Author: Elwyn Pratt
One hundred years ago this Fall, two buildings were constructed in Eagle Rock. They were called the Johnson Hall of Letters and the Fowler Hall of Science, and together they made up the entirety of the campus of Occidental College.
The institution’s move from Boyle Heights in 1912 allowed for a chance to literally re-envision the campus from the ground up. Today, students live and work in an environment that evokes both a familiar sense of Ivy League education as well as the energy of one of the world’s most progressive cities.
Myron Hunt (1868-1952) was the architect who made that image a reality.
Hunt was the principal designer and planner for Occidental’s new campus until 1940. His sketchbooks included renderings of over twenty buildings that students are familiar with today, including Johnson, Fowler, Thorne, and Swan Hall. The academic quadrangle, the steps leading up to the administrative building, and the oak and eucalyptus groves were all part of Hunt’s original vision according to Robert Winter, in ”Myron Hunt at Occidental College”.
One hundred years later, Hunt remains one of the most influential figures of Occidental’s history. Art History and Visual Arts Professor Eric Frank is among the individuals most knowledgeable of Hunt’s work. “I think that students take for granted the beauty and exceptional character of the plan of the campus,” Frank said. In years past, Frank’s European Art History class has included an introductory assignment on Myron Hunt’s original plans from 1935. Occidental College doesn’t offer an architectural program, but to Frank, it is important for students of any discipline to have an understanding of the environment they are exposed to every day.
“Architecture makes for relationships,” Frank said. “Your day is conditioned by the architectural spaces through which you move and in which you live and study. I think that not only students but the entire campus community should be aware of the way in which Myron Hunt makes you move through those spaces.”
Physically, the architecture of Occidental seems to be a full embodiment of the Occident, from ancient Greece to the early colonial New World. Ornate columns and other Traditional Beaux elements are featured prominently, while the iconic Spanish Colonial orange roofs add a slight exoticism to their overall display. But Frank pointed out a third style that, though subtle, is significant. “Look at the spaces below the roofs, and you see very plain, minimalist features,” Frank said. ”In this way, Hunt was very much a modernist architect.”
A key component of Hunt’s methodology was his attention to how individual buildings relate to the campus as the whole. This is something that is dutifully considered by Occidental’s current principal architect, Justin Adamson. “Hunt established powerful relationships between buildings, making negative space as important as the structures themselves.” Adamson said.
By taking a walk from the library to Thorne Hall, or from the fountain toward the steps leading up to the administrative center, one can see that these spaces give the campus a distinct sense of balance and unity. Though several of Hunt’s ideas were never realized–most notably a two story administrative center akin to its neighbors Johnson and Fowler that would link the three structures with conjoining wings–the core of his work still defines Occidental.
Hunt’s plans imitated the image of contemporary institutions. A new visitor can easily recognize Occidental for what it is: a college. Frank affirmed that it’s no wonder that movie makers so often choose Occidental as a shooting location: “It says to a filmgoer, ‘There’s a campus,'” Frank said.
Having received education at MIT and having worked on projects for several collegiate institutions, Hunt was well qualified to emulate the image of higher education (from “Myron Hunt, 1868-1952” published by the Baxter Art Gallery). “[Hunt] designed with a sense of importance, believing that Occidental could and would be on par with the finest institutions in the world,” Adamson said.
Myron Hunt’s impressive career included the Rose Bowl, Pasadena Public Library, Arroya Parks, and other landmarks of Southern California (from “Myron Hunt at Occidental College” by Robert Winter). In virtually all of his projects, one can detect the same blend of styles that make up Occidental’s campus. The Huntington library, for example, recalls the columned stretch of the Johnson Student Center. Amid the four hundred buildings that constitute Myron Hunt’s prolific career, Occidental College stands as an iconic landmark of its own.
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