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A Walking Tour of Bennington College Reveals a Rich Architectural Legacy


Published December 1, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 2, 2021 at 11:36 a.m.

Edward Clark Crossett Library, 1959 - COURTESY OF EZRA STOLLER
  • Courtesy Of Ezra Stoller
  • Edward Clark Crossett Library, 1959

Bennington College was once known as "the college in a barn," but there's nothing hidebound about this rural school. Progressive from its inception, the college began offering human reproduction classes to its then all-female student body in 1940.

That progressive orientation hasn't changed; today, students create their own majors and can choose to earn evaluations rather than grades. But the number of buildings on campus has increased considerably since its founding in 1932 on donated agricultural land that included a barn — hence the early nickname.

Still modestly sized, the campus is home to 700 students and encompasses 68 buildings whose siting preserves its rural character. None is massive or flamboyant; the college has adhered to the "no monumental buildings" clause of its founding prospectus.

Yet the campus is a treasure trove of architectural gems and restored historic structures, from the circa 1775 Shingle Cottage to the 2011 Center for the Advancement of Public Action, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien.

Having already landed on multiple lists of the most architecturally significant campuses in the country — including Architectural Digest's "15 College Campuses with the Best Architecture" in 2011 — Bennington will soon be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That listing will enable the college to develop long-term historic preservation plans, access certain grant money and draw more visitors.

The college committed to submitting the nomination in 2019, when it renovated its original Commons building, a Colonial Revival structure built in 1931. Prepared by Brattleboro-based historic preservation consultant Paula Sagerman, the nomination will go to the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation for review in February 2022 and then on to the National Park Service for approval.

What does this mean to the public? As of this spring, visitors will be able to tour 24 of the campus' most significant buildings with the help of a brochure designed by 2021 Bennington graduate Akanchya Maskay with Andy Schlatter, vice president for facilities management and planning.

Schlatter holds master's degrees in architecture and landscape architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and has practiced and taught architecture. On a recent weekday, he led Seven Days on a campus walking tour along with consultant Sagerman and state architectural historian Devin Colman, who works for the historic preservation division.

Our walk focused on highlights built during the third quarter of the 20th century. Following the initial development of the campus in the 1930s and '40s, this was a key period of construction — one in which the college sought to demonstrate its radical progressiveness through architecture.

It worked. In a state with relatively few structures from the modern period, Bennington boasts several outstanding and inventive examples. These include the 1959 Edward Clark Crossett Library by Pietro Belluschi, the 1968 Edward Larrabee Barnes Houses, and three 1970s buildings by Ward Robertson Jr.: Dickinson Science Building, Tishman Lecture Hall, and the Visual Arts and Performing Arts Center, aka VAPA.

Visual Arts and Performing Arts Center, 1975 - COURTESY OF SCOTT BARROW
  • Courtesy Of Scott Barrow
  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts Center, 1975

We started our tour from Schlatter's office in the maintenance building, which also houses the campus biomass plant — the college is working to become carbon neutral by 2030. Our first stop was the Crossett Library.

The elegant, white-painted International Style building is square, flat-roofed and made entirely of wood. It's three stories tall, with a ground floor built into the rise of the hill that leads to the campus' original central green. Belluschi, who was dean of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's architecture and planning department when he designed the building, sought to avoid dominating the modest Colonial Revival houses lining the green even as he echoed their materials.

The top two stories, filled with windows, have a wraparound, cantilevered deck shaded by the cantilevered flat roof. The whole thing seems to float over the recessed ground floor, which extends outside to a brick-walled reading garden. A series of column-like vertical elements — or "fins," as Glenn Andres and Curtis Johnson call them in Buildings of Vermont — span the double height. Belluschi intended that these elements, which resemble pairs of spaced two-by-fours with their narrow edges facing outward, echo Colonial Revival pilasters. The fins support railings and louvered sunscreens.

We could see that the exterior was in need of a paint job — a daunting task, given the number of wood slats and louvers. But the gravel roof has never leaked, Schlatter said.

Crossett still has its original interior materials, including wood window screens, light fixtures and cork flooring — a radical choice at the time, Schlatter noted. A tray of corrugated plastic ceiling panels, magically lacking a visible supporting grid, hides lights that the college is gradually changing to LED. The panels are so brittle, Schlatter said, that they require the same handling as fine china.

Beside the central stairway is another original fixture: a double-height floor-to-ceiling metal post supporting podlike lights. Students reading in period chairs nearby looked amused as Sagerman and I snapped photos.

"I think it's in some ways the best building on campus," David Grahame Shane said of Crossett in a phone interview after the tour. The London-born architect, now 76, earned a doctorate in architecture at Cornell University and taught architecture at Bennington from 1976 to 1982.

"The way the wood is used to make the light-control screening, the whole entry sequence and the way it works with the hill — it's a crucial piece," Shane said. In 1960, the American Institute of Architects named Crossett one of the four best new libraries in the country.

Next, we walked past the Commons building, with its historically sensitive renovation by architecture firm Christoff : Finio. The preserved south façade overlooks a sweep of town green-like lawn, across which rows of Colonial Revival houses face each other. In this striking, symmetrical Beaux Arts layout, the green ends in an apparent drop-off that students call the End of the World; it offers a spectacular view of the hills beyond.

Step past this original campus core, and a trio of identical white-painted dorms appears, their geometrical massing of triangles and rectangles signaling the International Style again. Like Crossett, they are built into a slope so that their triple-floor height doesn't dominate the original campus.

Edward Larrabee Barnes Houses, 1968 - COURTESY OF WAYNE NT FUJI'I
  • Courtesy Of Wayne Nt Fuji'i
  • Edward Larrabee Barnes Houses, 1968

These are the Barnes Houses by the architect who would later design the 1971 Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Burlington. Like an absorbing sculpture, their design seems to change as one walks around them.

Kevin Alter graduated from Bennington in 1985, earned his architecture degree at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design and currently heads Alterstudio Architecture in Austin, Texas. Asked by phone whether Bennington's architecture influenced his career choice, he said, "Absolutely. They are great buildings and a touchstone for me as an academic and a professional."

Alter lived in a Barnes house for his first two years of college, when the buildings' living rooms were located upstairs in the largest shed-roofed spaces. (These windowed, triangular forms have since been carved into more dorm rooms.) He recalled that his room was "a lovely room, really small, but it had a horizontal window with a beautiful view that went from wall to wall. You felt like you were pulled out of doors."

Edward Larrabee Barnes Houses, 1968 - COURTESY OF AMY LILY
  • Courtesy of Amy Lily
  • Edward Larrabee Barnes Houses, 1968

Our next stops were three 1970s buildings by Robertson Ward Jr. The architect trained with former Bauhaus director Walter Gropius at Harvard, then in Chicago with Gropius' friend Konrad Wachsmann. With Gropius, Ward developed prefabricated housing elements in wood; later, with Wachsmann, he learned long-span roof design in steel.

At Bennington, Ward returned to wood to honor the campus' historical material of choice in designs for Dickinson, the science building, and Tishman, the smaller, adjacent lecture hall. Flat-roofed with vertical cedar siding, each building uses contrasting bands of horizontal cedar siding to show off certain features — Dickinson's continuous banks of windows on two levels and Tishman's full-length recessed porch. Dickinson's interior beams supporting its long-span roof are, surprisingly, made of laminated fir and project outside the building under the flat eaves.

Those two buildings were just a "dry run" for Ward's VAPA building, Shane said. The latter is a massive shed- and flat-roofed complex of interconnected structures built into a slope, with welcoming entrances and connecting patios on every side. At 150,000 square feet, the complex encompasses "about a quarter" of the square footage on campus, Schlatter said. When completed in 1975, VAPA was one of the largest wood-framed buildings ever constructed in the U.S. It is still the largest one in Vermont, serving as testimony to Bennington's strength in the arts.

Visual arts facilities occupy four connected long-span structures that descend the hill, resulting in a three-story elevation on the downhill side. Inside, steel crossties reinforce the wood walls. A single hallway bisects all four structures and opens onto 45-foot-tall spaces where art students hang massive works from a ceiling track. The studios have banks of north-facing windows under shed roofs; single-paned, they're slowly being replaced by more energy-efficient glazing.

The separate performing arts complex has three reconfigurable theaters, including one specifically for dance, and a large auditorium where the convocation and other events are held. Standing in the auditorium, Schlatter noted that the interior wood walls are the exterior cladding.

"Yeah, I think I see daylight," Colman said with a laugh, spotting a gap between two panels.

Dickinson Science Building, 1970 - COURTESY OF GREGORY CHERIN
  • Courtesy of Gregory Cherin
  • Dickinson Science Building, 1970

Shane was the first architecture professor to teach in VAPA. "It was freezing, and the roof leaked, but I loved teaching there," he said. "My mistake," he continued, "was that I thought it was a wood building; I didn't recognize it as a steel building turned to wood. That was Robertson Ward's peculiar invention," he said, referring to the combination of steel bracing and light wooden walls.

Alter recalled a similar impression. "It feels light the way a steel building does," he said of VAPA, calling it "the most amazing barn."

A ceramics, architecture and math major, Alter had two studios in VAPA as an undergrad. His ceramics studio was "50 feet tall and had all this northern light," he said, as well as a view into painter Matthew Marks' studio a level above. (Marks became a major gallerist in New York City.) The two could easily check out each other's work; VAPA's open spaces encourage cross-pollination.

The building succeeds, Alter said, because "it was like a primed canvas for the things that went on inside it. It was an invitation to use it; it didn't tell you how to use it. VAPA captured the ethos of Bennington: serious and casual and open to everything."

VAPA was designed to meet well-articulated faculty demands rather than to make a visual impression, according to "VAPA: A Genealogy," a 40th-anniversary history written by current Bennington architecture professor Donald Sherefkin. (The college generally has only one at a time.) The college didn't want a "statement" building, Sherefkin noted, and the administration chose Ward because the architect "was not interested in formalism."

Though Alter's own firm specializes in beautifully designed houses, he spoke approvingly of VAPA's lack of visual impact. "I loved that building's essential modesty. You could look right past it," he said. "It's a building that needs to be filled [with activity] to work well, and those are the best buildings."

A host of Bennington graduates have emerged from this architecturally significant campus to become luminaries in the arts, including painter Helen Frankenthaler, photographer Sally Mann, composer Joan Tower, novelist Donna Tartt, food writer Michael Pollan, gender theorist Judith Butler and poet Mary Ruefle.

Of course, Bennington has always been associated with the elite, too. When Shane arrived, he recalled, "I thought I was going to the boondocks; I didn't understand what Bennington was. It was more expensive than Harvard. It had a 1-to-8 ratio of teachers to students. Parents would arrive by helicopter."

Money certainly helps run a campus. But a commitment to the arts and architecture helps carve out a college's national profile, and Bennington's commitment is for the long haul.

"What I think is so interesting about Bennington," Colman opined, "is that here's this tiny little school with this tradition in excellent architecture that they continue today. They emphasize it as part of their identity. It's one thing if MIT and Harvard and Yale hire a big-shot architect to do a new dorm; that's expected. But a 700-student campus in rural Vermont? It's kind of ridiculous for them to have achieved such an amazing campus."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Beyond the Barn"

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