Sage of Lynchburg
By William Richards
The Rivermont section of Lynchburg is perched above the James River, but its winding streets and shady hollows offer few clues to that tactical position. Heading out of town, down in the holler along a white fence, is the family homestead of the University of Miami historian Catherine Lynn since it was built in the 1950s. Except for a modest addition and some landscape work, the house retains the feel of a Southern manse: egg and dart molding, exquisitely carved niches in the formal dining room, and a wide entry hall to catch breezes from the northwest. Lynn, who goes by Tappy, led me through the yard and into the entry hall where I was greeted by an affable dog named Aldo—for Rossi. Vincent Scully appeared from the living room and offered a soft, polite greeting.
I had come to interview Scully for a research project, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Here was the famous Yale art and architectural historian, whose true habitat is the lectern and the stage, whose magnanimity looms in the mind of anyone who enrolled in his survey course—continuously offered since the late-1940s—and whose storytelling is legendary. Although I had prepared a list of questions, I had trouble figuring out what I was going to ask him.
“Do you remember Elizabeth Mock? She wrote If You Want to Build a House, and How to Build a Bridge, and so on. Well, it was all good taste/bad taste with MoMA then,” Scully began.
“No, no—we don’t use ‘taste,’” chided Lynn.
“Well, they’re the ones who called Modern architecture a ‘style,’ anyway,” he continued.
And, so went the
afternoon. Although I had come to talk about Yale and New Haven in the 1960s, Scully and Lynn bantered about everything from El Lissitzky to Arthur Drexler to French aphorisms to the “very tall drink” that friends would be handed upon entering the Glass House.
“My favorite car was the Deux Chevaux,” he noted as his mind drifted away from architecture and toward the iconic Citroën 2CV, first introduced in 1949.
“It had an enormous suspension, but it was very light—and gray,” his voice lowered to a growl, “and it shifted like this,” he thrust his arm up, “and had widows you opened like this,” he jabbed outward.
“But, I always wanted a black Citroën—like a gangster car.” It was then that his eyes began to twinkle in that famous Scully way, usually reserved for topics like Paestum or Eleusis.
Active as an historian and a critic for more than 60 years, the 89-year old Scully has influenced at least three generations of academics and scores of architects. His books and articles have always conveyed architecture’s history in light of its living practice; his sparring match with Norman Mailer brought Modern architecture to the center of public debate; his support of Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi, Maya Lin, and others was critical to their respective careers. When the updated Grove Encyclopedia of American Art appears next year, it will even include an entry on the native New Havener, and his awards, commendations, and the Vincent Scully Prize, offered by the National Building Museum, have left him in a class by himself.
I asked him about receiving the National Medal of the Arts in 2004 at the White House.
“It was a lovely ceremony with the President and the First Lady,” he said, with a slight smile, “and Tappy thinks I’m crazy, but do you know who the nicest person in that room was?”
I drew a blank.
With that, downshifted to cars, again.
William Richards is the Editor-in-Chief of Inform: Architecture and Design in the Mid-Atlantic.