Some notes on my 37 years in the Art Department at Vassar

By Jeh Johnson, Architectural Drawing and Design 1964 -2001

Before I made my remarks at the College Convocation in 2001, I looked back over the history of the courses in Architectural Drawing and Architectural Design that I taught for thirty-seven years. The courses started in different ways in different departments. In the VC catalog for 1924 I found a course called "Theory and Practice of Interior Decorating". This course was taught by Professors Chatterton and Agnes Rindge. Who would have imagined that the course would eventually evolve into the sort of practice oriented studio that we had by the time I arrived in 1964? At about the same time in the 1920's, The Math Department had a course called "Introduction to Descriptive Geometry and Mechanical Drawing" Elizabeth Meade VC '27 who followed up at Smith with a degree in Landscape Architecture, covered the course in Design from about 1932 until about 1955. During WW II, Vassar joined in the war effort by going full bore into "Math 275 Structural Drawing" for the start of what became a "Pre-Engineering Sequence" that included Technical Drawing and Blueprint Reading. Elizabeth Meade was assisted in the late 50s by VC Grad Elizabeth Hird (Pokorny) . She was the wife of one of my favorite Professors at Columbia, Ian Pokorny, and my classmate in "Cram School" prior to our professional examinations. I didn't know about her Vassar Collection then.

The Architectural Drawing course moved over from the Math Department as an introduction to the Design Course in the 1950s. I came to Vassar shortly after I came to Poughkeepsie to work with my friend and schoolmate Bill Gindele. I happened to attend a community planning meeting attended by Al Frazer who taught History and Architectural Studio in the Department. He asked me to come over and talk to his classes about what we were designing in Poughkeepsie, and the next thing you know, I signed on to take his place in the Architecture Room. He really cared more about Art History than studio work anyway. Our Studio in Architecture was taught by just two of us, Meade and Johnson, in 60 of the 69 years from 1932 to 2001.

The Art Department played into my life in a funny way long before I came to Poughkeepsie. While I was an undergraduate at Columbia, a friend of mine set up a three-way date with a girl from Barnard and two girls from Vassar. We drove up with plans to go out for lunch at a local Inn. When I went to pick up my date, I found a note at the desk saying that she had to be off to New York for an Art 105 Museum Trip. We did meet some years later, anyway.

In 1964 I started my teaching years at Vassar with the hope of giving my students an early start with the kind of work they would have to do to get along in the first year of Grad School. I was a liberal arts student as an undergraduate at Columbia, and I believed that to be an ideal preparation for just about any kind of professional life. But when I entered Grad School I had to learn the fundamentals of drawing and rendering from the start. I had never worked with a tee square, and I had little experience in free hand drawing. I was determined to help my students over those catch-up semesters ahead of time. I was also completely against the idea of a formal "Pre-Architecture" program at Vassar. Fortunately, most of my close associates in the Art Department agreed with me.

At one point, I called my former Dean of Architecture, Professor Ken Smith, to see if we could work out a relationship in which Columbia would routinely take a deserving and promising Vassar Graduate into the M. Arch. Program. I did this on my own, I'm not sure if the Department would have approved of my doing this. Dean Smith, who was a very practical-minded engineer, told me he would be happy to come up and look at what I was doing in my little Studio. After lunch on the day he came to Taylor Hall, he sat back and said "I think you are doing a good job here, but by the time I work up a formal program and it goes through the red tape at Columbia, I'll be long gone, and maybe you will be too. So why don't we just agree that Columbia will take a good look at whomever you send down." And so, for the next decade or so, Columbia took at least one or two of our grads into their program. Columbia was going through an awful time with student unrest, and sit-ins, at the time, and sure enough I picked up The New York Times one morning to see photos of the action, and right in the middle, in front of Avery Hall, protest in progress, was one of the students I "sent" to Columbia. During my years, thirty of our students went on to the Columbia School of Architecture.

I am happy to say that many of our senior level Studio students have done very well in the Professions of Architecture, Planning, and Preservations, and other fields as well. By my count, of the 286 students who took the senior level studio course, 63 have gone on to graduate school, and are now, or have been in practice, or are Professors at Schools of Architecture, and three have been Heads of Program, or Deans. Five have become Fellows of the American Institute of Architects. (This is a big deal if you are an Architect). When I was active with the National Council of Architectural Accrediting Boards, I set out to see how many Architects I could find who taught courses similar to mine in selective Liberal Arts Colleges. I found just four in the country. The courses were not all the same, and in one case, the Studio was considered a kind of optional lab that was attached to Intro Art History. Vassar had a similar arrangement at one time.

Few will remember this, but the first male students to transfer to and graduate from Vassar, during our transition to co-education in the 70's did so primarily because of our course offerings in the Art Department. Both have done well. John Berchert and Alfred Wolff transferred from Colgate and graduated with the class of 1977. John went on to Harvard and recently was working in Washington; Al went to Pennsylvania and Practices in Philadelphia.

I note a special time to be remembered at Vassar. In the evening of April 4th, 1968, members of the Department gathered at a reception following a talk by Phyllis Bronfman Lambert, one of our most widely known Vassar Grad Architects. Phyllis devoted most of her talk to her work with the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal. Early into the reception we learned that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and killed in Memphis.

No one knew what to do or say and we looked at each other in total bewilderment. Some left early and went home in fear. Others tried hard to find words to make sense of things. Phyllis seemed especially touched by the news. The struggle for civil rights, passive nonviolence and the advancement of social change in the South as issues were not at the center of things at Vassar at that time. But, for the moment, nothing else seemed to matter. I ran into Phyllis in New York City thirty years later, and she remembered every sharp moment of that evening at Vassar.