December 2, 2016

100 Years of Educational Excellence: Focus on Bernard Maybeck

100 Years of Educational Excellence: Focus on Bernard Maybeck
One of Maybeck's visions for the College—Courtesy of The Principia Archives
October 3, 2012

Of America’s founding fathers, historian David McCullough has said, “I’m sure they never asked each other, ‘Isn’t it great—making history?’”

McCullough’s insight prompts a consideration of historical events from the participant’s perspective. If they weren’t preoccupied with their historical legacy, how did the founders of our country perceive the cascade of events that now carry their names from generation to generation? And how do ordinary people in the midst of “making history” view the events unfolding around them?

Principia’s founding and development, including the design and construction of its College campus (now a National Historic Landmark—one of fewer than 2,500), can be studied in the same fashion. What might Mary Kimball Morgan and her colleagues have thought, standing on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, as they celebrated the groundbreaking for the College Chapel in 1931? Considering Principia’s history, they could undoubtedly connect the sequence of events that led—directly or indirectly—to that momentous day on the bluffs.

Thirty years earlier, with just 62 students enrolled, Principia had taken possession of an eight-acre estate that later became known as the Page and Belt campus, leaving behind the three houses that had served as school and dormitories during the prior year. The new campus was home during a period of rapid growth—an estate house and barn serving 62 students grew to more than 25 buildings for 612 students by the time of the Chapel groundbreaking. The founding of the school, the advancements in academic strategy, the physical plant improvements, the growth in enrollment, and the addition of an Upper School and then a Junior College all linked together in a cohesive story—as long as you read the story from the end to the beginning.

With many bold steps already taken, there they were on the cusp of another—building a college campus near a remote village on a site overlooking the Mississippi River. Unable to read the last chapter of the story they were still writing, not yet accredited as a college, amidst the worst economic downturn of the twentieth century, and with a college enrollment of less than 170, they were embarking on one of the largest construction projects of the time.

Did they know or suspect the eventual importance of their indefatigable architect, Bernard Maybeck, now considered one of the 10 most important American architects, or the importance of the commission he accepted from them—one he himself called his “favorite child”?

From their correspondence and notes, it’s clear that Principia and its architect were planning for permanence—lasting beauty that would serve many generations of Principians. There are no indications, however, that they thought of themselves as making history. They were simply collaborators questing for an architectural, physical expression of the Principia idea—that spiritualizing thought lies at the heart of true education, that education should uplift every facet of character, and that growth in character is a matter of revealing the truth about each of us.

There is substantial evidence that finding a physical expression for Principia’s mission was, in fact, the primary goal for the architect as well as his client. “I believe that the college buildings should be so spiritual that the students without knowing it get the qualities which we need to make leaders,” Maybeck said.

Inspired as both Principia and Maybeck were, with a vision gleaned from 30 years’ experience with “the Christ-idea in education” and a design developed for more than seven years before the first shovel struck ground, the making of history, although unsought, was inevitable.

Note: November 8–10, Principia College will host a three-day conference titled “A Celebration of Bernard Maybeck and Principia College,” featuring architects, historians, and other prominent speakers, an exhibit of Maybeck’s pastel and gouache architectural renderings, and a showing of the film Pursuing Beauty: The Architecture of Bernard Maybeck. Learn more about the conference and register (space is limited). You can also find background information on Maybeck’s “Principia commission” here.

  • Sarah Lucille Greek Hitchcock

    I hope the November event is covered, well, with maybe a small booklet available for those of us who can’t be there.. I have tried for years to explain the way the land and the buildings on campus belonged there. My memories of sitting at the grand in the living room my sophmore year, feeling totally at home are still with me: at nearly 79 and 1/2 years of age.  Sally Lucille Greek Hitchcock JC ’53.