"Art Pre-existing in Nature, and Nature Is Reproduced In Art"
Written above a dormer in Goodhue's attic room.
After graduating from Columbia University in June of 1914, James Perry Wilson started working in the architectural offices of Bertram Goodhue. Goodhue was a self-taught architect who made a name for himself in a twenty-year creative collaboration with Ralph Adams Cram. Cram and Goodhue, inspired by medieval church builders, used modern methods to create buildings in medieval styles. They adopted the utilitarian aesthetics of William Morris and the English Arts and Crafts Movement, but they considered themselves, first and foremost, modern architects, not historicists nor tied to archeological traditions. They used modern materials and the latest innovations in building to create their own blend of modern and historical buildings. They designed buildings that were known for their common sense construction, artistic craftsmanship, and romantic connection with the past. Goodhue and Cram designed and built such notable buildings as St. Thomas Episcopal Church, the West Point Chapel, All Saints Church, Ashmont, and the campuses of Princeton and Rice University.
Gothic Revival architects, such as Cram and Goodhue, rode the wave of civic popularity in the late 19th Century. It was a style adaptable to college buildings, art galleries, museums, railroad stations, and bridges like the Brooklyn Bridge. Above all, it was appropriate for urban churches, the centers of parishes and neighborhoods. To the restrained classicism of American church architecture, Gothic towers, spires, arches, and buttresses add a sense of 'the numinous, of soaring verticality, of mystery'i
Goodhue left Boston and opened an office in New York City in 1903 in order to be closer to the West Point Chapel project. Ralph Adams Cram kept the office in Boston. This started as a practical split, but by 1911, because of disharmony over the design and construction of St. Thomas's, the two offices were functioning independently of each other. At the end of 1913 Cram and Goodhue's partnership was legally dissolved in great part as the result of their two conflicting and irreconcilable artistic egos. Ironically a year later, they were both in the limelight for designing St. Thomas Episcopal Church. The modern Gothic church in midtown Manhattan had just been completed and received critical acclaim for its unique and creative exterior design, as well as for its wonderful interior spaces and rich accessory detail. The reception of St. Thomas gave Goodhue a good start as a solo architect, bumping him into a higher arena of business opportunities, social contacts, and fame
Goodhue worked with Ralph Adams Cram and lived in Boston from 1891 until 1903. These were decisive years in defining Goodhue's personality. He and Cram were part of Boston's bohemian intelligentsia where all manner of creativity, flamboyance, and eccentricity, as well as the serious study of art and architecture, was the norm. Douglass Shand-Tucci, writing from the perspective of a gay historian and as Ralph Adam Cram's biographer, asserts that many of the Boston group were gay and that it was a gay sensibility that informed what they did, what they wrote and painted, and even what they built. Shand-Tucci claims there is reason to believe that Goodhue and Cram may have had more of a relationship than just architectural partnersii. Regardless of what may or may not have been, Goodhue clearly would have been comfortable with artistic, eccentric, and homosexual staff members.
At that very time, Wilson would start work for a principal who had fully and successfully transitioned as an independent architect and was the captain of a moderately large office of twenty-two employees, with projects all across the US. Goodhue had organized a thoroughly professional staff capable of handling large commissions, and he had an efficient office manager, Francis L. Mayers, taking care of the day-to-day operation of the office.
For Wilson this would have been an exciting leap from the university into the real world. For James Perry Wilson, a shy, sensitive, and intelligent young man with a quirky personality, this was a job where he could be completely and safely, himself. Wilson went to work every day and drew, painted, and designed buildings and churches of great beauty. He was immersed in the architecture of the past; he used his time to study historical styles and apply them as references in his work. His work was highly valued and he was given sufficient time to create detailed, descriptive images for clients. Though the surviving records indicate that he was primarily a draftsman, he also produced blueprints, met on-site with clients, and designed architectural details. The Goodhue firm was making waves in the architecture world and Wilson must have felt satisfaction that his work, and especially his renderings were closely regarded.. In later years he would talk with pride of his tenure with Bertram Goodhueiii.
Bertram Goodhue was a highly skilled draftsman; his perspective drawings of buildings are not only rigorously accurate, but they had a moody, romantic beauty as well. Goodhue's line had an assertiveness and self-assured quality combined with a natural spontaneity. Some have called him the best draftsman in Americaiv. James Perry Wilson, hired as a draftsman and designer, could not have had a stronger mentor than Bertram Goodhue. Wilson learned to imitate Goodhue's rendering style. It is a testament to Wilson's talent and a foretaste of his ability to mimic other artist's styles, that he was able to match Goodhue's line, his hatching techniques, his lighting, and dramatic presentation to such an extent that it can be difficult to separate the master from the understudy.
The office at Goodhue was comprised over time of many talented architects. Some went on to successful careers of their own (Wallace K. Harrison, Raymond Hood, Donald Robb, Chesley Bonestell, Clarence Stein). Bertram Goodhue was somewhat of a larger-than-life personality. He was a gracious, generous, and beloved patriarch, though at times he was opinionated, vindictive, and egotistical. Goodhue's love for his office and the people in it was well known. On his last trip away from the office he wrote, Please give my love to all the office and tell them that I hate to be 'way off here' where I can't bother them.v He inspired his staff to do their best work by giving them the freedom needed to do so. In return, they felt a deep loyalty to him and to the firm.
Ralph Adams Cram wrote in a memorial tribute to Goodhue: the charm of Bertram's personality...quite carried us off our feet...Exuberantly, enthusiastic, with an abounding and fantastic sense of humor, he flung his gaiety and abandon widely around whenever he was in the temper to do so. On the other hand, he could be moody and dispirited on occasion, though the mood lasted only for brief moments, vanishing as quickly as it came.
And further by Cram:
Blond, slender, debonair, with a school-girl complexion and a native grace of carriage, he presented a personality made up of joy of life, fantastic humor, whimsical fads and fancies, blended with...an incomparable sense of beauty, an abounding friendliness...With it were a naivete and boyishness that were lasting joys...He certainly was a splendid sight, flaunting in medieval costume in the long ago pageants in the old Art Musuem or [Fred] Day's fantastic house in Norwood. The sense of romance possessed him.vi
The architectural staff worked collectively on numerous tasks to achieve the highest possible quality. Many of their efforts were reviewed and their renderings published in the leading architectural publications. There was an atmosphere of heightened importance pervading the office and in some instances, as with the Nebraska State Capitol and the proposed Convocational high-rise, Goodhue was receiving historically significant criticism. Goodhue took pride in the fact that his team of artists were not specialists and could do all aspects of the work from the design to the filing. While he was in charge as the head of the firm, everyone was treated with respect as colleagues and valued for their creative integrity. Each member was expected to solve the problem at hand without browbeating, Goodhue wanted his office to be a creative environment. During a Twelfth Night event Goodhue goes further to describe the warmth of his office when he began his speech, The office spirit is our proudest possession, and it is good to feel that the affectionate regard in which I hold those who work with me here is so thoroughly and so cordially reciprocated.vii Rigid schedules and time clocks were outlawed. In contrast, discussions about art and poetry were consciously cultivated.
When interviewed, Goodhue said:
I believe it makes for happiness that men's work should be interesting and not always mere work, like that of the men ruled by an 'efficiency' fanatic, therefore, it's perfectly well understood that anybody [who works here] can look at books, smoke, talk, and sing-especially the latter. Often, going into the drafting room, I find myself in a perfect 'nest' of singing birds.viii
"Nevertheless, the men do fill out time sheets, and though being largely of the artistic temperament and somewhat irregular as to the hours they keep, do keep them, for the thirty-nine hours of the working week are all on their time sheets. It is the custom of many offices to specialize the men. That is again great from the standpoint of the efficiency expert, and is the practice in vogue of every large factory. The temptation is strong to practice it here; but it doesn't seem just that because a man does a thing well he should do that and nothing else even though he does it in less time and with more profit to his employer. Certainly routine of any kind is not conducive to happiness, and certainly a variety of interests and pursuits is.ix
Both Goodhue and Wilson had a number of common interests, they thrived on music and theatre, both played piano and were especially passionate about the dramatic operas of Richard Wagner. Wilson owned over 1000 record albums of classical music and when he listened to music, no distractions were allowed. If a visitor came to the door while the music was playing, they could come in and sit, but not say a word until the music ended. He especially loved Wagner's Ring cycle and wrote pages of letters about it to his friend Thanos Johnson. Wilson was happy in Goodhue's office, and surrounded by cultured peers, he surely made significant contributions to the aesthetic repertoire and birdsong in the office.
Goodhue's building designs were sometimes called theatrical, but he loved the real thing and each year in January, he hosted an artist's ball called Twelfth Night celebrations. These were elaborate artistic extravaganzas, farcical plays with music and costumes, which displayed the very close relationship between the architect and the members of his staff.
The festivities had their beginnings harkening back to the late 1890's when Goodhue was still in Boston. When Goodhue moved to New York, he brought the Twelfth night celebrations with him. He encouraged his staff to outdo themselves writing the play, producing the costumes, and making the props.
One of the Twelfth-night gatherings was described in 1922:
At Twelfth Night celebrations, Goodhue introduced members of his staff and, in one particular instance, noted Wilson's plein air oil paintings hanging on the walls of the drafting room.
First comes Mr. James Perry Wilson. It must not be held against Mr. Wilson that he is a graduate of Columbia. How much architecture he learned there I do not know; but he certainly did learn some strange and wonderful things. For instance, he is the office sciographer (sic). I'll wager you don't know what a sciographer (sic) is. The word means 'a caster' (and for that matter a master) 'of shadows'. If I want the shadow of an irregularly-curved angular body cast on an irregularly-shaped surface, from a certain angle and from a certain distance at a certain time of day on a certain day in the year, I ask Mr. Wilson to do this thing, and lo! and behold! after many days, the result is accomplished and no one, I less than any, questions the accuracy of the result. He knows all about relativity and the fourth dimension and, in addition to being a beautiful draftsman and designer, has the merit-or perhaps I should say demerit-of being meticulously accurate. Also he is an accomplished extra-architectural artist, as witness the landscapes in oil in the other room. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Wilson.
This quote sheds some light on Wilson's personality and his relationship to the office. Goodhue thought the university architectural programs relied too much on classical formulas and did too little to encourage the creativity of students. No doubt, as a college architecture graduate, Wilson had to prove himself early on, but from the introduction, it is clear he had gained a full acceptance in the workforce. The significance of Bertram Goodhue's praise of Wilson as a beautiful draftsman and designer should be noted, coming from the man who was one of the leading architectural draftsmen of the world. Also the reference to the fourth dimension deserves a minor digression. Bertram Goodhue was corresponding with C.F.Bragdon, an architect, author, and theosophist. One of his books, Fourth Dimensional Vistas, was published in 1916 and read by Goodhue. The following letter to C.F. Bragdon is his response to the book:
As I think I have told you before your expositions of the higher geometry, if that is what you call it, are masterpieces of clarity, and I am perfectly prepared now to believe in fourth dimensions or any number you like. But ex-theosophist though I am, and though I recognize the very natural sequence of your book, I am sorry that higher geometry and religion should be so closely connected.x
The higher geometry would have greatly appealed to Wilson, though, like Goodhue, not the theosophy. It is likely that this book found its way to James Perry Wilson who, gifted in math, probably studied it thoroughly to be able to expound on the fourth dimension.
The five years following Goodhue's split from Cram, 1914-1919, were years that must have been charmed for James Perry Wilson. He started his career in a most supportive and congenial work environment and worked for a successful architect in a busy and sought-after firm. St. Bartholomew's church in New York City was started in 1914, plans were accepted in 1916, ground was broken in 1917, and it was finished in Oct 1918. With St. Bartholomew's church, Wilson was able to show off his prodigious rendering skills, producing several beautiful perspective drawings of the church. Bertram Goodhue, in contrast, was at mid-career and struggling to find his way with the success he had recently found and with the architectural ambitions he felt he should attain. The completion of St. Bartholomew's was not a particularly satisfying moment for Goodhue. He clashed with the rector after the submitting several unrealistic cost estimates. And that he was becoming less traditional in his approach to architectural form would not have helped his relationship with church officials. As a result, many important finishing touches, such as the ciborium or crossing tower were left unfinished. xi
There were some difficult life passages for Wilson during this time: one was the unexpected death of his father in 1914. James Palmer Wilson was a businessman and general manager of the Hartig Engine Manufacturing Co., a Newark firm that produced large generator engines. At the time of his death, his wife and three children were living at home. Robert and Perry were both employed, Elizabeth, at age 43 was referred to as a woman of leisure in the Hillhouse geneaology. While not wealthy by any means, James Palmer would have left his family without pressing financial worries. Both Robert and Perry would have been able to save most of their salaries with little or no financial burden for the upkeep of the household. While many of James Perry Wilson's colleagues noted that he was devoted to his mother, not one knew anything about his father. He never wrote or talked about his father. James Palmer had just reached retirement age when he contracted typhoid pneumonia and died shortly after from complications due to the disease. Newark was still an unhealthy city to live in; it lagged behind other major cities with upgrades to the water and sewage treatment systems.
The onset of World War I impacted Wilson's life as well. The Sunday after Congress declared war on Germany, nearly all clergymen in Newark injected a strongly martial tone into their Easter sermons. The social pressure to enlist for a 20 to 30 year old single male was quite strong. Recruiting agents set up shop in theatres, churches, the schools, and in parks. A month and a half after the declaration of war and when enlistments failed to supply the number of soldiers, Congress enacted a draft law. Registration day was planned for June 5, 1917. All men between the ages of 20 and 30 were required to register. A massive propaganda campaign urged all young men to recognize their obligation to their country. There were recruiting sessions, the mayor spoke to large crowds amidst patriotic choruses, parades marched through the streets in the morning and afternoon. By day's end, more than 50,000 young men, including the 27 year old James Perry Wilson, had registered. Newark's draft boards had to choose a total quota of only 2,537 men. Eventually 9,591 Newarkers would be drafted, but James Perry Wilson was not chosen.xii His not being chosen may have been simply by chance or his family may have known someone on the draft board. Each draft board had autonomy for choosing their draftees; no criterion was established.
Even though registered, he would have had to keep his draft card with him at all times in case he was accosted in a civilian slacker raid. Men of all ages were stopped on the streets, in pool halls, in taverns, in hotels and even in the offices where they worked. Each had to present a draft card or proof that they were younger than 18 or older than 31. Those with neither were immediately arrested and incarcerated. Those who resisted or argued with the vigilantes were dragged away and beaten.
In 1915 while St. Bartholomew's was being designed, the Panama-California Exposition opened and Goodhue's Spanishstyle buildings were well received. The fair generated several new commissions in the West: a campus for Throop College of Technology, later renamed the California Institute of Technology in Pasedena, CA, a company town in Tyrone, NM, a marine base and naval air station in San Diego, and two colleges and a museum in Honolulu, HI. For these projects, Goodhue began with the Spanish style of San Diego fair and moved decisively toward greater simplicity.
Still, four Goodhue designs in the period 1913-1919 represented little or no attempt to break free of tradition, and these reflect the architect's natural hesitancy as well as the conservative nature of the commissions themselves. These include the Congregational Church in Montclair,NJ, the parish house for Morristown, NJ, the Grolier Club in NYC, and a competition entry for Waterbury City hall.
The office was very busy, but Goodhue was plagued by self-doubt during this time. His personal letters attest to his concern that he was falling into mediocrity. This unsettled period for Goodhue leads up to his 1919 competitive design for the Nebraska State Capitol, the work he becomes most remembered for and the building that got him closer to his dream of a simplified architecture. Goodhue won the competition in 1920. He thereafter simplified the design, paring away unnecessary ornament. By 1923, he had removed any vestige of Beaux Arts stylization.
Richard Oliver writes: The Capitol became widely perceived as a free and original work. By supreme irony, Goodhue realized his deepest, and most romantic architectural dreams in a design that was governed by the austere discipline of the classical tradition: in the abstract geometrical composition of the whole, in the hierarchical and ceremonial arrangement of parts, in the shading of architectonic expression, and in the remorseless elimination of the merely picturesque and sentimental.
The competition drawings heralded a resolution of Goodhue's search for a new architectural expression, one that implied a new sensibility. The Capitol design was traditional in its reflection of the timeless qualities that classicism embodies, yet it was undeniably fresh in its departure from the classical repertory. Although Goodhue's work seemed characterized by an unconstrained freedom, from this point on, it could be seen more correctly as a rigorous and complex synthesis of the classical, the romantic, and the vernacular that resulted in a fresh traditionalism. xiii
Goodhue clearly made an artistic leap with this building and it presented a direction that he might develop in the future. And, James Perry Wilson may have had a hand in Goodhue's historic breakthrough.
Although the design seemed a radical departure from the typical capitol building, in fact the tower allowed for two central ceremonial spaces instead of the usual one: the domed rotunda in its base and the Memorial Hall, dedicated to the war dead from Nebraska, beneath the dome at its summit. The tower did not imply a rejection of classical precedent; on the contrary, it was the central element of a scheme that integrated the traditions of classicism with Goodhue's romanticism. Nevertheless, the Capitol design was essentially astylar and it proved that monumentality could be achieved without resort to an academic or archaeological system of expression.
The cross axial plan was a more advanced development of [Goodhue's]National Academy of Sciences building [in Washington DC]. Four arms radiated from the domed rotunda at the center of the building in the base of the tower: one for the Great Hall leading to the main door; two for the legislative chambers; and a fourth, which led to the Supreme Court. These cross axes extended out from the Capitol to form the entry approaches and linked the building to the city's square grid of streets, itself a miniature of the national grid that divides much of Nebraska into square plots of land. The Supreme Court chamber, special lounges for the legislators, and the main entry foyer were located in engaged pavilions at the cardinal points of the plan, where the Greek cross intersected the square. The encompassing square contained the state offices and created four large exterior courts.
The [elevation] drawings showed a tall marker on the plains of Nebraska: a horizontal building 400 feet square, stepping up to and dominated by a tower 79 feet square and 400 feet tall. The horizontal base had hard, crisp shapes and flat broad surfaces, giving it stability as a foil for the soaring lines of the tower which terminated in a resplendent tiled dome and Lawrie's statue of the Sower. The sculptural solidity of the whole was enhanced by the battered walls of the corner pavilions and tower as they rose in a stepped pyramidal silhouette. Apt vernacular ornament, like the buffalo sculptures that flanked the steps cascading from the main door, enriched the quixotic gesture of the tower. xiv
It is not unusual for principal architects to ask the designers in his office to submit ideas for a competition. At times the office would come together for a collective viewing and critique of the designs. The principal would choose one or two of these ideas to expand. In some cases, he might even ask for revisions before he would submit it.
While nothing was ever written about how designs were generated in the Goodhue office, I think there is a possibility that James Perry Wilson may have brought forth his undergraduate battle memorial design for Goodhue to consider for the Nebraska State Capitol competition. This design may have provided the spark to ignite Goodhue's waning creativity. Wilson's undergraduate war memorial and Goodhue's Nebraska State Capitol design are uncannily alike.
Comparison Nebraska to J P Wilson's Student project
Wilson's design is for a Battle Monument and the capitol has a central dome for the war dead.
Others have suggested influences for the Nebraska State Capitol. The most cited choice is Goodhue's own perspective rendering of the imaginary St Kavin's Church, Traumberg from 1896. Many believed he always wanted to design a great tower dominated edifice from then on. Wilson's Battle Memorial is closer in many ways to the Nebraska Capitol, but if it was used as a starting point, Goodhue greatly simplified detail and changed the octagonal footprint of the tower to square.
Goodhue died suddenly of a heart attack in 1924. The National Academy of Sciences building in Washington DC was about to be dedicated, the Los Angeles County library design had been accepted, the University of Chicago chapel was being redesigned. The office, after it's initial shock, was reorganized under business manager, Francis S.L. Mayers, Goodhue's assistant designer, Oscar Murray, and his engineer, Hardie Phillip. James Perry Wilson was not one of the principals in the firm, but his importance to the office is evident by being listed in the late 1920's on the letterhead along with Mayer, Murray, and Philip.
The firm went on to finish the Nebraska State Capitol building, the Los Angeles library, and to design and complete several churches, Christ Church, Cranbrook, Rockefeller Chapel, University of Chicago, The Church of the Heavenly Rest, New York City, Epworth Euclid Church, Cleveland, and St. John's Church, Buffalo. It is testament to the reorganized firm that they could design and build as many buildings in the style of Bertram Goodhue as they did. The work is competent, even beautiful, but they were not about to strike out on their own to develop their own style. These buildings were all designed in the style of Goodhue's earlier Gothic period.
While Goodhue prided himself in not specializing his work force, with Mayers, Murray, and Phillip, James Perry Wilson seems to have become their primary renderer. By 1932, the firm had dwindled to only a few architects and eventually Wilson was laid off. The firm was fully dissolved in 1940, but by then James Perry Wilson had already worked for 6 years in his new career at the American Museum of Natural History.
Wilson worked sporadically from 1932 until 1934. He and his mother had recently moved from their home in Newark to an apartment in Pelham Manor, NY. His days were free and spent his time exploring Westchester County for new painting sites. He had few expenses while working as an architect and likely had been able to save sufficient money to feel secure through the height of the Depression. His customary trips to Monhegan in 1932 and 1933 were not interrupted. These were prolific years of plein air painting for Wilson. Since the bottom had fallen out of the architecture world, it may be that he hoped to be able to make some money selling his paintings.
James Perry Wilson would later talk with pride of his employment with the office of Bertram Goodhue. His architecture background was profoundly important to how he would later approach natural history diorama painting. Later, I will discuss in depth how this training in perspective and projection geometry was the foundation for Wilson's development of the grid to transfer his reference material to the curved diorama background. Still, there were other influences that are worth mentioning.