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.
AlexApril 9, 2022 at 7:13 am
Such a beautiful setting for a school, though Black Mountain College certainly has an interesting/unique history. I’m not too terribly far from Ashville. Would love to experience this tour one day.
TerriApril 9, 2022 at 1:14 pm
I highly recommend you drive up to Black Mountain, NC to take this walking tour. And plan to spend a day in this cute town!
KristaApril 9, 2022 at 7:55 am
The landscape here is really beautiful. It’s great when colleges have so much history behind them to learn about.
TerriApril 9, 2022 at 1:13 pm
I am glad that there is a Black Mountain Collegre museum so the school’s proud history is not forgotten.
BejalApril 9, 2022 at 8:46 am
I’m such a sucker for history and. Colleges like this have it in abundance. I’d never heard of this one either so literally an education for me!
TerriApril 9, 2022 at 1:12 pm
I am so glad that my article is proving educational. I was so inspired to learn about BMC’s revolutionary experiment in progressive education. It is so sad that it went out of business in the late 1950s.
JasminaApril 9, 2022 at 9:25 am
That’s such an interesting article. And I love how beautiful the landscape is!
TerriApril 9, 2022 at 1:11 pm
The hills, woods, lake & mountains are breaktaking. The Blue Ridge mountains was a perfect place to create this revolutionary college in the 1930s!
Lorraine CaputoApril 9, 2022 at 9:47 am
Such a cutting-edge program! It is too bad it doesn’t still offer courses, especially in these times!
Thank you for helping to preserve its memory, its history.
TerriApril 9, 2022 at 1:10 pm
I would go to this school if it still existed today. At one point they offered summer institutes. It inspires me to enroll in art classes at Glen Echo Park outside Washington DC! We never stop learning.
AlmaApril 9, 2022 at 9:52 am
Wow! Such a beautiful area for a college! Either students were inspired or distracted by its beauty, LOL. Great to learn about Black Mountain’s history.
TerriApril 9, 2022 at 1:09 pm
I can imagine all the artists and weavers and potters gathering on the lawn at night to discuss life. If only the ghosts of students past could tell their stories!
EmmaApril 9, 2022 at 11:38 am
As well as a beautiful campus, it looks like there’s a lot of great history to be learned. I love the idea of a campus tour so you can really get to know it well
TerriApril 9, 2022 at 1:08 pm
They only started doing the walking history tour since new management. It is a great way to educate visitors as well as residents about BMC’s history. I highly recommend.
A Capone ConnectionApril 9, 2022 at 12:08 pm
This college campus is really beautiful. I love the murals. Thank you for sharing!
TerriApril 9, 2022 at 1:07 pm
The frescos are gorgeous. I am so glad that they were able to rescue them due to the preservation fundraising campaign. They are almost 80 years old!
BrittanyApril 9, 2022 at 1:04 pm
Wow, I’ve never heard of Black Mountain College before. What an interesting history it has! The campus grounds are beautiful too. I’m glad to see Parker had the chance to explore with you 🙂 Thanks for sharing!
TerriApril 9, 2022 at 1:06 pm
I didn’t realize it’s significance as a progressive education experiment until I took the walking tour. It was fascinating. My dog loved the lawn!
KarlaTypesApril 9, 2022 at 1:27 pm
Very unique! I love the pictures you took 🙂
TerriApril 9, 2022 at 1:58 pm
Thank you! My fav is my puppy looking across Lake Eden.
MelissaApril 9, 2022 at 1:53 pm
I’d never heard the history behind this – so fascinating! And love the photos, as well. It seems like a really unique place to visit.
TerriApril 9, 2022 at 1:57 pm
I think the BMC is well known in NC but it deserves more recognition. I am glad that I could go on the historical walking tour which spurred my desire to research BMC.
AnitaApril 9, 2022 at 2:25 pm
The story of Black Mountain College is fascinating. It looks like an awesome place to visit. Thanks for the detailed description. It will serve me as future travel inspiration.
TerriApril 9, 2022 at 5:29 pm
I am so glad you enjoyed the history of this little arts college in NC that had such a huge impact. I hope you get to visit.
simplyjolayneApril 9, 2022 at 2:26 pm
What a treasure. There was definitely a great student to teacher ration when they first started out!
TerriApril 9, 2022 at 5:28 pm
So true! Who wouldn’t want to go to a school with such a ratio. Lucky students!
ErinApril 9, 2022 at 2:33 pm
Lake Eden looks gorgeous! I love that you incorporated your dog on the trip. I have never been here – looks like a great place to check out!
TerriApril 9, 2022 at 5:27 pm
Thank you! I try to bring my dog on my travel adventures. They were very kind to let me bring my puppy on the walking tour. I so appreciated it.
Elena PappalardoApril 9, 2022 at 3:45 pm
This is my first time hearing of Black Mountain College. I love that it comes with a fascinating history — and who can ask for a prettier campus?
TerriApril 9, 2022 at 5:26 pm
I agree that their former BMC campus is gorgeous. I just love spending time in the Blue Ridge mountains. The scenery is wild and wonderful.
YvonneApril 9, 2022 at 6:52 pm
I have not yet had the chance to visit North Carolina. This looks like a lovely place to visit. I would love the walking tour. Thank you for putting this on my radar!
TerriApril 9, 2022 at 8:24 pm
I highly recommend visiting North Carolina!
HannahApril 9, 2022 at 9:18 pm
What a beautiful campus. There’s a few college campuses near me that are so stunning (and that I have attended). This post inspires me to write about them!
TerriApril 10, 2022 at 6:09 am
I agree. I would have loved to been a student at BMC writing under a tree. The lake would have been my muse!
TerriApril 10, 2022 at 6:10 am
Sounds like a great idea!
KelliApril 10, 2022 at 1:57 am
I have never been to Ashville, but it is high on my bucket list. If I go, I will have to visit the BMC campus it looks stunning. I am sure it is even more stunning in the fall when the leaves are changing.
TerriApril 10, 2022 at 6:11 am
You definitely should visit Asheville. It is such a quirky city. I love its art district. Creative people feel at home.
MayiApril 10, 2022 at 3:00 am
The story of Black Mountain College is fascinating. I can only imagine how nice studying in such a beautiful setting must have been. The landscape is gorgeous, especially the view of Lake Eden. Thanks for sharing.
TerriApril 10, 2022 at 6:12 am
I’d like to spend an entire day at Lake Eden, reading, writing, exercising and napping. These students had a beautiful work environment.
AnnieApril 10, 2022 at 11:50 am
Wow, I had no idea about Black Mountain College! It’s definitely on my list now for the next time I find myself in the area. Thanks for all the great info!
TerriApril 10, 2022 at 5:55 pm
I highly recommend doing the walking tour of the now defunct Black Mountain College as well as visiting the lovely town!
SarahApril 10, 2022 at 12:45 pm
Another fabulous find, Terri! I love the photo of Parker in front of Lake Eden. What a beautiful place with history. I love reading your posts! I don’t see anything else like them anywhere else.
TerriApril 10, 2022 at 5:55 pm
Sarah you make me so happy. Thank you for the compliment. I love discovering fascinating history and architecture in places that I visit so I can share my discoveries with my readers. It is an added bonus when my Golden Retriever puppy can be included in the post!
Chirasree BanerjeeApril 10, 2022 at 4:07 pm
Terri. your first sentence hooked me right from the beginning. Loved reading your post and especially the history behind the campus.
TerriApril 10, 2022 at 5:53 pm
Thank you so much! I want to help my readers imagine this little upstart cottage as a fierce mountain cat that would fight any opposition.
NatalieApril 10, 2022 at 10:09 pm
This seems like such a fascinating place to visit, both for its history and scenery. And it most certainly would have been a fascinating to attend! Beautifully written post—it makes me want to visit and take that walking tour.
TerriApril 16, 2022 at 10:57 am
BMC is such an important institution as a liberal arts college opened during the early 20th century. I was fascinated by its history. Thanks for reading!
Lekha ChellaniApril 11, 2022 at 3:35 pm
This is the first I have heard about BMC and am impressed by it’s history and beauty! I would love to visit and tour the campuses. Great post!
TishApril 13, 2022 at 4:08 pm
Most interesting! I love the Blue Ridge
TerriApril 16, 2022 at 5:16 am
ShannonApril 20, 2022 at 9:04 pm
Very beautiful place, great for exploring!