Book Excerpt: ‘Black Mountain College’

Posted by | November 4, 2014

anne chesky_smithHeather SouthPlease welcome guest authors Anne E. Chesky Smith and Heather South. The two have just released the new book Black Mountain College (Arcadia Publishing). Chesky Smith grew up in the Swannanoa Valley of North Carolina and is a graduate of Appalachian State University’s Masters of Appalachian Studies program in Boone, NC. Smith served as the Executive Director of the Swannanoa Valley Museum for the past four years and is now pursuing her PhD in Anthropology at the University of Georgia in Athens. Heather South fell in love with archives work during an internship at Winthrop University, Rock Hill, SC, and has been working with historical documents ever since. Heather has a BA and MA in history from Winthrop University and is a member of the Academy of Certified Archivists. South is now the head archivist for the Western Regional Archives, a branch of the State Archives of North Carolina, located in Asheville, NC, which opened in August 2012. Black Mountain College boasts 200 vintage images, many of which have never been published, and chronicles the school’s unique history. We’re pleased to present the following excerpt:


In the spring of 1933, John Andrew Rice, a classics professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, faced an investigating team to answer to charges that ranged from wearing a jockstrap on the beach to being “disruptive of peace and harmony.”

Black Mountain cover final

Denying the former charge, but unable to fully dispute the latter because of his unconventional teaching methods and sometimes abrasive personality, Rice was fired. Several other faculty, including physics instructor Theodore Dreier, chemistry professor Frederick Georgia, and history professor Robert Lounsbury, rallied around Rice and the issues his firing brought up at the school. A few were also fired, and others resigned in protest.

That summer, many of Rice’s former students and colleagues encouraged him to start a new experimental school where they could practice many of the educational theories of which Rice had often spoken. When he finally agreed, space for the college and money to operate it had to be found quickly. Former Rollins drama professor and native North Carolinian Bob Wunsch suggested Blue Ridge Assembly, located in Black Mountain, North Carolina.

The Christian conference center, in use only during the summer, proved to be an excellent location for the school. The large, three-story, white-columned main building, Robert E. Lee Hall, boasted a large lobby, wide porch, two wings, and rooms suitable for dorms. There was also a separate dining room directly behind Lee Hall. All of this would well serve the college’s idea of a communal living environmental. And, best of all, it was available for just $4,500 a year—a modest sum for a rental, but still an obstacle for Rice and his supporters to raise before the start of the term.

Without a clear operational plan, Rice had trouble finding funding from traditional sources, but at the last minute, he lucked into a $10,000 gift from the wealthy family of another former Rollins faculty, “Mac” Forbes, who would continue to generously support the college for many years. Now, with enough money in the bank, Rice signed the lease for Blue Ridge Assembly on August 24, 1933, and Black Mountain College became a reality.

Campus members soak up the sun while reading in the rocking chairs off the dining hall after a meal, Blue Ridge campus.

Campus members soak up the sun while reading in the rocking chairs off the dining hall after a meal, Blue Ridge campus.

The first board of fellows consisted of Rice, Georgia, Lounsbury, Dreier, Dreier’s younger brother John, and J.E. Spurr. When Lounsbury died suddenly of a stroke just after the start of the first term, and with John Dreier and Spurr mostly absent from the campus, the college was put firmly in the hands of three men—John Andrew Rice, Theodore Dreier, and Frederick Georgia. They appointed themselves to faculty positions, put together bylaws of the college, and elected Georgia as the college’s first rector. After the first year, however, the title would be given to Rice.

But by no means was work in class and on campus the only, or even the main, emphasis of the college. Allowing time for leisure and personal exploration was another component of educating the whole student. The grounds and forests surrounding Blue Ridge Assembly allowed for an abundance of outdoor activities. Students and faculty gathered for dancing after dinner during the week and attended concerts and plays put on by the community on weekends.

The most innovative—and best-remembered—part of Black Mountain’s education experiment, though, was the school’s emphasis on putting art at the center of the curriculum. Students were encouraged to take courses in theater, music, drawing, painting, and poetry. But in order for the arts to be a central focus, an art teacher had to be found. After turning down several recommendations, Rice was told about a German couple that was trying to come to the United States after the Bauhaus had closed its doors.

He hired Josef Albers, a painter, and his wife, Anni, a weaver, on the spot, sight unseen. The Albers arrived at Black Mountain just before Thanksgiving 1933 and would, for the next decade and a half, be a driving force behind the arts at the college. Over the years, more refugee artists would find haven at Black Mountain, greatly shaping the school.

Two unidentified students work in the college’s chemistry lab on the Blue Ridge Assembly campus.

Two unidentified students work in the college’s chemistry lab on the Blue Ridge Assembly campus.

The college would gain notoriety during the 1930s, appearing in newspaper articles and attracting visitors such as John Dewey, Thornton Wilder, Henry Miller, and Aldous Huxley, who were interested in the Black Mountain experiment. But when Louis Adamic, a Yugoslavian writer, came to Black Mountain in 1936 and wrote a long magazine article that would appear in Harper’s and Reader’s Digest, a schism in the community began to develop.

Though the article brought the college much-needed publicity, it presented John Andrew Rice as the hero and leader of the school, a view to which many objected loudly and publicly. The fight between Rice and his detractors continued for over a year, and many faculty who were against him—including Frederick Georgia—were forced out. In 1938, however, it was discovered that Rice was having an affair with a student, and that became the precipitating factor that finally forced him from Black Mountain in 1940. His exit, along with a change of campus, would successfully bring about the end the first era of Black Mountain College’s history.

While Blue Ridge Assembly served the college well during its first years, moving in and out every summer to make room for the Christian conference goers became problematic. Plus, renting a facility limited how much the college could grow and change.

Students rest on a farm truck with John Andrew Rice (seated against the trunk cab).  The farm, a student generated idea, was started to subsidize some of the cost of feeding the students and staff.

Students rest on a farm truck with John Andrew Rice (seated against the truck cab). The farm, a student generated idea, was started to subsidize some of the cost of feeding the students and staff.

So in 1937, the college purchased a 667-acre property across the valley at Lake Eden. Architecture professor A. Lawrence Kocher was asked to design a single facility that would house classrooms, space for a weaving room, storage, student studies, and faculty apartments.

The design was approved, and beginning in the fall of 1940, in an effort to save money, classes were only held in the morning so that students and faculty could go to Lake Eden and work with a few professionals on winterizing the existing buildings and constructing the new Studies Building. In May 1941, with the end of their lease at Blue Ridge Assembly, the college packed up all their equipment and trucked it to the Lake Eden property.

Like the 1930s, the 1940s brought new faculty, new ideas, and new schisms within the college.

The same summer (1944) in which the college invited Alma Stone to be the first black member of the community also saw the introduction of two special summer sessions—one in art and one in music—that, over the years, would bring many notable artists, including Willem de Kooning, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, and Buckminster Fuller, to teach at Black Mountain for a few weeks. It was during one of these summer sessions that Fuller would successfully erect his first geodesic dome.

Black Mountain’s third, and final, era saw it become a dramatically different place it had been for the first 16 years. Enrollment dropped even further in the 1950s, falling to 35 students by1953, then to 15, then to 9, which kept funding a continuing issue.

Sue Spayth (Riley) climbing out onto the roof of Lee Hall for Macbeth rehearsal. She played Lady Macbeth in the campus production.

Sue Spayth (Riley) climbing out onto the roof of Lee Hall for Macbeth rehearsal. She played Lady Macbeth in the campus production.

Selling a large tract of land across the road from the college shored up some of the college’s finances, but few at the school in the 1950s were interested in (or nearly as good as Ted Dreier had been) at fundraising and administration. Interest in the work program was minimal. The farm was neglected, and when the cows began to die from lack of care, they were sold off.

The few attempts on behalf of some faculty members to add a more traditional structure to the college failed in favor of continuing the college’s original ideals of creativity, freedom, and artistic expression, and those faculty, frustrated with the direction in which the college was headed, left the school. Though the last of the college’s summer sessions were held in 1953, Olson attempted to reorganize the structure of the school away from a traditional class schedule to a series of institutes in art, science, and social science held for intense periods throughout the semester but in the end, it was not enough.

Though it only lasted 24 years, Black Mountain College continues to inspire thought on community living, experimental education, and the arts. Several books have already been compiled that chronicle the history of the place, the art that came out of it, and many of the personal stories from the college. The purpose of this publication is twofold—to showcase a small percentage of the image collection at the NCDCR and to introduce Black Mountain College to those who never knew this special place existed.

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