Some of the landmark buildings by modernist architect Claude Bragdon still stand today—the First Universalist Church, the Bevier Memorial Building, the Peterborough Bridge near Toronto, Ontario, and nearly 100 residences in the Rochester area. He even designed five police precincts, one of which is now home to Writers & Books on University Avenue.
With his selective eye for details, Bragdon once held a garden party behind his Rochester home called “Cro’ Nest,” and the invitation-only event featured a chorus and lanterns decorated with projective ornaments. The social gathering later served as the prototype for the Song and Light Festivals of 1915-1918, the first of which was located at Highland Park, and later held at New York City’s Central Park.
Bragdon’s fascinating life (1866-1946) as a first generation modernist architect, as well as an illustrator, critic, theorist and theater designer, is featured in a new book, Claude Bragdon and the Beautiful Necessity, published by the Cary Graphic Arts Press at Rochester Institute of Technology.
The book includes 11 essays by notable scholars highlighting Bragdon’s contributions to American culture. The full-color catalogue also contains more than 200 images of Bragdon’s work, carefully selected to accompany an exhibition in Rare Books & Special Collections at the University of Rochester, which is on view through Oct. 16.
“Bragdon practiced architecture in Rochester throughout the Progressive Era and his masterpiece, the New York Central Railroad Station, was demolished in the 1960s,” says Andrea Reithmayr, who is the Rare Book Conservator at the UR River Campus Libraries and Curator of collections, including the Bragdon Family Papers since 2006.
“He had technical and artistic expertise in many disciplines, making it difficult to categorize his work into a specific stylistic trend.”
Local architectural historian Jean France agrees; she calls Bragdon a true Renaissance man—too intelligent to stay still. “His mother, Katherine Shipherd and sister May, who never married, were very devoted to him and saved every scrapbook paper he ever wrote,” she says. “I’ve been reading this collection’s documents for 30 years and there’s 40 feet of paper filled with letters, manuscripts, typescripts, specifications and architectural drawings.”
Bragdon worked as an architect in Rochester from 1890 to 1920, during which time he taught his first pen and ink class at the Mechanics Institute—renamed Rochester Institute of Technology in 1944. Bragdon then moved to New York City where he became a set designer for Walter Hampden’s Shakespearean theatrical productions.
France became interested in Bragdon’s life during the 1960s, and even collected some tiles and artifacts when Rochester’s New York Central Railroad Station was being demolished, some of which are featured in the book.
She also owns “Mathematical Abstraction No. 4,” one of Bragdon’s famous watercolor paintings which he completed later in life. France donated it to the Memorial Art Gallery collection of Bragdon’s works, “because it belongs with its siblings.” It will be featured in the MAG exhibition “Episodes from an Unwritten History: Claude Bragdon and Fritz Trautman,” which opens Aug. 14.
Several notable events related to the Claude Bragdon and the Beautiful Necessity book will be held in the Rochester area.
Editor’s Note: RIT Cary Graphic Arts Press and its new imprint, RIT Press, are scholarly publishing enterprises at Rochester Institute of Technology. The Press is associated with the Melbert B. Cary Jr. Graphic Arts Collection, one of the country’s premier libraries on the history and practice of printing.