In the hills of Western North Carolina, Black Mountain College (BMC) crouched like a panther ready to leap during the Depression. The brainchild of a mercurial Rollins College professor, this unaccredited college was ready to fight any opposition to its progressive education system.
John Andrew Rice was a classics professor who wanted to create his liberal arts college on John Dewey’s principles of progressive education.
“I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.”John Dewey
Dewey decried the old methods of teaching. He believed students should be actively involved in what they learned as opposed to memorizing and reciting. Prepare students to solve problems, not passively recite.
North Carolina Revolution
Rice also believed that the students in this new style of college would benefit from this approach.
Among the subjects to be taught at Black Mountain College were philosophy, languages, economics, psychology, mathematics, and the arts. BMC needed to attract a professor for the arts department. The answer would be found in hiring a German art teacher and his textile artist wife who were fleeing persecution under Hitler’s reign. He no longer had a job at the Bauhaus School so he was willing to move to the United States to teach.
“The events that precipitated the college’s founding occurred simultaneously with the rise of Adolf Hitler, the closing of the Bauhaus school in Germany, and escalating persecution of artists and intellectuals in Europe.”Black Mountain College & Arts Center
The translation of the German word Bauhaus is “building house.” The Bauhaus art school operated from 1919 to 1933 in Germany, training students in crafts and fine arts. Its prominent teachers included Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.
Art teacher Josef Albers did not speak English. But he boarded a ship with his wife Anni, who was a textile artist, to “teach art at this small, rebellious college in the mountains of North Carolina,” according to the Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center (BMCM+AC).
The headline for the local North Carolina newspaper read “Germans On Faculty at Black Mountain College.”
In fall 1933, the first BMC class entered the doors of the institution. “There were 12 faculty members and 22 students,” said Alice Sebrell, Director of Preservation at BMCM+AC.
BMC did not grade students. “One of the founding principles was students weren’t assigned grades,” she stressed. “Grades were kept on an index card if needed for transfer. They were trying to create a democratic organization.”
BMC’s curriculum included radical experiments. For example, students built Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Dome. The first attempt used remnants of Venetian blinds. This dome design failed. Fuller returned in 1949. “He succeeded with a different dome,” said Sebrell. The dome looked like an inflated plastic structure.
Sebrell led the morning walking tour on the grounds of the now-defunct Black Mountain College. It ceased operations in 1957. The new owners turned it into a summer camp. Lake Eden Preserve recently purchased the facility. The organization inaugurated the walking tours. (The charge is $15 per adult for the one-hour tour.) Register online here.
“These one-hours tour cover the historic lower campus buildings including The Dining Hall, Lodges, The Quiet House, and The Studies Building as well as the iconic and recently conserved frescos painted by Jean Charlot and BMC students in the summer of 1944,” according to BMCM + AC.
I could almost imagine the BMC teachers roaming across the green fields or standing by the lake to chat about philosophy or art. Hulking mountains encircle the campus. The heavily-forested grounds reminded me of the Black Forest in Germany.
Lake Eden Campus
Sebrell walked our group around the campus so we could look at the classrooms, dormitories, and offices. She also showed us photographs of the teachers and students who built the complex.
Lake Eden is the second BMC campus. “The YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly was the first building for the college,” explained Sebrell. It operated for seven years in this location until it purchased the Lake Eden property. Real estate magnate E. W. Grove previously owned the property. He planned to develop as a resort. It is located less than 30 miles from Asheville, where Grove built his upscale Grove Arcade shopping center.
BMC commissioned Walter Gropius and his partner Marcel Breuer to design the new college complex. Gropius’ Bauhaus colleagues Josef Albers and Xanti Schawinsky taught at the college. Gropius was then an architecture professor at Harvard University.
In June 1941, BMC moved to the new Lake Eden campus.
Although the founders approved the modernist design, they couldn’t raise the money for Gropius-Breuer plans.
“At a time when most colleges copied eclectic styles such as Colonial, Gothic, or Renaissance to give a sense of credibility to their academic ideals, Black Mountain College decided that the buildings in appearance and in structure should be modern to reflect its progressive philosophy,” according to the Black Mountain College newsletter.
Sebrell said they then hired the American architect A. Lawrence Kocher. His modern architectural style won the praise (as well as donations) for the new home of the BMC. Most importantly, Sebrell said faculty and students could build his simpler buildings.
BMC appointed Kocher as Professor of Architecture at Black Mountain in fall 1940. He designed several buildings over a two-year period.
“The main building which Kocher designed had four wings providing for administration, a library and exhibition hall, student studies, faculty apartments, and rooms for social gathering.”Blackmountaincollegeproject.org
The wooden buildings fit naturally into the woodlands. Many feature porches with stone staircases. They nestle between tall pines. Staff planted large bushes and boulders in front. All the buildings surround Lake Eden.
Black Mountain College operated in its new facility from 1941 until 1957. But its legacy to Western North Carolina is profound.
“Legendary even in its own time, Black Mountain College attracted and created maverick spirits, some of whom went on to become well-known and extremely influential individuals in the latter half of the 20th century.”BMCM+AC
This list includes Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Josef and Anni Albers, Jacob Lawrence, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Cy Twombly, Kenneth Noland, Susan Weil, Vera B. Williams, Ben Shahn, Ruth Asawa, Franz Kline, Arthur Penn, Buckminster Fuller, M.C. Richards, Francine du Plessix Gray, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Dorothea Rockburne.
BMCM+AC is committed to maintaining the property. We studied two frescos that had been saved due to the organization’s preservation efforts. These frescos represent two virtues: Inspiration and Knowledge.
They were nearly ruined by mold, weather, and graffiti. These frescoes have been restored through a conservation funding program. The work began in fall 2020.
Lake Eden Campus
I highly recommend booking this tour if you are visiting Asheville or hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains. While I had heard of an artist college operated in the mountains of western North Carolina, I had no idea what gave birth to this ultra-modern educational institution during the Depression.
“For a short time in the middle of the twentieth century a small town in North Carolina became a hub of American cultural production.”American Masters (PBS)
As the BMCM+AC proudly notes, “even now, decades after its closing in 1957, the powerful influence of Black Mountain College continues to reverberate.”
ReVIEWING Black Mountain College Conference
Sebrell also mentioned that University of North Carolina at Asheville will organize a conference in the fall about BMC. “ReVIEWING Black Mountain College conference is a forum for scholars and artists to contribute original work on topics related to Black Mountain College and its place in cultural history. The format is designed to be interdisciplinary, with a three-day program that includes a full schedule of speakers, panels, workshops, and performances,” according to University of North Carolina at Asheville.