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Walker Art Building
McKIM, MEAD AND WHITE
In April 1891 President Hyde's mind was firmly fixed on science facilities for Bowdoin. Also in April of 1891 the minds of the Misses Harriet Sarah and Mary Sophia Walker were firmly fixed on giving a building to Bowdoin College exclusively for art. On August 1, 1891, President Hyde informally and graciously accepted their gift. The Governing Boards met September 17 to vote acceptance formally. President Hyde would have almost a year to wait for a science building.
The Misses Walker had turned to William Northend, class of 1848, a lawyer of Salem, Massachusetts, and an Overseer of the College. Mr. Northend was a friend of Henry Johnson, class of 1874, professor of modern languages at Bowdoin from 1877 until his death in 1918. Johnson also served as librarian from 1880 to 1885, as curator of the art collection from 1881 to 1887 and from 1892 to 1914, and as director of the art museum from 1914 to 1918. As early as 1885, Northend had expressed to Johnson his interest in the collection and his abiding concern for the welfare of the College. Northend, whose notes are sprightly and always written in haste, corresponded also with George T. Little, Henry Johnson's assistant librarian from 1883 to 1885 and his successor as librarian until 1915, curator of the art collection between 1887 and 1892, and a friend of Northend's son.
The art collection was a source of both pride and anxiety from the earliest days of the College. James Bowdoin III had left the College European and American paintings and copies of paintings as well as a rich deposit of European drawings. Later, Bowdoin family portraits painted in America were added. Rarely was there a boards meeting or any other official gathering at which the collection, its care and possible exhibition, were not mentioned. The collection went from Massachusetts Hall to the old Chapel and then into the new Chapel. During its lengthy construction, Memorial Hall was frequently mentioned as yet a fourth site for the collection.
President Woods charged Richard Upjohn with providing space for the collection in the new Chapel. Old photographs of the chapel gallery reveal the walls covered with paintings at least three deep and floor space given over to plaster copies of Greek and Roman sculpture.
In 1885 Professor Henry Johnson published a list of the drawings in the collection. This list was the first part of a catalogue of the collections. President Hyde sent a copy to Charles Eliot Norton, an influential professor of art history at Harvard, who graciously responded to Johnson.1 The catalogue was doubtless a preliminary move in the campaign to get an art building for Bowdoin.
Northend had been trying to find funding for an art building for many years. In a letter to Johnson of July 14, 1891, he says:
I probably differ from many in regard to the utility of the work. I believe the future will prove that the building and contents will be of great practical use to the College besides adding much to its attractions. It has been a hobby of mine for many years and I am delighted that the work, almost Providentially, is to be completed. It must be more than ten years ago I first suggested it to Mr. Walker, and have never forgotten it when I met him.2
Theophilus Wheeler Walker was a first cousin of Leonard Woods and the donor of $1,000 for the completion of the Chapel. He was a successful merchant, shipper, and entrepreneur, in business with his younger brother, Nathaniel. He never married and left a large share of his fortune and his house, Gore Place, in Waltham, Massachusetts, to two of his nieces, Harriet Sarah and Mary Sophia Walker. It was not many months after his death in 1890 that the Misses Walker were corresponding with Mr. Northend.
The knowledge and taste of the Walker sisters is evident; their education and lives are still mysterious. They lived part of the year on Beacon Street, they collected paintings and objects of various sorts, and they knew exactly whom to choose as architect for the new building.
Before writing to Charles Follen McKim of the architectural firm McKim, Mead and White, the Misses Walker and Mr. Northend came to Brunswick, where they met President Hyde, George Little, and Henry Johnson. Clearly the purpose was to confirm the site already suggested by George Little in an early April 1891 letter to William Northend: "Build on the rise near the south end of the campus a structure that would be the architectural feature of the college grounds."3 The site was chosen with as much care as that of the Chapel. It is difficult to ignore either the symbolic importance of the rising ground or the isolation from other buildings. Searles followed quickly, but was still set apart from the art building. Had there been any question about the configuration the campus was to assume, the quadrangle was settled in 1891.
Harriet and Sophia Walker were equal partners in this extraordinary project. Harriet wrote to McKim in July of 1891 outlining the program they wanted:
My sister and I wish to carry out our uncle's thought by erecting and dedicating to his memory a building which shall be entirely devoted to art. Most of the Art Galleries in this country seem most unhappy in their treatment, not in the least in harmony with the treasures they contain. Our idea is a building that shall be not only appropriate as a memorial, but will also show the purpose for which it is to be used-We thought of a fireproof building of one story, of course upon a raised foundation or basement. The effect in color to be light—.4
McKim was delighted to accept the commission. He wrote on August 10 from the steamer City of Paris:
I have never been to Bowdoin nor do I remember to have heard its buildings described but assuming them to be similar in character to those of other early New England Colleges, it is pleasant to reflect that, however simple, a balanced and symmetrical design will be more likely to be at home amongst them, than any other.5
August 27 found George Little sending photographs of the college buildings and the First Parish Church "so that Mr. McKim may have an idea of the styles of architecture already represented."6 It is useful to reflect on the sophistication and sense of historical distance implicit in that remark. America's centennial had made retrospection possible; shortly Bowdoin's centennial would be crowned by the dedication of two new buildings.
The choice of McKim illustrates that the Walker sisters were well informed and that they were willing to pay for what most considered the best architecture available. Charles Follen McKim, by this time forty-four years old, had studied in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and had worked in Boston for Henry Hobson Richardson. Early independent McKim work reveals his debt to Richardson's aesthetic in both stone and shingle. Both Richardson and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts influenced McKim's evolution of a personal style that brought other arts into architectural planning. But McKim moved away from Richardson's palette and asymmetry to evolve an endlessly inventive classical vocabulary.
During the design and construction of the Walker Art Building, the firm was working on the Boston Public Library, the Rhode Island State House, Low Library at Columbia University, the Brooklyn Museum, and the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. They were, in effect, creating the Classical Revival in American architecture, drawing upon ancient, Renaissance, and eighteenth-century forms and plans to raise imposing structures. When Harriet Walker stipulated a light colored building and McKim responded with "a balanced and symmetrical design," all had been said.
The Walker Art Building is smaller than it looks. The facade extends one hundred feet; the height to the cornice is thirty-three feet and to the top of the dome fifty-three feet or just over one-half the length. For comparison, Searles Science Building is one hundred seventy-two feet across the facade and about seventy feet high at the gables.
McKim magnified the slight rise of the site by resting the building on a terrace, and he used the broad steps to widen, visually, the central recessed loggia that shades the entrance. With a dome narrower than the loggia, he crowned the strong central axis. Nowhere did he allow sheer mass to substitute for careful articulation. His strong stone basement rests on the terrace; above it the tripartite facade is divided by a stone stringcourse into piano nobile and attic areas. In the absence of windows, the flanking areas-the Boyd and Bowdoin galleries on the inside-are defined by inscribed plaques and rectangular niches for bronze sculptures. In the loggia the architrave above the columns continues the vertical division, while the area above holds rondels aligned with the inscribed tablets.
All accounts during construction of the building are quite specific about the materials used: the Indiana limestone, "selected brick of dark color," and the Freeport granite of the terrace. The color difference between the cold grey granite and the warmer sandy limestone was very important. Whether McKim chose brick in deference to Bowdoin's earliest buildings or in deference to the budget, he made an inspired choice. The materials—brick, limestone, granite, copper, and bronze—become decorative elements in their own right. The result is one of McKim's more decoratively restrained buildings, which bears its formality with a certain lightness.
There are many details to note: the sensuous carved volute that crowns the Palladian arch, the exterior shape of the dome with its copper crest, the clarity of the quoins, the careful shaping and fluting of the columns, and the glimpse of skylights over the galleries. In appreciating these details, the observer realizes the strong sculptural quality of this building. The recessed loggia with its play of light and shade best demonstrates McKim's sense of plasticity. In this as well as in other details, he seems more indebted to Palladio than to any other single source. McKim's is not an exact quotation, but rather displays a similar sense of proportion and a similar sense of the interaction between the structure and its surroundings.
The design of the art building included sculpture and painting as well as architecture: this integration of the arts is seen as well in the Walker Art Building's closest architectural relative, McKim's Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.
The colors McKim used on the exterior reappear in the loggia. This area was painted in a deep terra cotta with gold borders by Elmer E. Garnsey. Inside, the rotunda contains lunette murals by four of the best-known painters of the time: Elihu Vedder, Kenyon Cox, Abbott Thayer, and John La Farge. The murals are allegorical representations of Rome, Venice, Florence, and Athens, the centers of art. On the floor of the rotunda, the pavement of brick and stone continues themes begun on the exterior.
Sabatino de Angelis, a Neapolitan sculptor, made the bronze copies of the antique Sophocles on the left and Demosthenes on the right for the facade niches. The sculptors of the lions (taken from those in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence although placed in reverse directions) and the rondel busts (the Hermes of Praxiteles on the left, a Dionysus on the right, and Homer over the door) are unrecorded. A profusion of plaster casts originally filled the Sculpture Hall, as the rotunda was called when it was first built. This central space opens on the right to the Bowdoin Gallery and on the left to the Boyd Gallery. Directly across from the entrance is the oval Sophia Walker Gallery, where a bronze bas-relief portrait of Theophilus Wheeler Walker by Daniel Chester French, a friend and collaborator of Charles McKim's, is installed in the wall. The new building, of course, attracted gifts from other donors; the 1885 catalogue was followed by another in 1903. After only a few years, Henry Johnson added two recurring themes to his annual report: the necessity for thoughtful, planned growth of the collections and the need for an art history curriculum.7 The catalogue for the academic year 1912-1913 lists the first course in art history, putting Bowdoin among the first colleges to develop a curriculum for the history of art.
The dedication of the building was held in June of 1894, the College's centennial year. Plans were as careful for this event as for the whole enterprise. Martin Brimmer, longtime president of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, was invited to make the principal speech. He spoke at length about architecture and the question of styles, referred to the Puritan mistrust of art, and said: "Art is not a mere illustration of history; it is history itself in its authentic form of original documents."8
This building is a document of taste and thought that has remained virtually unchanged on the exterior. Inside, the rotunda has been repainted in close to the original color after a period of pale green, and the plaster casts are gone. The galleries are painted, lighted, and hung in the taste of today. Extensive renovations to the underground floor were carried out as part of the construction of the Visual Arts Center.
Text From: Patricia McGraw Anderson's The Architecture of Bowdoin College (Brunswick, Maine: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 1988). ©Bowdoin College.