Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Corinth Architects 06: W. Stuart Thompson

W. Stuart Thompson (1890-1968) held the fourth Fellowship in Architecture at the American School in 1912-1915. He is a unique figure for capitalizing on the possibilities of becoming the de facto School architect. Since the beginning of the architecture fellowship, the School capitalized on the availability of architects in residence to assist in the real estate development of the institution. It is interesting that the School during this period did not ever consider hiring local Greek architects for its buildings. W. Stuart Thompson received his A.B. at Columbia University in 1912 and spent two academic years in Athens. When he returned to the U.S. he built a successful private practice in partnership with Henry Churchill.

Thompson is a fascinating figure in maintaining a building career across the ocean. His designs for the School include Loring Hall, the Gennadeion Library, a proposed Benaki Museum (not built), and the Stoat of Attalos Reconstruction in Athens, Oakley House (with Richard Stillwell) and the New Museum in Corinth (picture left), the Museum at Mytilene. Outside of Greece, he designed the Farm School in Albania, the Morris Schinasi Memorial Hospital at Manisa, Turkey, and the American Hospital in Istanbul.

In the United States, he won a major award on the neighborhood planning competition of the 1939 World's Fair. In addition to houses, major American buildings include the State Tower Building in Syracuse, N.Y., the Crucible Steel Building in Chicago, Ill, the terminal of the Connecticut State Airport in Stamford, Conn., the Sterling-Winthrop research plant in Rennselaer, N.Y., academic buildings for Finch College, N.Y., the Greek Orthodox Church of the Archangels in Stamford, Conn. (modeled on the Holy Apostles in the Agora), and a proposed New York Academy of Sciences.

Unfortunately, there is very little scholarly work on W. Stuart Thompson. Interestingly enough, his building in Greece have received the greatest attention. See most notably the issue of New Griffon 7 )(2004) dedicated to the Gennadeion Library. The material evidence is ample for a Thompson research project, and we must wait for a major synthetic research project before making any important conclusions about Thompson's contribution to architecture more broadly. A casual overview of the extant material raises a number of pertinent questions outlined as follows:

  • The F.L Wright Connection. During the 1930s, Churchill and Thompson was the New York office used by Frank Lloyd Wright. This relationship needs further exploration. An important collaborator in the firm was the engineer Howard Meier, who moved to Austin and began Texan modernism. 
  • A Multi-National Firm. Why did a prominent New York firm seek out commissions in Greece and Turkey? After 1929, the office of Churchill and Thompson was severely out of work. Projects in Greece and Turkey offered an important life line to the economic survival of the firm. Thompson's role as the European agent of the operation needs investigation, as it forms a model of an early multi-national firm.
  • Labor. Connected to the loss of projects by the Great Depression, interesting issues of labor organization arise in the work of Thompson. Running projects in both Greece and Turkey meant access to a multi-national labor force. When labor strikes interrupted the construction of the Gennadeion in Athens, Thompson made an interesting move. He imported a crew of Turkish workmen directly from Istanbul. Just as Thompson was capitalizing on the loss of jobs in the U.S. by seeking projects in the east, he was capitalizing on global capital to execute his projects.
  • Historicism versus Modernism. Thompson's architectural language is interestingly poised between modernism and historicism. Looking at the houses that he designed in the U.S., we find the appropriation of the International Style as well as some conservative Georgian revival house types. Thompson & Churchill's apartment building at 137 E 57th St (demolished), for instance, is one of the earliest Bauhaus apartment buildings in New York. The New Museum in Corinth is another interesting building in this respect. The building is designed as a Byzantine monastery centered around a courtyard. Its arched openings are traditional, but it's overall language and detailing are quite modern. When completed, it was heralded by the American architectural press as a pioneering modern museum. With its modernist flair, the Corinth Museum could not be more different than the severely Neoclassical Gennadeion Library. Is Thompson's multi-lingualism in design a matter of convenience? Or is there something more to be said about seeking a synthesis. How could an architect who had dealings with Frank Lloyd Wright be responsible for the ultra-historicism of the Stoa of Attalos? Thompson was clearly educated in the Beaux Arts architectural model at Columbia University. But even his most historicist buildings are strangely severe and un-Beaux Arts. At the end of his life, Paul Cret initiated an interesting modernism arising from within the Beaux Arts, which he so successfully introduced. New scholarship on Paul Cret might elucidate Thompson's mindset.
  • Design Interface Greece - America. Maintaining a parallel practice between the U.S. and Europe, the natural question would be if one influenced the other. The answer is obvious in some cases, where the Athenian Agora excavations provided the model for the Greek Orthodox Church of Stamford. A comprehensive overview of Thompson's production in the U.S. reveals a sophisticated understanding of historical models not limited to Greece. How does his Romanesque sensitivity or his Georgian houses fit into the interface between Greece and America? 
  • Personal Links. Thompson would make a terrific case study on how friendships and professional associations were forged in the American School. Interesting members in his personal life include his wife Anna McCann, who taught art and archaeology at Swarthmore College. He seems to have been close to a number of archaeologists. What was the nature of their relationship? How was the American School's social circle maintained in the United States outside of the academic sphere? At the local level, how did Thompson's social circle congregate at Stamford, Conn., where he lived?
Select Bibliography 

Kalligas, Haris ed. 2004. Το Γεννάδειον. Δημιουργία και Μεταμόρφωσις, The New Griffon 7, Athens.
New York Times. 1968. “W Stuart Thompson, Architect, 78, Dead. Did Work in Greece,” The New York Times (April 3, 1968)
Thompson, W. Stuart. 1936. “Corinth Museum. Corinth, Greece,” The Architectural Record 80, no. 6, (Dec. 1936), pp. 465-470
Mitchell Johnson, J. and W. Mark Gunderson. 2011. A Well-Made Object: Conversations with Howard Meyer, film.
Thompson and Churchill. 1930. “Loft, Inc., 2465 Broadway, New York. Thompson and Churchill, Architects,” Architectural Record 67, no. 2 (Feb. 1930), pp. 135-137.
Thompson and Churchill. 1932. “137 East 57th Street Loft Building, New York City, Thompson and Churchill, Architects,” Architectural Record 71, no. 2 (Feb. 1932), pp. 106-110. “Charles Mayer, consulting engineer.”
Wright, Henry. 1930. “The Place of the Apartment Buidling in the Modern Community,” Architectural Record 67, no. 3 (Feb. 1930), pp. 206, 207, 295

For more Corinth Architects, see here


Richard M. Rothaus, PhD said...

A bit on S&T: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/26/realestate/26scapes.html?_r=0

Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan said...

I thought that WST had used Asia Minor refugees for the construction of the Gennadius Library hiring them at a very low cost. Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan, ASCSA Archivist

Unknown said...

I just want to point out that W. Stuart Thompson's wife was Gladys Slade. Anna McCann was his son, George Thompson's first wife. I am WST's grand daughter, and was reading your blog. Annie Thompson Masillo.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States