'A romantic vision, conceived in Spirit'
An architect and an educator found common ground and purpose on the bluffs of the Mississippi River.
With Bernard Maybeck at Principia College, architecture professor Robert Craig has produced a great love story disguised as a coffee-table book.
In his generously illustrated chronicle of the conception, design, and building of The Principia College, Craig quotes liberally and effectively from the voluminous correspondence between the son of the founders of The Principia School of St. Louis, Frederic Morgan, and sage, philosopher, bohemian, and - oh yes - architect, Bernard Maybeck.
If ever there was a book that illuminates the artist/client relationship on a large-scale project, it is this detailed and affectionate account of the meeting of the minds and hearts of the free-spirited arts-and-crafts architect with the board of trustees of a school for young Christian Scientists.
From 1898 through 1922, Principia matured from a kindergarten to a junior college, outgrowing its facilities several times. When it was time to expand to a four-year college, an architect who could understand and embody Principia's ideal of "an environment for the unfoldment and development of character" was sought.
Actually, there was no search. A fortuitous meeting six years earlier had already brought together a young Frederic Morgan and a mature Bernard Maybeck. (They were both houseguests of a California family. Mr. Maybeck was there on business, while Mr. Morgan was busy wooing the daughter.)
The unlikely pair soon became fast friends and confidants. Maybeck showed a wide-eyed Morgan his eclectic Bay Area commissions, including Mills College in Oakland, which impressed upon Morgan "that colleges should be villages of small buildings ... and not horrible things in tremendous towers." At the same time, Morgan's articulation of Principia's ideas for the education of the "whole man" resonated deeply with the architect.
For the next decade and a half, the two men sought to build a college that lived up to the Principia ideal of character education. The author states that the pair "were attempting to personify an idea in academic buildings of lasting beauty and utility ... embodying ideas and materializing ideals in stone." It was an epic struggle to see these high-minded dreams realized and (literally) become cast in stone. But the creative partnership of Maybeck and Morgan survived the Great Depression, debilitating labor disputes, cost overruns, and numerous delays.
Throughout it all, both men retained their dignity, their cool, and their deep mutual respect, and the results speak eloquently on their behalf. The Principia College is a stunning achievement, a national landmark, and the embodiment of egos subliminated to achieve a shared vision.
Craig's loving and finely-detailed tribute illustrates what can result from principled, open thought and high ideals. And thank goodness so many wonderful concept sketches, notes, letters, and photographs were preserved for all to enjoy.
• John Kehe is the Monitor's art director.