Steven Semes on Henry Reed

From cover of Henry Hope Reed's 1959 classic, The Golden City.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim, from cover of Henry Hope Reed’s 1959 classic, The Golden City.

Steven Semes, author of The Future of the Past and the newly appointed chairman of the new graduate preservation program at the architecture school of the University of Notre Dame, was supposed to speak at Saturday’s symposium honoring Henry Hope Reed. But even Clem Labine, founder of Traditional Building and a stable of other journals for folks with traditional taste in architecture and interior design, who basically produced the show sponsored by the Philadelphia chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, could not arrange to pull Steve through the airline miasma following the breakdown of air traffic control in Chicago the Friday before the event.

So he didn’t show up, but his text and his slides did. They were read and shown by Francis Morrone, the architectural historian and master tour guide (following in Reed’s legacy as the latter-day inventor of city tours in the 1950s). Speaking through Francis, Steve assessed Henry Reed’s legacy. His remarks are illuminating. Steve sent them to me at my request and I reproduce them here, along with the labels for illustrations that I do not have, but which help to give structure to the text and might also be helpful to some readers of this blog who can use their imaginations to fill in for what they did not see on the screen.

So here it is:

Steven W. Semes

SLIDE 2. HHR and The Classicist
All of us in this room are a large part of the legacy of Henry Hope Reed. It is my privilege to be editor of The Classicist, which is, in a sense, the successor to the volumes published by Classical America [forefather of the ICAA] from the late 1960s onward, to which Henry was a regular contributor and sometimes served as editor. From my first meeting with him in 1981, Henry had a transforming effect on my views of architecture, art, culture, and my own livelihood.  What Henry especially pressed me to do was to speak and write, starting with our collaboration on the 2001 edition of Georges Gromort’s Elements of Classical Architecture and continuing with my own Architecture of the Classical Interior. With Number 11 of The Classicist, dedicated to his memory and, I hope, generally evoking things he thought important, I have tried to offer the best tribute I could: Showing the variety and vitality of work of all kinds, at all scales, and in all disciplines that takes inspiration from the great tradition Henry lived to teach and defend.

I know that not all of what purports to be classical today would meet Henry’s high standard. But without making anyone, including Henry, the sole arbiter of what can be accepted within the tradition, we can all benefit from the unmistakable taste and discernment that he upheld against fierce opposition and widespread incomprehension. I wish to illustrate some of his concerns with examples from The Classicist and from recipients of the Arthur Ross Awards, which itself is one of the most visible legacies that Henry left us.

SLIDE 3: Ross Awards
    •    Henry founded the Arthur Ross Awards in 1982, named for the principal benefactor of Classical America and later, of the Institute of Classical Architecture [now the ICA & Art]. Some of us were there to see Brooke Astor bestow a posthumous award on Philip Trammel Shutze. The awards exemplified what Henry once advised me: Arguing with modernism was a waste of time, he said. “Show them what you’re for.”  
    •    What Henry was for included classical architecture, painting, sculpture, craftsmanship, landscape and garden design, patronage, and stewardship. The interdisciplinary emphasis is a hallmark of Henry’s vision.
    •    That program is now joined by the separate awards of the chapters of the ICAA [including the New England chapter’s Bulfinch Awards], as well as the Palladio Awards initiated by Clem Labine, and Notre Dame’s Richard Driehaus Prize and Henry Hope Reed Medal.  There seems to be no lack of prizes to encourage and celebrate new work that seeks to continue the tradition.
    •    One measure of our success is that it is not nearly so difficult to find qualified recipients as it was twenty years ago, when awards sometimes went to worthy but deceased people.

SLIDE 4. Academy of Classical Design
A glance at the winners of Ross Awards reveals Henry’s vision of the unity of the arts and the necessary collaboration of the architect, painter, and sculptor in the creation of classical settings. While this alliance is still not the norm, there have been significant developments:
    •    There is a strong revival of interest in classical painting and decoration.
    •    Consider the Academy of Classical Design, one of a number of schools in the field, though the Academy is distinctive in the importance given to mural decoration and coordination with architectural settings.
    •    The curriculum follows the methods championed by Pierce Rice and Henry Reed, emphasizing drawing and painting from the cast, making copies of acknowledged masterworks, and rising to the challenge of decorating architectural spaces.

SLIDE 5. Mims ornament
    •    Jeffrey Mims is director of the school, which he founded after winning the Arthur Ross Award in 1984. Mims has championed the grand tradition of figurative mural painting and architectural decoration with great fidelity to the ancient formal language and a fresh eye for design and detail.

SLIDE 6. Leonard Porter
    •    The ICAA’s own Leonard Porter (Ross Award 2006) has continued to produce large-scale mural paintings, mostly in religious settings, rooted in the classical tradition of historical and allegorical representation, but also sensitively coordinated with the architectural setting.

SLIDE 7. Tuskaloosa
    •    Murals were commissioned for the new classical Federal Building in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, designed by HBRA Architects of Chicago (whose principal, Tom Beeby, received the Ross Award in 1992, while the project itself was recognized in 2012.
    •     The paintings represent important moments in the history of the region. Henry would certainly have approved the way the architects created a suitable setting for the artists’ work in the main public interior space.

SLIDE 8: Mayernik at TASIS
Not all decorative painting is indoors. My Notre Dame colleague David Mayernik (Ross Award 1987) has been working for the last 18 years on The American School in Switzerland, near Lugano, where he has not only designed the buildings but executed a series of allegorical mural decorations on the building exteriors, maintaining a tradition of painted facades stretching back to the Renaissance.

SLIDE 9: Sandy Stoddart
    •    The great Sandy Stoddart (Ross Award 2001) continues to create heroic public sculpture in an architectural setting and at a variety of scales, from the Millennium Arch in Atlanta to 33 New Bond Street in London, designed by George Saumarez Smith of ADAM Architecture. Henry greatly admired Sandy’s work and, thankfully, he is not alone, with a growing number of artists pursuing classical sculpture.

SLIDE 10: Patrick Webb
    •    Henry was always a vocal supporter of the crafts-men and -women on whom the architect’s art depends for realization. Indeed, one of the greatest harms of modernism was its deliberate destruction of the traditional crafts and construction trades, after which architects would cynically ask “Where are the craftsmen?” Well, they’re back!
    •    Several important training programs promote the crafts and decorative arts, which are rebounding in both restoration and new construction.
    •    One example: Patrick Webb is a skilled worker in decorative plaster and a teacher of classical design at the American College of the Building Arts, in Charleston, one of a growing number of programs aimed at reviving and extending these essential skills.

SLIDE 11: Ornament from Terry and Simpson
    •    Henry never stopped insisting on the role of ornament in the arts: He liked to quote George Santayana: “A building without ornament is like the heavens without the stars. An architecture without ornament is no architecture at all.” Here progress has been more modest, though there is growing interest in ornamental design. We can cite Quinlan Terry (Ross Award 2002), John Simpson (2008), and Robert A. M. Stern (1991).

SLIDE 12: Schwarz in Nashville and Charleston
And this year’s Ross awardee for architecture, David Schwarz, has a particular interest in designing non-canonical but appropriate capitals, based on classical models and incorporating local imagery.

SLIDE 13: MGLM Architects
    •    A host of younger designers are picking up the challenge, like Notre Dame alumni Matthew and Elizabeth McNicholas of MGLM Architects in Chicago, or painter Steve Shriver in Los Angeles.
    •    Henry would tell us architects to shed our Neoclassical severity and abandon our fear. We still have some work to do on this front.

SLIDE 14: Henry’s Washington Proposal from The Golden City
    •    Another legacy flows from Henry’s vision of urbanism.
    •    Henry, whom Leon Krier called “the greatest American,” is an important if insufficiently recognized precursor to New Urbanism. For half a century he combatted the destruction of the historic city by the Modern Movement, and articulated a humanistic and progressive vision of urban life and culture.
    •    His 1959 book The Golden City includes a plan for urbanizing Washington’s Federal Triangle.
    •    Henry imagined the site not as the monumental office park it is today, but as L’Enfant intended: a lively and walkable urban district of mixed-use buildings, ground-floor businesses and restaurants, theaters, even an opera house, with offices and housing above. Monumental classicism and the vitality of urban life need not be mutually exclusive, as any visitor to Paris or Rome can attest.
    •    And Henry’s discussion of urban issues is socially progressive, especially in the political and social context of the 1950s.

SLIDE 15: Henry and the Walking Tours
    •    Henry’s New York City walking tours, inaugurated in the early 1950s, revealed that the success of a city street is a concrete experience in which the architectural and urban scales work together to provide a setting for people on their feet.
    •    At this point Henry might say, “All very well, but New Urbanism without Classical architecture is a mere cul-de-sac.” And indeed he would be right. Good urbanism is not enough, but must be supported by the beauty of buildings raised on the urban plan.
    •    Nonetheless, his contributions in the field make him one of the most important urbanists in the post-war period, and that influence has real impact on our cities today.

SLIDE 16: Preservation
    •    While he consistently listed his profession on his CV as “writer,” Henry was often identified as a historian or preservationist — titles he rejected because he dismissed art historians who valued architecture only if it appeared to lead to Modernism.  He was equally skeptical of preservationists, especially when they promoted modernist additions and infill.
    •    Many preservationists remain insufficiently respectful of the classical heritage, including that of the twentieth century, and still tend to deny the appropriateness of new traditional design in historic settings — but these attitudes are changing.
    •    Modernist “contrast” in additions to historic buildings or infill within historic districts no longer goes unquestioned, and new traditional construction is becoming more common in historic settings, though often not without a fight. There is real debate in the field for the first time in decades. This is promising.

   •    I am proud to announce that a new graduate degree program at Notre Dame, which I have been asked to direct, will take as its mission precisely this issue of continuity between historic and contemporary design in historic settings. I think this is one more accomplishment of Henry’s legacy. [Nor will this appointment end his annual six-month sojourns in Rome!]

SLIDE 17: Portrait of a realist
    •    Finally, I want to underscore Henry’s realism, what another of my mentors, Jaquelin Robertson (Ross Award 1995), would call his “tough-mindedness.”  Henry’s commitment to the classical was not nostalgic or sentimental, but aspirational. And that made it difficult for him to be a cheerleader for what he saw as a very imperfect revival.
    •    In 1981, Henry wrote: “True, the tradition has lately found some acceptance. But the acceptance must be treated with caution. The word ‘classical’ is what has been made current rather than the tradition itself. In giving new life to this, the main current of Western art, we have a long way to go.” Three decades later, we still have a long way to go, although we can also take some pride in our accomplishments.

SLIDE 18: Education
    •    Perhaps the most important is education. The Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, successor to Classical America, continues its education programs in New York, and around the country. The University of Notre Dame has been joined by the University of Colorado at Denver, the Prince’s Foundation, and several other institutions. The pages of The Classicist are filled with the work of scholars, practitioners, artists, and students seriously pursuing classical themes. I’m especially proud of two of my former students who produced this thesis and are now entering professional practice. The torch of tradition is being passed, the flame has not gone out.

SLIDE 19: The Laureate
    •    Would Henry be thrilled with every painting or architectural design produced today under the label of “classical”? Of course not, but I am sure he would be encouraged by much of it. In any case, almost none of it would have happened without him, and so a legacy can be productive even in unexpected ways and whether of not the donor and the beneficiaries are aware of it.
    •    While Henry himself was seldom given to praising contemporary work and was notoriously critical even of his own protégés, his faith in the tradition never faltered. I remember his words upon receiving the laurel crown on the steps of Andalusia from the Philadelphia Chapter of Classical America in 1996. Henry said, “What human beings have done well once, they can do again.”
    •    Henry’s legacy is, ultimately, the people in this room, our colleagues elsewhere, and the students and young practitioners we try to teach and inspire. I think it is not for nothing that Henry’s middle name is Hope.

    •    Thank you.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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