A `perfect' campus setting

St. John's College's architecture is a blend of the past and today

December 15, 2006|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN REPORTER

Stately McDowell Hall, a perfectly Palladian building, and stark, modernist Mellon Hall are St. John's College's odd couple of edifices.

Separated by two centuries, both are outstanding works, according to the Council of Independent Colleges Historic Campus Architecture Project, which recently released a national inventory of significant college buildings and landscaping.

In fact, the database by the Washington-based organization lists a dozen sites at Annapolis' serene liberal arts college, among more than 4,000 significant sites nationwide. All were selected through a survey of about 370 private institutions.

Richard Ekman, president of the council, said the goal is to show how architectural and educational visions intersected in the past.

"Private colleges and universities tend to be the older ones, and their campuses can be living museums," he said. "The buildings and the physical layouts often reflected the values and philosophy of the institution."

"Access to the collection of images is a wonderful resource for everyone," Ekman added.

Notable sites at St. John's, which educates 450 undergraduates through a rarefied Great Books curriculum, include the plush 1934 Greenfield Library, which offers a duet of old and new architectural styles in the entrance and staircase leading up to the stacks, and the French Monument. The latter honors French soldiers who aided the Colonial patriots' cause and are buried on campus.

Bookending them are the college's first building, McDowell, and one of its most recent, Mellon. "Mellon is the counterpoint to the 18th-century elegance of [McDowell]," said Nicholas Maistrellis, a St. John's College faculty tutor, standing on a footpath between the two buildings. He had just spent three hours meeting one-on-one with students in Mellon Hall, stationed at a table in a glass garden room.

The college predates the American Revolution, when McDowell Hall was intended to be the Maryland governor's mansion in the 1740s. But construction stalled when public finances ran dry. Thomas Jefferson, writing in 1766, noted of the empty hull: " ... after being nearly finished, they have suffered [it] to go to ruin."

The college took over the property and completed the structure, topping it with a bell tower. The effect echoes the look of the nearby State House dome.

"It [McDowell Hall] was the whole college back then," the admissions director, John Christensen, said. "Students lived, ate and studied there."

Christensen, who co-authored a book on McDowell Hall, said its bricks, mortar, fireplaces and arched Palladian windows are not just nice Georgian visual details. Over the years, he noted, they set the scene for seminars and countless casual exchanges.

"It has great classrooms with fireplaces," he said. "It's the perfect setting, very inviting and the right size."

St. John's students lead old-fashioned lives in the classrooms, coffee shop and lofty Great Hall of McDowell Hall, at the center of the campus. During Wednesday night's "Winter Collegium" concert, a freshman chorus sang medieval chants and a piano-violin-cello trio played Mendolssohn as students crammed the second-story balcony.

"The look, the acoustics, the feel are essential to conversation and community," said Peter Kalkavage, a faculty tutor who directs the freshman chorus. Music is an important part of that.

Samantha Enns, 20, a junior preparing for the post-concert reception, said, "This building is a convergence."

The 1958 Mellon Hall design by the Austrian-American architect Richard Neutra is not as universally loved. But the sleek, low-slung building, in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie School, is seen as a modernist masterpiece.

Steve Ziger, principal with Ziger/Snead, the Baltimore firm that renovated and expanded the Neutra building in 2002, said he sensed a "dialogue" between Mellon Hall and McDowell Hall.

In researching Neutra's concepts for Mellon Hall, Ziger said, he found that the architect delved into themes on the ancient Greek marketplace of ideas.

Neutra found that ideal harmonized with the college's character so well he sought enhanced common spaces and forums.

"He was creating a democratic space to discourse around a central garden courtyard, like the old Greek "agora" or market," Ziger said. "Given St. John's beautiful Georgian campus, he was trying to create a landscape and a gathering place that would fit in the classical sense."

In that spirit, Mellon Hall has an inspired Conversation Room with oval seating and a trapezoidal skylight window. In another room, a "pendulum pit" is in sync with the earth's rotations. The Mitchell Art Gallery is a recent addition.

To inform visitors about the buildings and their storied history, the college offers a self-guided walking tour, said Patricia E. Dempsey, a spokeswoman.

"The walking tour of St. John's is one of the best-kept secrets in town," she said. "Visitors are surprised when they discover it - the campus is an oasis of trees and distinctive buildings."

For more about the St. John's sites, visit www.cic.edu/hcap .

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