University of Rochester

University of Rochester Exhibition Launches Rochester Celebration of Artist Claude Bragdon

June 25, 2010

This summer and fall Rochester is rediscovering one of its luminaries of yesteryear — architect, illustrator, critic, and theater designer Claude Bragdon.

The city-wide celebration includes two exhibits, a full-color book, lectures, and site tours in honor of the "many-sided genius" who designed scores of Rochester structures (including the city's former grand train station), staged the famous Song & Light Festivals of 1915 through 1918, and penned more than 20 books and hundreds of articles on subjects including Henry James, yoga, and feminism.

Opening the festivities is the University of Rochester's exhibition Claude Bragdon and the Beautiful Necessity, on display in Rush Rhees Library's Rare Books and Special Collections Department through Oct. 16. The exhibit's nearly 300 items showcase the artist's formidable talents and include architectural drawings; bookplate, poster, and book cover art; ephemera from the Song & Light Festivals; and stage and costume designs.

"At the turn of the 20th century, Bragdon was Rochester's most innovative and deeply thinking architect," says Jean France, an architectural historian, Bragdon scholar, and retired University of Rochester adjunct associate professor of art history. Bragdon's architecture, and virtually all of his work, was centered on principles he found in nature and in mathematics. As Bragdon told an audience in 1901, "In nature, in number, in geometry, in music, also there is but one law, a law infinitely simple, infinitely subtle, incommunicable, evanescent. It is what Emerson calls the Beautiful Necessity…"

"He was both a craftsman and an intellectual who applied his ideas to architecture," says France, who delivered the opening lecture for the University exhibit. "Most architects' legacies are visual; with Bragdon, we can trace not only what he did, but also what he thought about it."

In fact, she points out, Bragdon wrote so broadly and was read so widely that in many cases his ideas have outlasted his work. For example, his theater projects were, by nature, ephemeral, and his architectural masterpiece, the Rochester New York Central Railroad Station, completed in 1913, was mostly demolished in 1966. "That railroad station was a wonderful creative act that we can only dimly appreciate today," says France.

Despite those losses, many of Bragdon's structures survive, including the First Universalist Church (1907), Bevier Memorial Building (1910), West Garden of the George Eastman House (1916-1917), Peterborough Bridge near Toronto (1918), and nearly 100 Rochester residences.

"His small houses are wonderful places to live in," says France. "He was thinking of people. He understood how people live and how they want to move through a space — that's the architect's major tool and one that is hardly ever noticed unless it's wrong."

This year's celebration is especially poignant, says France, because when Bragdon was dying in 1946, he was convinced that he was a failure. Fortunately, most of his work has been preserved in the University's Bragdon Family Papers. The collection, donated to the University beginning in 1950 by the Bragdon family and others, comprises approximately 100 linear feet of manuscript materials and more than 5,000 architectural drawings.

Inspired by the "breadth of Bragdon's achievements," the collection's curator, Andrea Reithmayr, created the Bragdon exhibition and co-edited its companion book Claude Bragdon and the Beautiful Necessity. At Reithmayr's urging, five other Rochester institutions have joined in the efforts to honor Bragdon's legacy: the University's Memorial Art Gallery, RIT, George Eastman House, Writers & Books, and the First Universalist Church.

A list of Bragdon events follows:

University of Rochester Rush Rhees Library Rare Books and Special Collections, Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through October 16
Exhibition: "Claude Bragdon & the Beautiful Necessity"
Free and open to the public
The exhibition catalogue Claude Bragdon and the Beautiful Necessity is available online at or by phone at 585-475-6766.

First Universalist Church of Rochester, 150 S. Clinton Ave., 1 p.m. June 27
Free lecture and tour of church with church historian Karen Dau

George Eastman House, Curtis Theatre, 900 East Ave., 1:30 p.m. July 18
Amy Kinsey, landscape curator at the George Eastman House will give a talk titled "Claude Bragdon's West Garden." The lecture is free with museum admission and includes a garden tour.

Writers & Books, 740 University Avenue, 7 p.m. Aug. 4
"The Beautiful Necessity: The Regulating Lines of Claude Bragdon's Transcendental Architecture" by Eugenia Victoria Ellis, PhD, AIA, who with Andrea G. Reithmayr is editor of The Beautiful Necessity. $3 W&B members / $6 general public

Memorial Art Gallery, 500 University Ave., Aug. 13-Dec. 12
"Episodes from an Unwritten History: Claude Bragdon and Fritz Trautmann"
This exhibition showcases Rochester artists and visionaries Claude Bragdon and Fritz Trautmann, whose shared ideas about cosmic forces in art and life fueled a steady friendship until Bragdon's death in 1946. While Bragdon has been the subject of books and exhibitions in recent years, this will be the first examination of Trautmann's contributions as a colorist, longtime teacher at the Memorial Art Gallery's Creative Workshop, and painter of Galaxy, a visitor favorite. Presented in honor of Jean France, architectural historian.

Memorial Art Gallery, Lockhart Gallery, 500 University Ave., 2 p.m. Sept. 19
"What's Up: Claude Bragdon and Fritz Trautmann" Assistant curator Jessica Marten discusses the exhibition described above, followed by a question session. Free with gallery admission.

Memorial Art Gallery, 500 University Ave., 2 p.m. Oct. 10
Linda D. Henderson, professor of art history at the University of Texas at Austin, will lecture on "Claude Bragdon and Modern Art."