Papers from Fiske Kimball: Creator of an American Architecture
A Symposium held at the School of Architecture,
University of Virginia, 19 November 1995
In 1982 Joseph Dye Lahendro wrote that Fiske Kimball, known by some as "the Dean of architectural history in America." was first and foremost an architect. While directing the first academic department of art and architecture at the University of Virginia, he also had the title Supervising Architect. In the latter role he left his own legacy of constructed works that have become members of the family of post Jefferson buildings surviving today. supporting Mr. Lahendro's comment. This brief address will consist of a series of observations about Kimball's architecture at the University, from thoughts about his probable intentions to present-day concerns about the buildings as historic artifacts.
When Kimball came to Charlottesville in 1919 at age thirty, he had already formulated his fundamental architectural philosophy -- that a reinvigorated classicism was the only form of modern architecture that was truly alive and mature. Late 19th and early 20th-century architectural movements of a different bent were, to him, diversions. not lasting statements about architecture for the ages. He was essentially an ally of those who, in the 1890s, looked to venerable classical European modes of planning and design as the proper idiom for the much younger American culture as it sought membership among world powers who had for centuries considered a classically-inspired Europe to be the arbiter of culture. Upon entering the realm of Thomas Jefferson he also seems to have been predisposed to interpret his role as that of inheritor and propagator of Jefferson's own very personal brand of worshipful idealism with regard to classical antiquity. Only late in life did he admit the possible genius embodied in the thinking of Frank Lloyd Wright. eschewing other protomodern or modern design philosophies. His first built essay at the University appeared at the old Anatomical Theatre, the only one of Jefferson's early academic buildings constructed entirely after his death. The plain blockish mass opened onto the street now known as McCormick Road through a simple front door. To that entrance Kimball added a shallow portico. His addition is as rich in ornamentation as Jefferson's facade was plain. To a late-20th century eye, this embellishment clearly speaks of the new architect, not the previous one. So the small essay amounts to a personal tribute to Jefferson's setting, but bellowed rather than whispered. In 1938 the Anatomical Theatre was demolished and Kimball's portico was lost in the bargain.
At about the same time Kimball completed plans for an amphitheatre just southwest of Jefferson's historic Lawn; the structure he designed was named McIntire Amphitheatre. The concept for a Greek theatre came here via Warren Manning in 1911, as he made recommendations for enlargement of the planned University setting. The architecture that gave physical reality to Manning's concept seems to have been Kimball's contribution. He borrowed heavily from the planar classical facades of two buildings built a couple of decades earlier by McKim, Mead and White just to the north and east -- Garrett Hall and Cocke Hall, respectively. The building is diminutive, not competing with its grander neighbors but echoing their simplified classical dress. Very flat pilasters march in regular cadence across a three-part mass, the middle section of which is essentially a wall against which activities occur onstage. The roof is nearly flat. Decoration is at a minimum. Perhaps the simplicity dervies in great part from the modest materials used, for the building consists of little more than hollow clay tile covered with a stucco jacket. Even so Kimball forces from this simple palette a structure that is serene. It represents very well the 20th century urge toward abstraction and simplification of the classical idiom at a time when the plastic arts in construction were becoming too expensive to be used very often, certainly in publicly supported southern schools. The building honors Kimball's role here as harbinger of a viable classicism for his own time. The amphitheatre has survived, despite decades of benign neglect and more than one attempt to remove it. Though currently in need of superficial repairs, the McIntire Amphitheatre now seems to have an assured place at the University. The other major architectural commission owing to Kimball is Memorial Gymnasium (c. 1922), so named in honor of University students and alumni who served in World War I. Its stylistic references to ancient Roman baths are clear, especially on the east and west facades. There one can find forms borne of either the Baths of Caracalla or the Baths of Diocletian -- simple geometric studies at a scale of some grandeur. Kimball seems determined to display the University of Virginia, along with the United States of America, as worthy ancestors of a rich classical heritage. Memorial Gymnasium is particularly reminiscent of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago almost thirty years before, which espoused the same design ethos.
Kimball was consciously using classicism as the true American modernism for his century. In that light it could also be considered a more matured and cosmopolitan classicism than that of Jefferson, akin to the soon to-be-erected Jefferson Memorial. His freer adaptation of classical architectural language is almost urban, as compared with Jefferson's more bucolic rendering. The strength of Kimball's design is such that it has remained largely untouched for seventy years, save for the loss of a handsome reflecting pond just east of the building.
In addition to these two major projects, records indicate that Kimball had some role in other planning efforts at the University, such as a vast but largely unexecuted revision of the territory now occupied by medical school and hospital buildings. He also made some modifications to Hotel E, one of Jefferson's early dining halls for students. Kimball and his wife lived in Hotel E for a time and he also held architecture classes there. Finally he may have been involved in the building of a faculty apartment building on Rugby Road, one of the few ventures by this University into the realm of subsidized faculty housing. In each of these cases design inspiration in Kimball's era at the University remains classicistic.
What then has been the long-term impact of Fiske Kimball as an architect at the University of Virginia? In starting the department of Art and Architecture he fulfilled the promise inherent in Jefferson's early intention to use the architecture of this place to sophisticate students in the art of living. Philosophically he propagated his version of classicism as the true American modernism of the early 20th century. This matured Jeffersonian approach, as he might have deemed it, was his form of progress toward a viable national/international vocabulary of architectural style. He probably felt that Jefferson would have understood and agreed with his flexible use of antique language in a changing world. In that sense he was not different in attitude from Stanford White, who boldly rebuilt the Rotunda in a "new and improved version" after the original burned. Neither man slavishly copied Jefferson; instead they tried to stand on his shoulders.
Today the University is taking very seriously its obligation of stewardship for Thomas Jefferson's historic Academical Village. Such respect has blossomed only during the past few decades, after more than 150 years of benign neglect. That devotion to the ethic of historic preservation is beginning to spread to buildings created by others, including those by Fiske Kimball. Though not yet as revered as the buildings created by Jefferson, these newer additions to the University's architectural heritage are reasonably secure from destruction and will, we believe, grow in perceived stature as the institution enters the next century.