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Classical American

What today's architecture owes to Henry Hope Reed.

Jul 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 40 • By CATESBY LEIGH
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In 1968, Reed, Bayley, and nine others—mostly laymen—cofounded Classical America. Classical America introduced a series of valuable texts (both new works and books that had gone out of print) on art and architecture. It also provided instruction in drawing the classical orders, as well as perspective rendering, at the University of Pennsylvania and the National Academy of Design in Manhattan. The organization with which Classical America merged in 2002, now the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, has expanded these programs, and boasts regional chapters from coast to coast. (In Washington, the fledgling National Civic Art Society is waging a remarkably effective campaign against Frank Gehry’s abominable stage-set design for a national memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower and has a longer--term focus on one of Reed’s abiding concerns: reconnecting federal patronage with a classical heritage dating back to Washington and Jefferson.)

In later years, Reed’s labors were concentrated on particular institutional buildings. Hence his last solo effort: the vastly instructive The United States Capitol: Its Architecture and Decoration (2005), published when he was nearly 90. Alas, Reed didn’t live to see any new buildings emulate the grandeur of that great temple of democracy, or Whitney Warren’s Grand Central Terminal, or the nearby New York Central (now Helmsley) office tower—the latter dwarfed for 50 years now by the MetLife skyscraper, a monstrous concrete slab designed by Gropius and others, seemingly with the overriding aim of ruining views up and down Park Avenue.

“It is astonishing,” Reed asserted in a 1997 lecture on the magnificent Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, “how deeply fixed among American intellectual circles is the disdain—or is it fear?—of abundant ornament.” 

Only gradually did Reed come to realize just how heavily invested our cultural elites are in fallacious notions of creativity, and what a formidable barrier they present to aesthetic common sense. American civic art has yet to return to the Roman road the Founders opened; but a civic-art counter-culture has emerged, buttressed by the advent, nearly a quarter-century ago, of a fully classical (and very successful) program in architecture and urban design at Notre Dame. 

The New Urbanism, amply anticipated in the brilliant Tunnard-Reed collaboration, as well as Jane Jacobs’s masterwork, has recovered the historic paradigm of the pedestrian-scale, mixed-use neighborhood along with historic regional architectural styles and admirably artistic site-planning techniques. Traditional buildings are cropping up with increasing frequency on college campuses. And with the rise of a new generation of post-Vatican II bishops in the Roman Catholic church, we can hope for equally significant improvements in sacred architecture.

For this counterculture, Henry Hope Reed’s life work represents a beacon shining far into the future.

Catesby Leigh is a writer and architectural critic in Washington D.C.

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