When French architect Joseph Ramée first arrived in Schenectady in January of 1813, there was little to suggest that the small rise a half mile east of town would become a campus, much less one of the most innovative, recognized and influential campuses in America. Ramée arrived in Schenectady thanks to David Parish, a Belgian financier who had brought the architect to America to design an estate on Parish’s land along the St. Lawrence River. When economics thwarted Parish’s dream, the banker brought Ramée and his family to Philadelphia to find him work.
The cold and snowy trip, largely by sleigh, included a stop in Schenectady where Parish introduced the architect to a young and energetic college president, Eliphalet Nott, who was set to launch the ambitious expansion of a college not yet two decades old. Before he met Ramée, Nott had envisioned a long row of buildings, similar to the Yale row that was copied at a number of institutions. But it was Ramée who helped make the campus a distinctly new college model for post-Revolutionary America: a broad courtyard with facing mirror-like buildings north and south connected by arcades to a building at the east end and a large round building at the center. Symbolically, the campus is open toward the expanding western frontier. On the periphery, informal landscaped grounds echo the style of European parks and gardens. Born along the Belgian-French border in 1764, Ramée trained in Paris, where he developed a taste for the elegant and clean neoclassicism that would define his career. He did important work in Paris, designing a number of townhouses, before he joined the revolutionary army. After being caught up in a plot against the government, he had to flee in 1793. He practiced briefly in Belgium but French military advances in 1794 drove him to Germany, where he designed estates for Saxon dukes from his base in Hamburg. In 1805, he married Caroline Dreyer, and a year later they had their only child, Daniel. Turmoil in Germany and Denmark forced another move back to Paris in 1810.
Besides his work for Union, he designed homes and estates in Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York State. During his four years in America, he made unsuccessful entries in design competitions for both the Washington Monument in Baltimore and the Baltimore Exchange. He returned to France in 1816 after the fall of Napoleon, and spent the rest of his career working in Belgium, Germany and France. In the last decades of his life, he produced publications of his designs that today are extremely rare. For example, there are only two known copies of Parcs et jardins, one of which is in Schaffer Library’s Special Collections.
We are indebted to Paul V. Turner ’62, the Paul L. and Phyllis Wattis Professor of Art Emeritus at Stanford University, for his contributions to our knowledge of Ramée and the Union College campus. Prof. Turner is the author of two books, Joseph Ramée: International Architect of the Revolutionary Era (1996, Cambridge University Press) and Campus: An American Planning Tradition (1984, The Architectural History Foundation/MIT Press.)