foundations for the original pavilion that alternative 1 would have involved.
12 Campbell to J.A.C. Chandler, July 30, 1929; Campbell to Robert P. Bellows, Fiske Kimball, and R.E. Lee Taylor, August 8, 1929, Campbell Collection, ibid.
13 Carl R. Lounsbury, "Beaux-Arts Ideals and Colonial Reality: The Reconstruction of Williamsburg's Capitol, 1928-34," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 49, no. 4 (December 1990), pp. 373-89.
14 Harold Shurtleff to W.A.R. Goodwin, April 16, 1932, CWFA.
15 Meeting of Advisory Committee of Architects, Minutes, December 2-3, 1930, CWFA, pp 6-8.
16 Meetings of Advisory Committee of Architects, Minutes, October 27-28, 1932, P. 10, CWFA.
17 Tallmadge to Perry, Shaw and Hepburn, November 2, 1932, P.S. and H. Papers, CWFA; Shaw to Tallmadge, December 7, 1932, ibid. Goodwin had actually offered Tallmadge the commission ultimately given to Perry, Shaw and Hepburn, but fortunately the Chicago architect had declined, explaining that he was at work on his book The Story of Architecture in America (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1927). Tallmadge later fell into disfavor with the Williamsburg planners when he attempted to cop their designs for a scaled-down colonial townscape he prepared for the 1934 "Century of Progress Exposition" in Chicago.
18 Walter M. Macomber, interview with Chappell and Wenger, Stratford, Virginia, August 21, 1981. More personal were Marie Goebel Kimball's acknowledgment of Fiske's contribution at the beginning of her book Jefferson, The Road to Glory (New York: Coward-McCann, 1943) noting that "he has made her fight, bleed and die for her opinions." Thomas Waterman's niece describes the friends Kimball and Waterman with his puckish sense of humor--must have been an amusing one as they clambered over ruins..." Fay Campbell Kaynor, "Thomas Tileston Waterman: Student of American Colonial Architecture", Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 20, nos. 2-3 (1985), p. 117.
19 Perry acknowledged that the committee "Laid down ground rules in the early days of 1928 before the architects could go far astray." William Graves Perry, "Notes on the Architecture," Architectural Record, V. 78, no. 6 (December, 1935), p. 363.