Henry Hope Reed loved Rome. Years ago, I asked him where as a young architect I should go to study “the Classical,” as he always called the kind of architecture we both loved. “Rome,” he answered unhesitatingly. “Rome is the place.” It was good advice, though it took me a couple of decades before I was able to follow it.
The obituary in the New York Times reporting Henry’s death on May 1, 2013, at age 97 refers to him as an historian who railed against Modernism, but this very inadequate description utterly fails to do justice to his contribution. He was not so much an historian as a public advocate for the Classical spirit in all the arts – from painting and sculpture to architecture and city planning, from decorative arts to gardens, from lampposts to Central Park.
He was a tireless campaigner for beauty in the built environment, issuing such declarations as “a room without ornament is like a sky without stars” and “there is nothing sadder than a blank pediment.” A native New Yorker, he advocated for public art everywhere in his many books, essays, lectures and his famous walking tours. But whenever he paused for a moment of reflection and inspiration, he would talk about Rome.
Those of us privileged to know him were keenly aware of his sometimes irascible spirit and totally unsentimental view of the prevailing realities. His standard response to my youthful enthusiasms about some new evidence for the revival of Classical design was a curt, “Don’t get your hopes up!” If I suggested a subject for a book, exhibition or some other event, he would roll his eyes, wave his hand back and forth and say, “It’s work. It’s work.”
And yet no one worked harder to instill knowledge and appreciation of Classical art and design or give more generous support and encouragement to those of us who tried to follow his prompts. Henry introduced me to my first client for an independent architectural commission, a private house in California, in 1988, and many of my friends and colleagues similarly benefited from his active encouragement. He was a one-man social network decades before Facebook.
Acting on his own frequent advice to spend less time arguing with Modernists and instead show people what you are in favor of, he and a handful of sympathetic friends formed The Society for a Classical America (CA) in 1968. Perhaps the organization’s greatest service was to publish the Classical America Series in Art and Architecture, featuring inexpensive editions of such seminal but long out-of-print texts as William R. Ware’s The American Vignola, Geoffrey Scott’s The Architecture of Humanism, Kenyon Cox’s The Classic Point of View and student editions of Paul Letarouilly’s Buildings of Modern Rome (for which CA co-founder and Classical architect John Barrington Bayley provided marvelously insightful texts) and the monograph of the works of McKim Mead & White.
Henry provided insightful introductions to most of these publications, to which were soon added Pierce Rice’s wonderful Man as Hero: The Human Figure in Western Art and a new edition of Henry’s own The Golden City, as well as his volumes on The New York Public Library, The Library of Congress, and The United States Capitol. These last three are unmatched for their comprehensive treatment of Classical design at all scales, from urban design to decorative detail. There is no better library on the subject of Classical art than the CA Series, and I am proud that it continues today and includes two of my own volumes, neither of which would have been possible apart from the longtime influence of Henry’s thought.
Indeed, he was the first to invite me to publish my writing, first for the CA newsletter in the 1980s and then two essays for his edition of Georges Gromort’s Elements of Classical Architecture, before encouraging me to go it alone. He was also the impetus for my taking up teaching when, in 1997, he invited me to offer a course on the Classical interior at the National Academy of Design to mark the centennial of Ogden Codman and Edith Wharton’s The Decoration of Houses, which was reprinted that year in the CA Series. That course was the seed for my The Architecture of the Classical Interior, a book largely inspired by Henry’s insights.
In addition to lectures and events, the society sponsored evening classes at the National Academy of Design, pre-eminently those in Classical drawing and design taught by the late painter Pierce Rice and those in Classical architecture taught by Philadelphia architect Alvin Holm. I studied with both of these masters in 1983-84, and the experience was formative for all of my subsequent creative work. Last December I invited Alvin Holm back to Notre Dame to sit on the final review panel for my students’ design studio projects. I told them, “Your teacher’s teacher is teaching you.” And yet, behind both of us stood an unseen but still present figure who had been our common mentor.
Henry understood that in addition to informing the public about historical Classicism, it was necessary to recognize and promote new efforts, and so with the support of the society’s principal patron, he created the Arthur Ross Awards in 1981. I attended the first ceremony, where Brooke Astor (herself a generous patron) presented the honors and gave the first award in architecture to Philip Trammell Shutze of Atlanta, one of the last practicing American architects of the pre-war generation whose work was profoundly shaped by the experience of Rome.
Uniquely among the awards programs that have proliferated since, the Ross Awards continue to recognize craftsmanship, stewardship and patronage, in addition to artists and architects. This year’s prize for architecture goes to my friends Anne Fairfax and Richard Sammons, leaders among the younger generation of architects who have not only revived but contributed to the Classical tradition in their work. They were faithful pillars of Classical America, even hosting Henry in their office for several years, and have continued their involvement since the merger of Classical America and the Institute of Classical Architecture in 2002. I know Henry would be especially proud of these two, among his many protégés.
While Henry had his curmudgeonly side, he could also express pure joy at the sight of a sculpted frieze of putti or a garden full of flowers. He never tired of praising the great artists and architects who created the American Renaissance, reserving a special admiration for San Francisco architect Arthur Brown. But it was to Rome that he turned his attention time and again.
An austere Classicism was not for Henry. He wanted The Grand Manner and extolled the Baroque Flourish, with Rome always the standard. Classical architecture, he wrote in an essay published in the first volume of Yale’s Perspecta in 1953, is “the Art of Pleasing,” and Rome is the city that pleased him most. I regret that for the last five years my teaching in Rome limited my direct contacts with Henry, though I hope and trust that he would say I did the right thing by coming here.
Thank you, Henry, for all your many gifts, and I hope you will find your new accommodations in the truly Eternal City to your liking.