A Tale of Two Dartmouths

The building you’re most likely to encounter before stepping foot on the hallowed grounds of Dartmouth is Baker library. However, the building you’re going to first see right off the Dartmouth Coach isn’t going to be the Georgian-style Baker tower, but the Hopkins Center for the Arts. This is a tale of two Dartmouths — one which valued tradition, and one that wanted to turn its head on it.

HOPKINS AND LARSON
Ernest Martin Hopkins (Class of 1901) — after whom the Hop is named — was responsible for the magnificent edifice that is Baker. When he became President, the library was housed in the basement of Wilson Hall, which was certainly a source of embarrassment for him. Apart from the physical constraints of having such a small library, the campus lacked a major visual focus point, despite the rebuilding of Dartmouth Hall and the addition of Parkhurst, Robinson, McNutt, and Webster Halls. Perhaps Hopkins’ most sizeable and physical aspects of his legacy was not that he guided the College through both the World Wars and a period of rapid expansion of both its size and reputation — but his hiring of Jens Frederick Larson as resident architect (and later, master planner) in 1919.

Larson was a prolific fighter pilot, having shot down nine German aircraft in the First World War — and survived a duel with the Red Baron himself! When a flying injury left him out of commission and unable to fly, Larson found solace in architecture. In 1919, shortly after he was discharged from the Royal Flying Corps, he moved to New Hampshire, and soon after he found himself in the employ of the College. Larson’s style of architecture is unmistakably neoclassical, much like Walter Beach Humphrey’s style. However, this neoclassicism isn’t the same as the high-brow Greco-Roman neoclassicism that Washington D.C. exhibits; it is in the style of Georgian architecture.

In many ways, Larson was the ideal Dartmouth man. He was respectful of tradition and of going back to one’s roots. His brick lacked pretension, and projected an outward show of strength that contrasted with the warmth of the interiors of his buildings — look no further than the cozy confines of Sanborn. He was able to take a principled stand against the forces of Modernism, that later wreaked havoc upon the campus — look no further than the Choates, an unmitigated disaster in student housing that was brought forth with John Sloan Dickey’s presidency and its radical embrace of modernism. Larson worked to expand the boundaries of the campus, creating the Gile-Steeter-Lord complex, along with the Tuck building at the cul-de-sac at the end of Tuck Drive, which he was also responsible for constructing and designing in its entirety.

But, for a minute, let’s go back to the Dartmouth of 1918. It simply lacked the old world charm of other college campuses of a similar vintage. The entire row of buildings — Reed, Thornton, and Dartmouth Hall — lacked the particularity to make any of them iconic, not to mention the fact that they were all in need of serious repair, in one way or another. Larson’s task was to create a campus out of a town. Despite the existence of master plans for campus development since the 1895, the lack of visual coherence was startling.

Larson’s articulation of Dartmouth’s identity was radical in that it looked to the past for answers in an age where everyone wanted to look toward the future. Baker was the capstone of his architectural masterplan. Its powerful and forceful presence projected forth a new Dartmouth, one that was ready to go beyond a reputation of drunkenness in the wilderness and embrace serious academic study in addition to the aforementioned activities. The College raised a million dollars to pay for the library — the largest capital campaign it had undertaken. Originally meant to be called Sanborn, a significantly larger grant from the Baker family ultimately pushed Sanborn Library into Sanborn House, which, along with Carpenter Hall, were designed as pendants to Baker and completed a year after the main library was finished in 1928.

Nathaniel Woodrich, the Librarian of the College, was so moved at the dedication of the Tower Room, that he launched into a long speech, reminiscent of Robin William’s portrayal of John Keating in Dead Poets Society. “No rules or restrictions are posted here. It is assumed that the room and its contents will be regarded as one would the library of one’s club. It is possible that in after years some students may feel that in this room were spent some of the most valued hours of their college life. Now and then during the winter, poetry or prose is read aloud here by members of the faculty, with lights dim, the fire glowing, and coffee served in the background.” Larson intended for the library to be a home away from home for the entire Dartmouth community, and not just a gigantic home for the tomes that filled its shelves.

Larson, too, was touched by the library. He said, “They believed that to surround young men with beauty is good.” Such a notion, not unfounded in many a neoclassicist, relies on trust. Students were to be treated not as old teenagers but as young adults, and therefore they deserved to be let loose in this Georgian wonderland of Larson’s creation. Larson was the living embodiment of the Winkelmannian notion of “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur,” which has long been a guiding force for fellow neoclassicists ever since Johann Winkelmann wrote those words in his 1755 masterpiece, Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture. It is unknown whether Larson ever read Winkelmann, but he did live a life the latter would have been proud of.


DICKEY’S FLIRTATIONS WITH MODERNISM

One of the first things that John Sloan Dickey (Class of 1929) did when he assumed his presidency was preside over the unceremonious dismissal of the great man who had given his life to improving Dartmouth’s architecture — Jens Frederick Larson. Dickey, while a Dartmouth man, was cut from a different cloth than his predecessor, Hopkins. At this stage it will become fair to mention that the Soviet Union, now America’s Public Enemy #1, was a stringent proponent of the mimetic, so the ‘American’ reaction was to embrace abstraction and modernism. Why, is surprising, even though the modernists were bedfellows with the fascists — see no further than the Italian Rationalists, who were bedfellows with the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

Yet, Dickey had made his choice. Tasked with reviving a College that had been converted to a military campus through the V-2 programme back to a civilian campus, Dickey also had to embark on significant construction efforts to embrace all the men that the GI Bill bought to Dartmouth. He hired Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich in 1957. Aldrich’s cousin, Nelson Rockefeller (Class of 1930), chaired the building committee, and it is highly likely that Rockefeller and Dickey knew each other well during their time at the College, having been only a year apart. Rockefeller, like Dickey, was an avowed modernist, and served as chairman and trustee of the Museum of Modern Art.

Aldrich conspired with Rockefeller to get Wallace Harrison to design the Hop, which, in my opinion, was and remains to this day an unmitigated disaster. The arcade on the front façade facing the green is cold and lacks any sense of familiarity, and it is highly unlike anything that Larson would have remotely thought of. The back of Spaulding is now “beautified” with large blocks of colour termed Dartmouth Panels by its “artist,” Ellsworth Kelly. Yet, this does nothing to change the fact that it looks like the rear of a warehouse that reeks of forced beautification. With no visual links to the rest of campus, except the Choates, and now the ugly monstrosity that the Cube is, the Hop is a lonely edifice, an outlier, in a campus masterfully curated and crafted for generations of Dartmouth men and women.


 

Harrison, Aldrich, Rockefeller, and Dickey are great examples of Dartmouth men who turned their back on tradition at a college whose rallying cry is “Lest the old traditions fail.” These oracles of modernism tried their experiment in the wrong place — Larson’s Lab. Larson very rightly pointed out that “If there is any institution in modern life which cannot cast off the past, which must be built upon the treasures of its rich inheritance, it is the college.” Even though he was no Son of Dartmouth, in spirit and mind he most certainly was, and for that generation after generation will be ever grateful to him. I am — I wrote this article with research done in the Sherman library in Carpenter, in Baker’s Tower Room, and in the cozy confines of my room in the Gile-Streeter-Lord complex on Tuck Drive — all three designed by the genius.