And the Academy Award goes to: The treasures of Chapin

Herman Rosse’s Academy Award on display in new Sawyer Library reveals a life of artistic inspiration. Christian Ruhl/Photo editor.
Herman Rosse’s Academy Award on display in new Sawyer Library reveals a life of artistic inspiration. Christian Ruhl/Photo editor.

Before opening this summer as part of the new Sawyer Library, the Chapin Rare Books Library had been shut away for the last six years in its temporary location at the Southworth Schoolhouse. The four-year tenure of a College student caused the collection to all but disappear from the student body’s collective memory, and so it was a surprise to many to walk into the new library and see a shining gold Oscar statue staring back at them in the third floor Chapin Rare Books Library.

The Academy Award was awarded to Herman Rosse for art direction of the film King of Jazz in 1930. A revue featuring the star musician Paul Whiteman, it was Bing Crosby’s first movie, the first movie with a pre-recorded soundtrack and features Kurt Cobain’s great uncle in one scene. Rosse won the picture’s only Academy Award, and in October 1988, that award arrived in the College’s collection.

Contrary to what one might assume, Rosse didn’t attend the College, nor did his family. Instead, explained Robert Volz, Chapin Library curator, his collection came to the library nearly by chance.

“Paul Whiteman’s attorney was a Williams grad, and Whiteman had no strong connection to any college,” Volz said, so Whiteman donated his own collection to the College. In 1986, Rosse’s daughters came to the College because of the Whiteman collection.

“The Rosse daughters, acting also on behalf of their brothers, wanted to clean out their parents’ house in Newtown, N.Y. They thought the Whiteman collection would be interested in materials related to King of Jazz. Carl Johnson, the Whiteman collection’s curator, discovered there was a lot more,” Volz said. So Volz drove to Newtown to inspect the rest.

“It was amazing what the man had kept,” he said. “The more we would take the better.” The Oscar came to the College early, only two years after the first contact between the Rosses and the library to prevent a dispute over it between the children.

But there is so much more to the collection than just the Oscar. Rosse specialized in production design, painted, did interior design and worked as an architect. He earned an Associate’s degree in ornament and design from the Royal College of Art in London, and a Bachelor’s in physics from Stanford.

His first major project was designing the interior of the “Peace Palace” in The Hague. The library has his cartoon for Dice, his portrait of Justice in the Peace Palace. The cartoon, which is more like a sketch, is more than three feet tall and in full color. At the Peace Palace, he met his wife, a garden designer named Helena Luyt.

In the following years, Rosse constructed houses for Stanford faculty, built a miniature Greek amphitheater in his backyard, designed vaudeville sets in New York and taught at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Technische Hoogeschool in Delft. He worked at a series of theaters, and in 1949, he won the competition to design the Tony Award trophy. The silver prototype medallion is also in the College’s collection. Much of the furniture and ornamentation he designed in 1928 and 1929 became a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection.

“It’s the nature of creative artists to save their work,” Volz said. Indeed, Rosse’s vast work translates into a vast collection. “They are forever sketching.”

Volz said that, according to Rosse’s daughters, Rosse would bring his sketchpad even to the dinner table, and would often stop mid-meal to sketch.

There’s enough in the collection that everyone on the library staff has different favorites. Elaine Yanow, the library’s administrative assistant, has a large color sketch Rosse did for a set design on her wall. Wayne Hammond, assistant librarian, made a point of bringing out the cartoon of Dice for the Peace Palace. Volz said he hopes to exhibit the charcoal sketches Rosse did for the design of the 1931 film production of Frankenstein.

Volz is excited by a book from Rosse’s collection received from his daughter-in-law, the widow of a son who was an architect. The book, Le Salle de Spectacle de Bordeaux, is a 1782 architectural study of the Bordeaux Theatre by a Monsieur Louis. The gigantic volume includes cross sections from every possible angle of the theater, in exquisite detail.

There are also pieces of Rosse’s work in WCMA’s collection, including a series of paintings Rosse called “Reflections.” The paintings are full-length portraits painted onto giant mirrors, so that the viewer sees someone else staring back at them in the mirror. They are not currently on display.

The Rosse collection is only one part of Chapin Library’s fascinating, newly-visible collection, but one imagines it is exactly what Alfred Chapin had in mind when he created the library in 1923. Rosse was an academic, an artist and an all-around Renaissance man. He may not have gone to the College, but he would have fit right in.