Williams legend passes

Whitney Stoddard embodied just about everything good about Williams College. When he died on April 2, a week after celebrating his 90th birthday, the College lost one of the greatest teachers in its history.

I first encountered Whitney in the fall of 1956, when some friends dragged me into what was then called ART I. I had no interest in art. I signed up for the course only because everyone said it was too good to miss. It sure was. A wry, wisecracking instructor in his mid-forties, bow tie askew, began to teach us to understand buildings through his brilliant visual analyses. After a few classes, I was fetched for life. Whitney had the most remarkable ability to analyze a building from the foundation up, fitting part to part, and joining structure, material, shape, space and light in a way that brought you to the same level of excitement he felt in talking about the structure. It was thrilling.

I took two more courses with Whitney: American Art and Modern Architecture. The first he taught in a cast, because of a skiing accident. Whitney loved sports. He rarely missed a hockey game. Some days, when there were several different games on campus, he would rush from one to another to make sure he saw them all. As a supporter of sports at Williams, Whitney was athletic.

Exactly 45 years ago this spring, with Whitney at mid-life, I took his Modern Architecture course. The syllabus ended with Le Corbusier’s pilgrimage church at Ronchamp, only two years old. It was such a revolutionary building that no one knew what to make of it, but Whitney made sure we knew that it existed. With typical honesty, he admitted he wasn’t sure what else to tell us.

Although his scholarly specialty was French medieval sculpture, on which he published several books, Whitney taught modern architecture so passionately that he turned us all into rabid modernists, dismissive of any new architecture that smacked of tradition. He was never afraid to let his opinions show. He hated Baxter Hall, which had been built against his advice. Shortly after Baxter opened, the Purple Cow, the College humor magazine, ran a piece called “The Sinking of H.M.S. Baxter,” with Prof. Witty Stoddard as a radio announcer triumphantly chronicling its demise. The last time I saw Whitney, he said he had hoped to live long enough to see Baxter torn down. I could happily assure him that its destruction was imminent.

Whitney’s passionate devotion to modern architecture—to the notion that structures should be functional, devoid of ornament, made up of pure geometric forms and built of modern industrial materials—did not prevent him from seeing the importance of architectural postmodernism when it appeared in 1966 in the form of Robert Venturi’s book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. I returned to teach here in the fall of 1965. One day a year or so later he stuck that skinny volume in my hands, saying, “Read this. It’s important.” It was thanks to Whitney’s perspicacity that Charles Moore was hired to design the additions to Lawrence Hall that now house the College museum and art department. Because of Whitney’s inspired teaching of architecture, there is a large number of alumni architects – 189 at the latest alumni office count.

Few of us in the art department today escaped Whitney’s generous guidance when we first began to teach. He wanted us all to be at least as good as he was, and he devoted a lot of time to showing us the way. He had seemingly endless time to devote to students, or to conversations with faculty colleagues in the slide room, where lectures are prepared. Whitney often worked late into the night on his lectures. For years he was accompanied by a succession of galumphing Labradors, and not infrequently one heard the pop of a beer can, or two, as he arranged his slides. If good teaching is common in the art department, as I believe it is, a lot of the credit goes to Whitney.

Whitney loved Williams, from which he had graduated in 1935. But that love was not blind. He delighted in pointing out its weaknesses, sometimes with an earthiness intended for a select audience of colleagues. Puffery drew his scorn, and the bureaucracy created in the years before his retirement a wry sense of outrage. In his final address at a faculty meeting, he did an iconographic analysis of Hopkins Hall, the administration building (in its state before the addition was built). He noted that projections from the building marked the offices of the president and the dean of the College. The Dean of Faculty and Provost, however, lacked an appropriate projection on the southeast corner, where they had their quarters. He proposed to honor them with a tall chimney to carry the smoke created by burning all the new paper work they had mandated.

The first annual Whitney Stoddard Lecture, funded by the generous donation of an alumna, will be given by the distinguished historian of medieval architecture and sculpture, Marvin Trachtenberg, co-author of the textbook in architectural history used in ARTH 101. We had hoped that Whitney could be at the lecture, but it will come two weeks too late.

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