Black Mountain College: Idea + Place

Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center
February 11, 2022 – September 3, 2022

How can an idea inform a place? How can a place inform an idea? Would Black Mountain College have had the same identity and lifespan if it had been located in the urban Northeast, the desert Southwest, or coastal California? How did BMC’s rather isolated, rural, and mountainous setting during the era of the Great Depression and the Jim Crow South influence the college community’s decision-making and the evolution of ideas upon which it was based? This exhibition seeks to delve into these questions and others by exploring the places of Black Mountain College: its two very different campuses, its influential predecessor the Bauhaus in Germany, and the post-BMC diaspora.

The Bauhaus

The Bauhaus was a school of design founded in 1919 in Weimar, Germany by architect Walter Gropius. The school moved to Dessau in 1925, and then to Berlin in 1932. After just 14 years of existence, Bauhaus leaders opted to close the school in 1933 rather than succumb to pressure by the Nazis. This closure was to have a huge impact on Black Mountain College. In 1933, soon after the Bauhaus closed, Josef and Anni Albers were invited to come to the newly conceived Black Mountain College where Josef would head the art program and Anni the Weaving Workshop. Other Bauhaus artists would follow, and collectively their influence on the structure and ethos of BMC was tremendous.

Founding Faculty of BMC. Dreier Collection, Western Regional Archives, State Archives of NC. Front row: Joseph Martin, Helen Boyden, Hilda “Peggy” Loram, Elizabeth Vogler, and John Andrew Rice. Back row: John Evarts, Ted Dreier, Frederick Georgia, Ralph Lounsbury, and William Hinckley.

BMC Beginnings

Founded in 1933 by John Andrew Rice, an ousted professor of classics from Rollins College in Florida, and several colleagues, BMC opened its doors in September 1933 with 12 faculty members and 22 students. Rice was a follower of John Dewey’s ideas about progressive education and saw the new college as a place to put those ideas into action. With little time to fundraise, the founders needed to find a readymade facility for their startup college. That place was the Blue Ridge Assembly, a large complex of buildings owned by the YMCA, on the southern outskirts of Black Mountain, NC. 

The property is situated about halfway up a mountain, surrounded by forests and rhododendron groves, with outstanding views of the Great Craggy Mountains and the Black Mountains to the north. Since the YMCA only used the Blue Ridge Assembly during the summer, Black Mountain College was able to rent it for the other three seasons of the year. Anchored by the massive Robert E. Lee Hall, the property had ample space for the young college community to establish itself and grow. The college would remain at the Blue Ridge Assembly for eight years.

Important principles that guided the college from the beginning included:

No outside authority would have power or control; therefore the college was owned and operated by the faculty. There were no Board of Trustees, Regents, or Deans.

The structure was non-hierarchical and democratic, with all members of the college community having a voice.

Students were in charge of their educational choices. There were no required classes, and grades were kept private, for record-keeping purposes only. 

The arts were central to the liberal arts education offered at BMC. 

There was an active work program in which all members of the community were expected to participate. Knowledge was acquired through the experience of doing. Education and Life were the same.

The goal was to prepare students to become active citizens of the world. 

Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, Project for Black Mountain College, Lake Eden, North Carolina: Perspective, college seen across the valley, 1938-39. Image courtesy of Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of Walter Gropius.

Transition to Lake Eden

Black Mountain College thrived at the Blue Ridge campus, but after several successful years of renting, the college became concerned that they would lose their lease. In June 1937 BMC purchased over 600 acres of land on the north side of the Swannanoa Valley; this would become their eventual new home. The property had been developed by E.W. Grove as a summer resort for residents of his nearby Grovemont neighborhood, and it had a number of buildings already in place, including a dining hall, sleeping lodges, several cottages and other structures, as well as a small lake. The property was quite different from the Blue Ridge campus, but it was distinctively wonderful in its own way. The major issue with the Lake Eden campus was that it lacked a building large enough to house classrooms, faculty offices, and student studies. 

Initially the college engaged with architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer to design a large campus complex overlooking the lake (above), but they were unable to raise the needed funds. Next, the college asked American architect A. Lawrence Kocher to design a simpler structure (below) that could be built by the college community. Over the next few years BMC worked to winterize the existing Grove buildings, establish a working farm on the property, and construct one wing of the large, Kocher-designed Studies Building complex for classrooms, faculty offices, and individual studies for each student. In the fall of 1941, the college finally moved to its new home at Lake Eden, where it would remain for 16 years. 

Hazel Larsen Archer, Buckminster Fuller and Students, Geodesic Dome Construction, Summer 1949. Courtesy of the Estate of Hazel Larsen Archer.

1940’s: A Place of Their Own

With the energy generated by the move to Lake Eden and the successful completion of the Studies Building, Black Mountain College entered a new phase of its evolution. As year-round owners rather than part-time renters, they would continue to build and renovate buildings and also begin to offer summer programs. New building projects included barns, a milk house, and two silos to accommodate the growing farm, a music cubicle for piano practice, the Quiet House for meditation and respite, and new faculty houses such as the Jalowetz House, built for faculty members Heinrich and Johanna Jalowetz, European refugees who came to the U.S. to escape the Nazis.

The impact of WWII on the college was significant. Beginning in 1933 with the arrival of Josef and Anni Albers and continuing well into the 1940s, BMC provided a welcoming refuge and a path forward for displaced Europeans who faced threats to their lives under Hitler’s reign, and for Americans of Japanese ancestry who had been persecuted after Japan invaded Pearl Harbor. After the U.S. entered the war, most of the male students left, and the college kept itself afloat through the efforts of the women on campus. Once the war ended and the G.I. Bill went into effect, Black Mountain College experienced an enrollment boom, as male students returned, and an influx of new students arrived. 

The summer of 1944 was groundbreaking for the college. The first Summer Music Institute, brought an exciting roster of guest musicians and singers to BMC. Also that summer, the college made the important decision to integrate the student body when they invited an African American student to attend. Alma Stone, a graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, came to BMC for the summer of 1944 on a Rosenwald scholarship. This historic action occurred 10 years prior to the Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing racial segregation in public schools, and made BMC one of the first predominantly white colleges or universities in the Jim Crow South to become racially integrated. For the next few years, the college continued to invite students and faculty of color to join the community, including Ruth Asawa, a Japanese-American student who arrived in 1944, and Jacob Lawrence, an African American painting instructor at BMC during the summer of 1946. 

The summer sessions of the 1940s and 1950s added immeasurably to the artistic dimensions of the college. Summer art, music, and dance faculty such as Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Leo Amino, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Franz Kline, Katherine Litz, Lou Harrison, Peter Voulkos, Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, Buckminster Fuller, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Ben Shahn, Jack Tworkov, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, Walter Gropius, and many others injected thrilling new ideas and experiences into the Summer Institutes. 

Community gathering to announce the closing of the college. Front (l to r): Eric Weinberger, Dan Rice, Basil King, Betty Olson, Charles Olson, Harvey Frauenglass, Dita Frauenglass, Joseph Fiore, Ebbe Borregaard. Back: Wesley Huss, unidentified, Eloise Mixon, Don Mixon, Ann Simone, Robert Hawley, unidentified. Photographer Unknown.

1950’s: BMC’s Final Years

As the 1940’s drew to a close, the BMC community was dealing with more than the usual amount of turmoil. An ongoing disagreement boiled over into a factious feud as the future structure of the college was debated. Longtime BMC art instructors and central figures, Josef and Anni Albers, and Ted Dreier, the college treasurer and chief fundraiser, along with other faculty members and students, left in early 1949. Thus began another time of transition as the BMC community struggled to fill the leadership void and resolve the simmering conflicts. Several advanced students were invited to teach classes, and the college was able to continue, surviving one of its worst crises to date. 

 In 1951, after teaching at BMC off and on since the fall of 1948, the charismatic poet Charles Olson emerged as the final leader of the BMC community. Over the next several years, his presence attracted a talented roster of writers to the college, notably the poet Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, with whom Olson would work on the Black Mountain Review, and gifted students such as Jonathan Williams, Michael Rumaker, Francine du Plessix, Fielding Dawson, Suzi Gablik, Joel Oppenheimer, and others. 

The Summer Institutes continued on for a few more years, with milestone events taking place such as 1951’s focus on photography with instructors Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Arthur Siegel, and faculty member Hazel Larsen Archer, who organized the session; John Cage and David Tudor’s influential 1952 “happening”, a multidisciplinary performance in the Dining Hall titled Theatre Piece No. 1, with participants including M.C. Richards, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, and Charles Olson; and the founding of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in the summer of 1953. 

During the 1950s, student enrollment and faculty numbers began to dwindle, fundraising was difficult, and the physical integrity of the sprawling campus began to deteriorate. In 1955, looking for a way out of poverty, they arranged a lease/purchase agreement for the lower campus to assume a new life as a boys’ camp. As a result, the sleeping lodges, the Dining Hall, Round House, and other structures were no longer available to be used by BMC. The money earned helped settle debts the college had accumulated, primarily paying off loans and back salary owed to faculty. In 1956 the farm was sold and finally, in the fall of that year, Charles Olson and Wesley Huss, among the very few faculty members remaining, decided to close the college. Olson had a vision for a way to continue BMC as a nomadic, satellite university, but funding wasn’t available for his dream to become a sustained reality. Over the next few months, Olson made arrangements to sell or donate the assets of the college, settle all final debts, and Black Mountain College officially closed in 1957.

BMC Reunion

Sprouted Seeds

The energy, ideas, and impact of Black Mountain College were carried forth into the world by those who were there, whether in the 1930s, 1940s, or 1950s. These seeds from BMC then spread and sprouted widely in education, the arts of all kinds, and in ideas about living cooperatively in experimental communities. 

The Blue Ridge Assembly campus is still owned by the YMCA and is a year-round conference center. Robert E. Lee Hall is now known as Eureka Hall. Most of the Lake Eden campus is now owned by Lake Eden Preserve and is still home to Camp Rockmont for Boys. The Studies Building serves as the administrative offices for the camp. The BMC Farm and Barns are owned by Lake Eden Events and Lodging and are available for special events.

Before BMC closed, a new community deeply influenced by the college was forming in Rockland County, NY. Known as the Gate Hill Cooperative or The Land, it was founded by former BMC students Paul and Vera Williams who were joined by BMCers M.C. Richards, David Tudor, Karen Karnes, David Weinrib, John Cage, Patsy Lynch, Stan Vanderbeek, and others. This visionary community continues to this day with different members. Another community of former BMC alumni started in Oregon. Many alumni made their way to New York City to pursue lives in the arts, but places like San Francisco, Santa Fe, and Taos were also likely landing places.

The arts education pedagogy brought to the U.S. from the Bauhaus by Josef and Anni Albers has had a lasting impact on courses taught in art departments all over the world. Younger visual artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Susan Weil, Cy Twombly, Ruth Asawa, Jacob Lawrence, Kenneth Snelson, Stan Vanderbeek, and Ray Johnson further expanded our notions of materials exploration and art practice into new and thrilling territory.

Similarly in music, dance, performance, and the literary arts, the freedom to experiment and collaborate that was ever present at BMC, led to some of the most innovative work of the 20th and 21st centuries, such as the collaborations between Merce Cunningham and John Cage and Jonathan Williams’ small press known as The Jargon Society, an incubator for collaborative work between writers and visual artists. 

It is important to remember that beyond the famous names that are frequently referenced, the college’s legacy spread in less public ways through the powerful daily influence of BMC alumni in all fields of endeavor, enjoying process as much as product, and living life as a responsible citizen of the world. The reverberations from their work and influence continue to spread.

In 1993 our museum was founded by Mary Holden Thompson to preserve and continue the history and legacy of Black Mountain College. In 2022 we will celebrate our 29th anniversary.

Curated by Alice Sebrell, Director of Preservation