Professor Smith and His Rock
Fr. Edward Seton Fittin OSB and Jessica Fiddes
Posted July 9, 2012
Delbarton alums are not the only ones heading to the University of Notre Dame this September. In fact, they will be preceded by a rather large Delbarton artifact that wisely has chosen not to fly.
Thanks to the work of esteemed Notre Dame professor of architecture Thomas Gordon Smith St. Mary's Abbey learned the provenance of the so-called "Lost City," the Corinthian capitals, columns and lintels which had been tucked away in the woods for over a century. Last week Professor Smith took home to South Bend an unusual memento.
For years a massive collection of marble fragments was hidden in the woods beyond what became the School's faculty parking lot. The rocks were sometimes known as The Lost City and, lacking any conclusive evidence, rumors swirled about their provenance. Were they remnants from a Sicilian temple? Fragments of a Grecian facade? How did Delbarton's creator, Luther Kountze, transport them to Morristown, NJ? And what was he planning to do with them? Build another garden? Nobody knew.
In summer 2009 the artifacts were moved from the woods to make way for the Abbey's sale of the property to the Trust for Public Land. Seeing the collection of marble fragments in the harsh glare of sunlight renewed speculation about their origin, and Fr. Benet mentioned the pieces to local garden designer/historian Marta McDowell. Employing a string of nouns (including 'Wanamaker': one rumor associated the pieces with the turn of the century retailer) McDowell was able to identify the fragments as facades from Colonnade Row of LaGrange Terrace, a sumptuous 1830s residential edifice in lower Manhattan long revered by classical architects and historians.
Fr. Benet emailed classical architect and Notre Dame professor Thomas Gordon Smith, who had written a article, The New Athenians, about Colonnade Row, and Smith immediately flew in from South Bend, IN to check out the treasures. He confirmed that they were portions of Lagrange Terrace. Professor Smith returned several times to Delbarton over the next few years to measure, sketch and study the pieces, and his close association with the Metropolitan Museum of Art brought several of the Museum's representatives to Delbarton. In fact, last year The Met acquired a collection of pieces which are now on permanent display in The American Wing. NYT columnist Christopher Gray even wrote an interesting article about Delbarton's Lost City thanks to a hot tip from Delbarton dad and NYC architecture buff Jeff Zak.
Speculation about Kountze's original intention for the artifacts continues. On the St. Mary's Abbey website Fr. Edward Seton Fittin writes, "It would seem, according to Delbarton lore but uncorroborated, Luther Kountze, the long-deceased owner of the Delbarton estate, intended to create a second garden on the East side of his mansion --"Old Main" as the Benedictines have called since taking up residence in Morris Twp. in 1926. This would have created a balance with the Italian Garden (or "Senior" Garden as students have called it for decades) on the west side of Old Main, if this in fact were true. We don't know for sure what Kountze had in mind for the pieces. We do know that he made good use of several small Doric columns for a porch at the rear of his mansion, seen as one exits the back end of the central hall. This replaced a wooden wrap-around porch clearly visible in archival photos of the Kountze mansion. Friezes with laurel wreaths in low relief were used for the two towers that anchor the pergola, the dominant architectural backdrop of the Italian Garden--now a 9/11 meditative memorial."
For Professor Smith, the Delbarton discovery was the missing link to his research, and he was instrumental in solving Delbarton's architectural mystery. In tribute to his excellent investigative work, which produced a detailed inventory and scale drawings, last week St. Mary's Abbey/Delbarton presented Professor Smith with the gift of a capital. And, oh, what a gift it is -- the piece weighs close to 3,000 pounds, not exactly carry-on for the flight to Indiana. Thus on July 6, 2012 Professor Smith rented a forklift, carefully lifted the capital into a rental truck and off he drove with his wife Marika and son Andrew back to South Bend.
Homesick Delbarton alumni at Notre Dame can now visit the capital, which combines the history of their alma mater with that of classical American architecture. Meanwhile, closer to home, the Delbarton community can also visit another well preserved Colonnade Row capital at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
We salute Professor Smith for his passionate study of classical architecture. What better tribute to his industry than to own an authentic piece of American architectural history? And what of the remaining pieces? Stay tuned.
Go Wave Rocks!