HUNTINGTON — On Oct. 23, 1970, the Huntington Galleries — now the Huntington Museum of Art (HMA) — opened a major addition that vastly expanded its exhibition space and added a 300-seat auditorium, an art reference library and a separate studio building. The project was designed by world-famous architect Walter Gropius and his colleagues at The Architects Collaborative.
Four exhibits at the museum this fall will pay tribute to Gropius.
“Walter Gropius and the Huntington Galleries Building Expansion Project” will open at the museum Oct. 10 and continue through Feb. 17.
“It’s wonderful to have an exhibition that focuses on the Huntington Museum of Art’s claim to fame in having renowned architect Walter Gropius design the expansion to our building,” said HMA Executive Director Geoffrey K. Fleming. “We planned for this exhibit to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the completion of this expansion and its opening to the public.”
A second Gropius-inspired exhibit, “The Wide Reach of the Bauhaus,” is set to open Oct. 10 and continue through Jan. 10.
“For several years now the museum’s entire staff has been planning this exhibition celebrating the impact on the art world by Gropius and the Bauhaus school of design he founded,” said Fleming. “Our curatorial department, led by senior curator Chris Hatten, has worked tirelessly to borrow and acquire works of art for this wonderful exhibition.”
On display from Sept. 5 to Jan. 17 is an exhibit that features the work of artists who have participated in HMA’s Gropius Master Artists Program.
The fourth exhibit will run from Sept. 5 until Dec. 6 and feature the work of six contemporary ceramics artists from across the nation who have been inspired by Gropius and the Bauhaus school of design.
Born in Berlin in 1883, the son of an architect, Gropius established a reputation as a remarkably talented designer early in his career. From 1914 to 1931, he headed the Bauhaus, an influential school of architectural design.
When Hitler came to power, he fled his native Germany, practicing first in London, and then coming to America where he headed the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Retiring from Harvard in 1952, he joined with a group of associates to form The Architects Collaborative.
How did it happen that a famous architect came to Huntington to work on an expansion of the museum?
“The story began in 1966 with the award of a $1 million grant from the Henry L. and Grace Rardin Doherty Foundation that was earmarked for expanding the museum,” said Hatten. “At that time the head of the foundation was Walter L. Brown, whose father, Douglas W. Brown, had been a partner with museum founder Herbert Fitzpatrick in the Huntington law firm of Fitzpatrick, Brown and Davis.”
The museum long had needed more room, and that need became urgent when Ruth Dayton, of Lewisburg, West Virginia, presented the museum with a collection of more than 300 priceless artworks she and her husband, Arthur, had collected over the years.
A committee appointed by the museum’s board of trustees to find an architect for the badly needed expansion project was frustrated by their inability to attract a prestigious firm to undertake the work.
“Everybody, including noted architect Phillip Johnson, was turning them down,” said Hatten. “Then Eloise Campbell Long, a member of the museum’s board, got personally involved. She and her husband were regular vacationers at Castle Hot Springs, a resort in Arizona, a place that was also frequented by Walter Gropius and his wife, Ise.
“Mrs. Long had become friends with the couple during their many visits to the resort, and when the museum’s expansion project was announced, she audaciously asked Gropius if he would undertake the design of the new wing in Huntington. Much to her pleasant surprise, he agreed to take on the project in partnership with his firm, The Architects Collaborative.”
Gropius insisted that all of the firm’s projects be team efforts, although each commission had two architects who were considered “more equal than the others.” At Huntington, Gropius, then in his 80s, elected to be principal in charge, and Malcomb Ticknor was appointed associate in charge. Huntington architect Walter S. Donat assisted at the local level.
Visiting Huntington, Gropius convinced the trustees to incorporate other facilities in addition to new gallery space. Once the basic plan was determined, he invited the building committee to join him in staking out the site south of the existing building. In 1969, shortly after construction had begun, Gropius died at age 86, and Ticknor became the principal in charge.
Though Gropius died before the Huntington project was completed, his influence had a major impact on the museum, not just in terms of the building, but also in his emphasis on a studio-based art education program. At the groundbreaking ceremony in 1968, he outlined a vision for the new facility:
“It will be of incalculable value for Huntington and its neighboring towns to have at their disposal a greatly broadened institute … to pursue both the improvement of the historic knowledge of art as well as the artistic creativity of their own young generation for the cultural benefit of the whole community.”
He emphasized the importance of art instruction in the studios, expressing a desire “that such activities may flourish here under the stimulation of talented teachers and of great examples of works of art exhibited in this gallery.”
The museum’s Gropius exhibition is supported in part by a gift from the Saint John’s Trust, in Memory of Anna Virginia Morgan, and in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, with financial assistance from the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History, and the National Endowment for the Arts, with approval from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts.