Classicism in Newport News

Great Lawn of new main campus of Christopher Newport University, in Newport News, Va. (CNU)

Great Lawn of new main campus of Christopher Newport University, in Newport News, Va. (CNU)

Calder Loth, a Virginia architectural historian, provided TradArch with good grist for chewing when he offered up a photo of a newly completed chapel, among the atest of a series of classical buildings on the new main campus at Christopher Newport University, a state school in Newport News, Va.

The Lawn at University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, designed by Thomas Jefferson. (uvaguides.org)

The Academical Village and Lawn at University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, designed by Thomas Jefferson. (uvaguides.org)

This is close to my heart. I am overjoyed at this news. I spent a couple of very pleasant years in Newport News, with an apartment overlooking the James River, several hundred yards north of where Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co. – chief competitor to General Dynamics’ Electric Boat Co. up here in Rhode Island – was building two aircraft carriers in the mid-1980s, within easy view of the lawn in front of my apartment complex, which was walking distance from the Daily Press, the main paper in Newport News, where I worked (but never walked to).

Maybe that’s because I had a vintage Mercedes-Benz (a ‘tween-style 1967 250-S that I’d purchased from a Pentagon admiral for $2,800 before leaving D.C. for my first newspaper job in Augusta, Ga., where I was able to attend the Masters for free. That year Seve Ballesteros won. The Augusta Chronicle had a brand new color press and the photo on the front page the next day showed the late, great Spanish golfer donning his blue jacket!

At the Newport News Daily Press, my editor, the late Tony Snow, who eventually became chief speechwriter for the first President Bush, let me write a column under my byline, a plum that I was denied by my editor at the Augusta Chronicle. I enjoyed writing a weekly newspaper column on Thursdays for a full three decades thereafter.

This post is about the new campus – a series of buildings erected over a decade, actually – at CNU, but I could not resist a little personal history. (My blog posts could clearly use the services of a good editor!) I was not into architecture yet when I was living in Newport News, and CNU did not exist as a university until a decade after I left the Daily Press for the Providence Journal. The campus, with its Great Lawn, harks back to the Lawn and Academical Village designed by Thomas Jefferson for the University of Virginia, with its domed library and twin colonnaded sets of pavilions.

Perhaps in its choice of title, CNU’s Great Lawn seems to engage in a bit of self-aggrandization, but it does bear comparison with Jefferson’s Lawn. Do not forget that assembling a beautiful collection of buildings is much more difficult in today’s architectural environment than it was in the early 1800s for Jefferson or anyone else. CNU President Paul Trible deserves a symphony of applause for his decision to make the attempt.

Here is one of the latest examples of his effort, the Pope Chapel designed by Glavé & Holmes Architecture, a firm operating out of Richmond that has done the most recent buildings on the Great Lawn:

New chapel at CNU, designed by Glave & Holmes Architecture. (CNU)

New chapel at CNU, designed by Glave & Holmes Architecture. (CNU)

Interior of the new chapel. (CNU)

Interior of the new chapel. (CNU)

The design has been criticized, to an extent with justice. Minor flaws in its detailing might be pointed out, such as the parapets flanking the entrance portico that might be insufficiently well integrated with that structure, and, some arguing on TradArch say, an awkwardness in the design of the cupola, perhaps because more natural light was desired than a cupola without a glazed dome might be expected to provide. Still, it is a fine piece of work. Glavé & Holmes is to commended.

Most classicists can rip almost any work of architecture apart, new or old. Andrès Duany, a founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism, writes that the classicism of the campus is “better than a lot of Greek Revival 200 years ago. Stuff we now admire and preserve. Not as good as Palladio — the standard everyone will deny having.” It is an interesting parlor game to walk the tightrope between offering an accurate critique of the work of classical architects during an era when a classical education is extraordinarily rare — and offering critical remarks that go beyond accuracy to disdain, and risk making the perfect the enemy of the good.

There is no “bad trad” among the recent work on the CNU campus, and I am told that the interiors of the new classicism are quite well done, but when Trible began his effort to prevent an “architectural zoo” from arising at the site of the recently anointed state university, some mistakes were made. One is just below. But I would like readers to consider, as is so evident in the shots below the example of “bad trad,” how very far the traditional architecture at Christopher Newport University has improved since then as classical learning and practice take hold, building after building after building, over a decade. Just look. It is really quite extraordinary. Bravo, CNU!

[I am informed by a commenter, John Spain of Galvé & Holmes, that the latest building erected at CNU is not the Pope Chapel but Christopher Newport Hall, with its golden dome, at the head of the Great Lawn. It is the fourth photo below, followed by its dome, the fifth photo.]

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About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. 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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and 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 invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, 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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2 Responses to Classicism in Newport News

  1. John Spain says:

    I’m a relative newcomer to your blog – came across it maybe in July, but I’ve been enjoying it and I am happy to see this post.

    I work at Glavé & Holmes, and have had the good fortune to be involved to some extent in almost all of the projects we’ve done there, sometimes just helping with construction administration tasks, but I’ve been on the design team for several, and was part of the Chapel team for a while.

    First, two corrections. Its Paul Trible, not with two ‘b’s. You are correct to credit him with the vision for this University – I’ve heard it put that he wanted to create a campus (physical, but also including all the other aspects of university life,) which respected the dignity of the students, who would in turn be reinforced in respecting the dignity of others (I’m definitely paraphrasing, but I think I have the spirit.)
    Also, the CNU Chapel is not the most recent building – in fact that is the building with the golden dome – Christopher Newport Hall which is at the head of the Great Lawn. That, the Luter Shool of Business also on the Great Lawn, and Rappahannock River Residence hall (the courtyard building with the round plaza in the photos) have been completed within the last 2 years.

    I think we can accept and make use of the criticisms on the tradarch list you mentioned. We have been working to teach ourselves the classical language. The percentage of folks trained at traditional programs – Judson University, Notre Dame and Miami – has been increasing, but I think most of us were trained at modernist schools; I know I was. The firm has instituted a “Classical University” program which includes wonderful lectures by historians Calder Loth and Bill Westfall, and an introduction to drawing the orders (this was the first time I drew and order) as well as a classical design problem.

    The opportunity to work on the CNU campus has been a wonderful experience for me personally, and I know it is a precious and rare opportunity for one firm to be so involved with an institution like CNU at such a moment in its history. Certaily we’ve made mistakes or could have improved some things, but hopefully we are learning from them, and I think our approach has always been to show the respect for the members of the CNU community which I believe is the core of President Trible’s vision.

    Like

    • John, I will make those corrections immediately, especially President Trible’s spelling. For now I will thank you for your contribution to your firm’s great work, and thank it for adding to the beauty of the world. I am sure your best work is in the future as more and more institutions learn that there is beauty still to be had for themselves in the world. Thank you.

      Like

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