Thirty-three years ago, the opening of the Hartford Seminary building created quite a sensation. Its designer Richard Meier was then an enfant terrible of modern architecture, a member of a group of New York architects labeled “The Whites” for their adherence to a near-monochromatic reinterpretation of the work of Le Corbusier from the 1920s. The seminary’s severe geometry and stark white porcelain-enamel cladding coupled with Meier’s use of modular grids and shiny metal walls was, at the time, jarring to most people, but the building has held up visually and structurally.
Moreover, the program of providing a 150-year-old institution in Connecticut’s capital with a dramatic new image as it changed from a school that, as a Congregational theological school, prepared ministers to a theological think-tank has proven prescient. Although venerable, Hartford Seminary at the time was suffering a decline in enrollment (losing out in an age-old rivalry with the divinity school at Yale University). As Connecticut planner, architect, and author Patrick Pinnell, notes, the seminary “was able to downsize with dignity into the Meier building.”
The seminary was one of Meier’s first important non-domestic works, followed soon thereafter by the High Museum in Atlanta. Not long after Hartford, Meier was awarded the Pritzker Prize, the so-called Nobel Prize of architecture. From Atlanta onward, Meier became one of the premier museum architects of our time, securing in the plum American museum job, the Getty in Los Angeles, which opened in 1997. Approaching 80, Meier continues to design buildings with a consistency to his own white geometries that is nothing short of remarkable.
The new building was a radical step for the seminary, which since the 1920s, had occupied a handsome campus designed by Allen & Collens. Although little remembered today, these Boston architects were masters of the Collegiate Gothic style in the early 20th century. They designed Union Theological Seminary in New York and Andover Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as well as several buildings at Vassar and Williams (including the chapel) colleges. It is hard to imagine a more radical transformation than from the picturesque recollection of England’s Oxford and Cambridge to Meier’s crisp, industrial aesthetic. To quote Pinnell again, “Its newness symbolized not only a new religious focus, but greater internationalism and cross-faith emphasis” (Hartford Seminary has become a center for the study of Christian-Muslim relations).
The seminary’s Gothic campus was sold to the University of Connecticut Law School, which, thanks to the seminary’s change of vision, achieved an instant historical identity worthy of the law schools at Yale and the University of Michigan. Eschewing a costume from the past, the re-made seminary is a bold contrast to the medieval campus across the street (both provide intriguing lessons in architecture as creators of memory). Rather than stained glass, gargoyles, and bell towers, Meier’s Hartford Seminary is a modern gem where the light of reason recalls the clarity and simplicity of early Congregationalism.
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Gail Ravgiala is editor of Design New England and a fan of both the region's historic architecture and its growing inventory of modern houses and public buildings.
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