Back to the Future

Rome has only one Pantheon. Bronx Community College has two.

The Gould Memorial Library, designed by the 19th century’s premier architect, Stanford White, echoes the temple to all the gods that has graced Rome for 19 centuries. Outside it displays the same artful geometry. At its portal, as at the Pantheon’s, stand great bronze doors; dedicated in 1921 by peers who chose Gould as White’s memorial, they depict themes in his life. Inside, Tiffany windows and a coffered dome supported by 16 columns of rare, green marble from Connemara, Ireland, inspire hushed reverence.

Statue

The city Landmarks Preservation Commission called the interior “one of the supreme examples of interior design in America.”

White’s second pantheon — an architectural hymn to home-grown gods — is the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, a colonnade with bronze busts that curves behind the library. It celebrates citizens from Patrick Henry to Alexander Graham Bell, from Susan B. Anthony to Harriet Beecher Stowe, from George Washington to Booker T. Washington to George Washington Carver.

Flanking Gould (no longer a library) are White’s Language and Philosophy Halls. Clad in yellow Roman brick and trimmed with limestone and terra-cotta, they frame the west end of White’s quadrangle. They and the Hall of Fame are city landmarks and are on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. All were commissioned by New York University Chancellor Henry
MacCracken, who moved his undergraduate college from industrial Washington Square to Bronx farmland. There, he said, students could “enjoy the country environment, yet be able to study close at hand the great city.” NYU moved after merger talks with the
city’s other private university, Columbia College, collapsed and Columbia had hired White’s partner, Charles Follen McKim, to design a new campus at 116th Street. “There was a respectful working relationship, more so than competition, between White and McKim, as both were pushing the envelope of campus design simultaneously,” says Manhattan preservation architect Lisa Easton.

Still, it’s hard not to read competition into a letter that White wrote to MacCracken about the Connemara columns and McKim’s more grandiose Low Library: “This is the marble they endeavored to use in Columbia, but which had to be abandoned because it was impossible to get the marble in so large diameter. It is the most beautiful green marble in the world, and it would be a
great thing to use it after having had to give it up in Columbia.”

Sadly, Gould’s lower-level auditorium was firebombed in 1969

Auditorium

during a student protest against the Vietnam War; NYU made repairs. By then NYU faced financial disaster, partly due to the protests. In 1973 it sold the campus to CUNY for $61 million, providing a home for Bronx Community College.

Although it had scant money for preservation, the University was able to restore Gould’s auditorium, its rotunda and the Hall of Fame in the 1990s. In 2004, BCC secured a $238,000 planning grant from the Getty Foundation, one of the largest in Getty’s so-far $7 million drive to protect historic architecture at some 60 colleges nationwide. Planning is essential, says foundation director Deborah Marrow, because implementation won’t succeed unless it’s well planned.

Architect Easton says the “oculus,” or skylight that White had placed at the dome’s center “is the most important feature to recapture.” At some point NYU replaced it with a plaster disk supporting 16 industrial lights. “The skylight enclosure is still there. The steel is in excellent shape, although the wood will need rehabilitation.” NYU also covered a second oculus on the floor, which had lit the auditorium below. “It also would be wonderful to open the floor oculus, but that’s a design problem for the next phase.”

With the planning study completed in January, BCC will seek funding for what college President Carolyn Williams calls “the comprehensive and authoritative preservation and restoration of the complex to its original grandeur.

Begrisch Hall

For our students, these buildings are everyday visual reminders of the importance and tradition of higher education in an increasingly complex world.”

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More than 100 years after Stanford White laid out the campus, the University has selected an architect to complete his conception with a new library and computer center on the long north side, which now is a parking lot.

Robert A.M. Stern, dean of Yale’s School of Architecture, has built projects as diverse as Disney hotels in Florida,Tokyo and Paris, the glitzy Hobby Center for Performing Arts in Houston and the Brooklyn Law School tower.

Stern sees the BCC project as the challenge of his life, to design in the context of White and Marcel Breuer, a modernist who designed several buildings for NYU between 1956 and 1961.

A challenge, indeed — trying to harmonize with both the lyrical White and the here-brutish Breuer, whose material of
choice was concrete. His forbidding science building

BX Hall

dominates the quad’s south side. Breuer is perhaps best known locally for his Whitney Museum of American Art and his
eponymous chairs.

Stern designed the Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia, done in the 1990s and inspired by the adjoining campus designed by Thomas Jefferson (which, in turn, was inspired by the 16th century Italian Andrea Palladio). Stern was recently hired to design an education building there.

Stern also has worked at Stanford University, designing the five-story Bill Gates Computer Science Building, whose overhanging red-tile roof and casement windows reflect the old quadrangle’s look.