Papers from Fiske Kimball: Creator of an American Architecture
A Symposium held at the School of Architecture,
University of Virginia, 19 November 1995
I look to you to accomplish some high and noble service through your disciplined powers--to become a leader in America's renaissance, not only in art but in all civic improvement. If you can discipline your will as well as your intellect, you must surely succeed.
Thus wrote Edwin Kimball to his son, Fiske, in 1908, on the occasion of Fiske's twentieth birthday. I can think of no better way to open this symposium which recognizes the achievements of the man that Thomas Waterman called "the Dean of architectural history in America."
Sidney Fiske Kimball was born in 1888 in Brighton, Massachusetts. His father was a devoted school teacher and headmaster, with a deep faith in the value of education. The Kimball family traces its ancestry in America to Richard Kimball, an immigrant to Massachusetts in 1636.
Fiske prepared himself in high school for an engineering career, but after starting at MIT, he soon transferred to Harvard College, where he graduated, with highest final honors, and immediately entered the Harvard Architectural School in 1909, a year after receiving his father's letter. Kimball's degree work at Harvard is notable for the many honors, scholarships and prizes he received. He was appointed as an assistant to George Chase, professor of architecture, to teach the history of art. In 1912, Kimball received his master's in architecture from Harvard. The thesis project Kimball prepared for his master's degree demonstrates the Beaux-Arts system of education modeled by Harvard. Its title, "A Palace for the Governor of Panama and for the Guests of the Nation," is typical of the grandiose Beaux-Arts program, and underlines the nationalism and imperialism prevalent in America at the turn of the century. Evident in the design are the principals of orthogonal axes organizing procession and hierarchical spaces, both outside and inside, all dressed in classical forms. At twenty-four years of age, Kimball was a very capable classical architect in the best tradition of the American Renaissance. Kimball fully believed the architectural designs that resulted from applying the Beaux-Arts design system produced an architecture that was vitally modern and uniquely American. In a 1913 policy statement he drafted for the University of Illinois, where he taught just after graduating from Harvard, Kimball writes:
The problem in the architectural course [here at the University of Illinois] has been to effect a transformation parallel to the almost miraculous evolution which American architecture has undergone in the last two decades as the crown of a new material civilization. From tasteless copyism jerry-building and patchwork, has emerged an architecture of truly classical purity, dignity, and breadth. Those who condemn much of this architecture as imitative and exotic, forget the fundamental unity of our culture with that of Europe, and forget likewise the inevitable fusion of the derived elements in a new whole, already recognizable as characteristically American.
From his Harvard graduation in 1912 until the late 1930's Kimball played an active role in the development of modern American architecture, both as a practicing architect and as a critic. During this time he served as an instructor in architecture at the Universities of Illinois and Michigan from 1912 to 1919, as chairman of the architecture department here at U.Va.. from 1919 to 1923, and as director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1925 to early 1955. He died later that same year.
In his small, but not insignificant, architectural practice Kimball covered a range of building types including residential, commercial, institutional, and historic restorations.
This 1915 residential development of Scottwood in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is his first important commission. A total of eight residences were organized upon a triangular shaped parcel that formerly was an orchard. In the matter of style, Kimball described his effort as "a general adherence to motifs freely derived from colonial architecture." But he is every bit the classicist in the application of these motifs, as seen in these floor plans for the lead home.
Here at the University of Virginia, Kimball was involved with many building projects including Memorial Gymnasium, Faculty Apartments, and the Amphitheater. Of special interest is his unbuilt design for an engineering school behind the Amphitheater, actually somewhat similar to the recently completed Darden School by Michael Graves that now occupies the same site. Both designs present a subdued classical building that incorporates a colonnade walkway bridging the space between Cabell and Minor Halls.
Symmetry, balance and unity were Kimball's design tools with which he joined geometric forms into simple patterns; his definition of the art of architecture as the "organization of form." An unpublished 1922 letter to a client clearly describes the qualities of his design. These same qualities can be viewed in this original design for Shack Mountain, the summer home Fiske and his wife Marie built outside of Charlottesville in 1937:
The effort has been to achieve the greatest beauty of form, without sacrificing convenience. Thus, for instance, I have endeavored to give the rooms themselves beauty and variety of shape. So, too, I have sought to make every room and every wall regular and symmetrical, so that wherever you look everything will balance and harmonize It is hopeless to achieve the finest results in interior decoration without such balance in the openings of-wall spaces.
While Shack Mountain today seems so sure and appropriate for its site, the design actually evolved through a complicated series of reconfigurations due to budget considerations. As first conceived the house terminated the approach drive through the woods. This created a distinctive wooded side of the house for the approach, and an open field for the opposite side; similar to Monticello. When the cost of this scheme proved too great, Kimball devised a multi-phased scheme based upon the same alignment, with the intention of building only the east wing at first. Construction of this scheme had begun before a revised cost was prepared and, once again, proved higher than expected. Kimball halted construction to prepare yet a third set of working drawings. As he wrote to R.E. Lee, the local contractor:
Essentially we have too much equipment in too little house. I have sketched a new plan with the same equipment, but enclosing a little more room. This one would do for good, if it has to.
Thus Shack Mountain's final orientation, perpendicular to the entry drive and straddling the edge between field and woods, represents a change from the original intent. In the completed house, the influence of Jeffersonian classicism is unmistakable. Kimball went so far as to write his specifications requiring replication of Jeffersonian features: "mortar joints to match Farmington; wood moldings, doors and windows to match the University." This is the dining room's octagonal end showing another Jefferson influence in the three sash windows.
The Beaux-Arts characteristics of balance, harmony and unity formed Kimball's sensibilities at Harvard and, thereafter, structured his relationship with the built environment.
In 1912, before graduating from Harvard, Kimball agreed to write a book on the history of architecture, which was not completed until 1918. His investigative research in American architecture led Kimball to discover several hundred original drawings by Thomas Jefferson at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Eventually these drawings were published in his 1916 book, Thomas Jefferson Architect. Kimball's interpretation of Jefferson's original contribution to American architecture draws the radical conclusion that Jefferson is the "father of our classical architecture." Jefferson's architectural ability, much less his preeminence in this profession, was unknown by contemporary historians. And the existence of an identifiable American classicism, worthy of fathering, was totally without precedent and in fact contradicted many contemporary opinions.
The Virginia Capitol in Richmond, designed by Jefferson in 1785, is designated by Kimball as "the first monument of the classical revival in America." In its pure Roman temple form, and the revered governmental function that form housed, the Capitol made a bold, original statement toward inspiring a national architecture. In a 1915 article Kimball states:
Though impressions of Europe had doubtless accentuated his native classical learning, the fundamental character of the design is not to be ascribed to European influence. Jefferson's provincial insistence on the support of classic authority anticipated by twenty years the attempt of Napoleon to gain the same sanction for his own Empire. Not merely in America, but in the development of modern classic architecture as a whole, the Virginia Capitol is a landmark of the first importance.
In contrast, the standard histories of American architecture in the early twentieth century focused on the nation's colonial architecture as the only style deserving critical attention. Two of the more popular histories were written by Montgomery Schuyler and Harold Eberlein, Arts and Crafts advocates drawn to colonial architecture by its supposed virtues of craftsmanship, individualism, and material honesty. Kimball claimed that colonial architecture was merely a watered down, provincial copy of European prototypes:
In truth the classic revival was as compelling and universally accepted in its day as great artistic movements of any earlier time. It cannot be questioned, moreover, that it met a real need in American architecture, -which the naive and delicate Colonial style could never have satisfied. ...A truly American movement in architectural style appeared only after the Revolution...
Kimball had a compelling reason to correct what he believed to be the misunderstood promotion of colonial architecture. By asserting the international significance of America's classical revival, and establishing its intellectual roots in nationalism, Kimball provides the defense for America's "second classical revival," the American Renaissance classicism of his own day. He argues that the currently popular American Renaissance style is not an importation of foreign models, as maintained by its opponents, but actually the fulfillment of America's architectural legacy. The superiority of America's early twentieth century classicism over European examples is evidence of an inherent native ability.
This second classical revival in America, it must be recognized, has little contemporary parallel abroad...While the rest of the world is seeking, in one way or another, new forms expressive of the novel elements of modern life, [America's] insistence on the traditional authority of the past can be adequately explained only by the unparalleled heritage of classical monuments from the formative period of the nation. Thus the founders of the Republic might seem for the moment to have achieved their aim of establishing classical architecture as a permanent national style.
Well, of course, as we all know classicism did not carry the day as America's "permanent national style." When, in 1928, Kimball wrote that the struggle in this country's modern architecture was between the structural expressiveness of Sullivan and Wright, and the abstract forms of classicism, little did he suspect that four years latter MoMA's International Style exhibit would alone change the face of American architecture. As our architects embraced the International Style in the 1930's, Kimball warned against the superficial copying of alien forms. Eventually conceding the defeat of classicism he threw his support behind Frank Lloyd Wright, choosing a home-grown product over the foreign.
Of the men working in the world today, I cannot help feeling personally that Frank Lloyd Wright is the one who shows us the way ...Along the way of imitation, no more is to be achieved by following 'modern' forms, created by others than ourselves, than is to be achieved by following traditional forms....Thus the current following of the so-called 'International Style' is merely a new form of academism,, no better than the old.
With the International Style revolution in the 1930's, Kimball found himself outside the course of modern American architecture. He gradually withdrew from architectural criticism and outside design commissions, to concentrate instead on his work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and research in French rococo architecture.
He would no longer be a force in modern American architecture in his lifetime.