Originally published in the Union College Magazine, Winter 2013
A fortunate meeting
David Parish, if not realistic about his chances of building an empire in the hardscrabble frontier of northern New York, was honorable enough to ensure that a struggling young designer had work.
With a fortune made in European banking and ship-ping, the Belgian financier had acquired thousands of acres along the St. Lawrence River, including the town of Ogdensburg. Parish had grand plans, first for an estate and ultimately a city. He began building his mansion in 1809, and three years later sent for an avant-garde French architect, Joseph Ramée, to design his dream. With Ramée came the architect’s wife and young son.
But there were many obstacles—the War of 1812, a trade embargo with Canada, an economic collapse and a labor shortage—that would combine to thwart Parish’s dream.
So, in January of 1813, no doubt feeling guilty, Parish brought Ramée and his family to Philadelphia in search of work. The cold and snowy trip, largely by sleigh, included a stop in Schenectady. Here Parish introduced the architect to a young and energetic college president who was set to launch the ambitious expansion of a college not yet two decades old.
Since assuming the presidency of Union in 1804, Eliphalet Nott had sought more room for the College. Housed in a cramped stone building known as (old) West College at the eastern edge of town, it was none other than John Howard Payne, Class of 1812, and author of “Home Sweet Home,” who likely captured the sentiments of his classmates when he wrote, “Union College is built on the worst swamp in America.”
In 1806, Nott and the trustees had begun to acquire land on Nistiquona Hill a half mile east of the edge of the settlement. When Ramée first visited, with only Terrace Wall and the foundations of North and South Colleges in place, there was little to suggest that the small rise overlooking Schenectady would become a college, much less one of the most innovative, recognized and influential campuses in college America.
Nott commissioned Ramée to do the campus design for a total of $1,500 paid in three installments between June 1813 and March 1815. Ramée worked mainly in Philadelphia, where he spent most of his four years in America, shipping drawings to Nott as they were produced. Ramée returned to campus in May of 1813 during the construction of North and South Colleges, and may have returned again in 1814.
Nott and Ramée apparently got along well, their lack of a common language notwithstanding; Ramée apparently spoke little or no English, but Parish—as evidenced by the letters he wrote to Nott on behalf of the designer—filled the roles of interpreter and promoter, said architectural historian Paul V. Turner ’62.
On March 17, 1813, just two months after introducing Nott to Ramée, a grateful Parish wrote to Nott: “… it gives me much pleasure to hear that the acquaintance you made with my friend, Mr. Ramée, has fully justified the opinion I expressed and entertain of his taste and talents.” Parish went on to report that Ramée was engaged with “plans for a Central Building and also a sketch of the whole Plan including a disposition of all the buildings and of the grounds.”
Together, a campus
“In American architecture, Ramée’s Union College plan is important for introducing a new type of planning, involving many buildings related in complex ways to each other and to the surrounding landscape,” wrote architectural historian Paul V. Turner ’62 in his book, Joseph Ramée. “It is also a milestone in the history of the American college campus. The most ambitious and comprehensive plan for a campus up to that time, the Union design became a model for collegiate planning.”
Nott had grand ideas for a family-like campus in which students would readily interact with the president, faculty and their families. But it was Ramée who helped make the campus a distinctly new college model for post-Revolutionary America.
Ramée’s plan shows 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 are informal landscaped grounds in the style of parks and gardens.
Ramée’s plan was unique at the time, in large part because he considered more than architecture, Turner said. With a background as a landscape designer, he considered all of Union’s grounds including lawns, plantings, gardens and parks.
Early American college campuses were more spacious than the cloistered, urban universities of Europe, Turner said. Harvard, William and Mary and Princeton all featured open quadrangles and spacious lawns.
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. Turner points to evidence that the foundations of North and South College were in place by the time Ramée arrived. (The placement of North and South Colleges are the only constants in Ramée’s various preliminary sketches.)
Nott also had planned on a large Central Building that would connect North and South Colleges. So, Ramée made 13 drawings of a massive 70-foot tall structure that was to contain a chapel, library, offices, faculty housing, classrooms and a president’s house. But Ramée convinced Nott to go in another direction, Turner suggests.
The result was a dramatic departure in campus design that considered the relationship of many buildings and involved the surrounding landscape. Where Nott saw regimented rows of trees and plantings, for example, Ramée suggested the use of informal gardens, a distinctly European influence.
The signature of the Ramée plan—a domed building labeled “chapel” at the center of campus—was not seen by either the architect or the president. Nott died in 1866 just as plans for the round building were under way. Edward Tuckerman Potter, Class of 1853, designed what would become the Nott Memorial in the popular style of the day, Victorian Gothic.
Ramée called for an understated round building of light color, but Potter opted for a colorful, bold and angular 16-sided beacon. It is forgivable that the Nott’s style is at odds with the clean neoclassical lines of Ramée’s other campus buildings, Turner says. The Nott is of such great quality and so far removed from the original Ramée buildings that they function together, according to Turner, and the Nott also serves as a visual record of cultural change on campus.
What makes the Union campus so remarkable today is that the central part of campus has been preserved as Ramée and Nott envisioned it. “Ramée would be pleased that the campus still remains, that his plan was executed after he left the United States and that it has been preserved so well,” Turner said.
As a child, Schenectady native Paul Turner ’62 used a shortcut between his home on Baker Avenue and the Schenectady Library at Seward and Union. As he walked or biked through the Union campus, he wondered about the old buildings. “This place … was one of the things that aroused my early interest in architecture and history,” he recalls.
Later, as a Union student, he learned that an obscure French architect named Joseph Ramée was credited for the 1813 design. Years went by before he considered Ramée again.
After graduate study at Harvard in art and architecture, Turner landed a job teaching the history of architecture at Stanford University. There, he began work that in 1984 would become a book, Campus, on American college planning. That research made it clear to Turner that Ramée had a major impact on American campuses, but that—except for material accumulated by Union Professors Harold Larrabee and Codman Hislop, mostly about his work at Union—little was known about the whole of Ramée’s career.
So began what Turner calls “an amazing detective story,” a decade-long quest over two continents to re-create the career of the mysterious French architect. “It became something of an obsession,” said Turner, the Paul L. and Phyllis Wattis Professor of Art Emeritus at Stanford.
Turner’s discoveries appear in his 1996 book, Joseph Ramée: International Architect of the Revolutionary Era. Among Turner’s discoveries, the architect should be called simply Joseph Ramée, not the oft-heard Joseph-Jacques Ramée. Early in his career, he used a number of names—which may have contributed to his obscurity—but for the last half of his life, including his time in America, he used Joseph Ramée.
War, economic collapse and bad timing made Ramée something of a nomad, and later left his work mostly unknown or attributed to other architects of the day, according to Turner.
Plans in the attic
Owing to his itinerant career and to the turbulent conditions of his lifetime, the work of Joseph Ramée was mostly unknown for nearly a century after his death in 1842, according to architecture historian Paul V. Turner ’62.
Even at Union, the only known illustration of Ramée’s campus plan was a pen and ink drawing discovered by an alumnus in a Paris print shop around 1890.
It was Codman Hislop ’31, later a professor of English, who in 1932 discovered a portfolio of Ramée’s colorful plans and sketches stashed among papers and boxes in the attic of Geology Hall, now known as Old Chapel.
“After removing a strata of legal papers … we came upon a battered portfolio, its green cover granulated with age,” Hislop wrote in the December 1932 Union Alumni Monthly. “We knew we had never seen it before, so we pulled it out of its hideaway and spread it open on an improvised desk of packing boxes under the skylight.”
Atop a large sheaf of plans, elevations, water colors and details, was a handwritten list of contents. The list was dated Aug. 8, 1856 and signed “J. Pearson.” Jonathan Pearson, besides being professor and treasurer of the College, was the diarist from whom we know much of the College’s 19th century history.
Pearson listed 43 items among the plans, all but 10 of which were found in the portfolio discovered by Hislop. Most notable, according to Hislop, was item number 27, the “Plan of the Grounds Surrounding the Buildings.” The watercolor, a detailed aerial showing Union’s buildings grouped around a central “pantheon,” is perhaps the most recognized of the Ramée collection. Ironically, most of the missing drawings are of buildings that were constructed; likely, the drawings were used during the building process and then lost.
How the Ramée portfolio got into the attic is unknown, but Hislop posits that Pearson sent the originals to an Albany architect in charge of Geology Hall. Since Ramée’s drawings were found mixed with the Albany architect’s plans, Hislop assumes that they were returned to Union in a bundle and left forgotten in Pearson’s office.
“The beauty of the workmanship, the amazing care of the detail, and the thoroughly artistic rendering of the colored sheets, make this long hidden Ramée collection one of real importance,” Hislop wrote in the alumni monthly. “A student of architecture, particularly one interested in the history of American architecture, should be able to find a wealth of material in these old and lovely drawings.”
“We hope that our college architects of the future will look long at the Ramée collection before they begin adding new buildings to the Union campus. If they can discover some way to interpret their new work in the light of what our first architect tried to do, we will have buildings and grounds which will group themselves into what [prominent American architect] Fiske Kimball believed we already had, ‘a peaceful harmony of effect.’”