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Henry-Russell Hitchcock (June 3, 1903 – February 19, 1987) was an American architectural historian. A long-time professor at Smith College and New York University, his writings helped to define modern architecture. In 1924, Philip Johnson’s father had given him stocks in Alcoa, the Aluminum Corporation of America; by the time he graduated from Harvard in the spring of 1930, he was a millionaire in his own right. By now he was having a passionate affair with the would-be poet Cary Ross, whom he had met through friends associated with the new Museum of Modern Art in New York. Ross was said to have been a friend of Ernest Hemingway and the F. Scott Fitzgerald in Paris in the 1920s. They resumed the affair, with a little less frenzy, in Paris in the summer. They took to spending a lot of time with an architecture scholar, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, also gay.
Henry-Russell Hitchcock was born in Boston to Henry Russell Hitchcock (1861–1940) and Alice W. Davis (1865–1952). He studied at the Middlesex School before entering Harvard, where he earned his A.B. in 1924 and M.A. in 1927. Virgil Thomson entered Harvard at 23 in 1919 where, between his above-average age and homosexuality, he was lonely. Eventually he discovered the Liberal Club, an organization for Jews, socialists, and the penniless who did not otherwise fit into the school’s social environment. There Thomson met Henry-Russell Hitchcock, the great architectural historian, and Maurice Grosser, Thomson’s lifelong lover, though during their time at the Liberal Club they barely knew each other.
Hitchcock attended Paul Sachs’ museum course in 1926 and quickly became part of a group that included Lincoln Kirstein, Alfred Barr, and others. Barr invited Hitchcock to lecture in his class at Wellesley, with Philip Johnson participating on occasion. There are multiple stories as how Johnson met Hitchcock. Both Johnson and Hitchcock were at the Barr’s Paris wedding in May 1930 and later, the two set off across Europe to research modern architecture. Henry-Russell Hitchcock introduced A. Everett Austin, Jr. to Philip Johnson in the late 1920s over lunch at the Copley Plaza. During a 1929 visit to New York, Virgil Thomson had gone to Harlem with Henry-Russell Hitchcock to see the famous black entertainer, Jimmie Daniels, perform. Inspired, Thomson decided to have an all-black cast for Four Saints. There were other consequences from that night. Daniels would become "the first Mrs. Johnson," Philip Johnson's lover.
Writing for the Hound & Horn -which also attracted Lincoln Kirstein, Alfred Barr, Virgil Thompson, T. S. Eliot, John Walker, Philip Johnson and others who would become apostles of modernism - Hitchcock coined the term International Style, according to Searing, the architectural historian. While teaching at Wesleyan University in Connecticut in the 1930, Hitchcock curated an exhibition on Berenice Abbott's photographs of urban vernacular American architecture. Hitchcock, who wrote and co-wrote more than 20 books and innumerable articles, inspired generations of architectural scholars during decades of teaching and also helped shape the architectural sensibility of his time through many influential exhibitions. The most famous was the 1932 International Style show at the Museum of Modern Art, done with the architect Philip Johnson.
His prolific scholarship made Hitchcock an institution in his own right, but he also worked, from his student days, at the center of the East Coast cultural establishment, whose institutions gave his work strategic prominence. At Harvard, in the 1920's, he was among a coterie of radical intellectuals who wrote for the student publication, Hound & Horn, which advocated modernism in the arts. His writing there set the stage for his work at the Museum of Modern Art, and later he went on to teach at Vassar College, Wesleyan University, Smith College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale and Harvard Universities, New York University Institute of Fine Arts and other institutions. He was director of the Smith College Museum of Art from 1949 to 1955. ''Of our generation, he was the leader of us all,'' said Johnson. ''He set a new standard of architectural scholarship and accuracy of judgment. In my opinion, the standard has yet to be equaled.''
During more than five decades as an architectural historian, he wrote books that became standard references. ''They are the armature within which many other scholars work,'' said Helen Searing, the architectural historian who, in 1982, organized a festschrift of architectural writing, presented as a tribute by other historians to Hitchcock.
While still in his 20's, Hitchcock wrote a classic work on modernism, ''Modern Architecture: Romanticism and Reintegration.'' This was followed by ''The International Style,'' done with Johnson in 1932, and the ''The Architecture of H. H. Richardson'' (1936). He also wrote ''In the Nature of Materials, the Buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright'' (1942), ''Painting Toward Architecture'' (1948), ''Early Victorian Architecture in Britain'' (1954), and ''Architecture: 19th and 20th Centuries'' (1958), among many others.
His writings at Harvard and later at the Museum of Modern Art helped introduce architectural modernism to the United States as a style rather than as a technical, functional or sociological way of building (as modernism was then being espoused in Europe). His scholarship always reflected the conviction that architecture is an art, and that architectural history proceeds ''genealogically'' through a succession of major and minor masters who directly influence one another.
Hitchcock argued that the individual shaped architecture more than broad social forces, and he focused on esthetic and formal aspects of buildings rather than on their political, economic and social context. He mixed academic interpretation of architectural history with criticism.
While he first actively proselytized for modern architecture, he went on in the 1930's to assume a more detached role as a historian, exploring the architecture of other eras, sometimes as an academic pioneer. His research ranged from medieval architecture through the Renaissance to Frank Lloyd Wright to the modernist period. His work on Victorian architecture rehabilitated a largely discredited style. When he wrote on the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, he not only understood the modernist aspects but also underscored the vernacular influence on the Finnish master.
But by temperament Hitchcock was, and remained, an adherent of the avant-garde. He wrote reviews of Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf; he was instrumental in arranging the first performance of Virgil Thompson and Gertrude Stein's opera, ''Four Saints in Three Acts,'' at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford.
Prescott Clarridge would boast there was a very active underground homosexual life in the 1940s Harvard. "We had gay cocktail parties and late night orgies, cruised the many gay bars of Boston as well as the gay friendly Club 100 and Casablanca in the Square. Some of us cruised the Lamont Library bathroom. We had affairs and breakups and did a lot of gossiping, just like today." Clarridge visited Stewart Mitchell at the Harvard Club, where he was paid $5 for an evening, and he went out with Henry-Russell Hitchcock. "When he'd take me to dinner when in Boston, being slightly deaf, his conversation, spoken in such loud sotto voce that it could be heard several tables away, included his amorous conquests in his wordly travels as well as a description of what he'd like to do with me. Bearded, imperious and physically impressive, he seemed to get away with it." Hitchcock took Clarridge to visit Philip Johnson at his famous glass house in New Canaan, CT, where as much as Hitchcock tried to steer the conversation to gay sex, Johnson resisted.
Former students say that, during his teaching career, Hitchcock always showed great generosity, consistently sharing his scholarship with them (many of his students became his close friends). He was known also for his good memory. Once during a lecture, for example, when a slide failed to drop into a carousel, he simply continued his lecture, describing the next building in vivid detail. He especially appreciated buildings for their physical presence, and made a point of writing only about buildings he had seen. Though he was a voracious traveler, that attitude did force him to limit the selection and diversity of buildings in, for instance, ''The International Style'' (he later said that the portrayal of modern architecture in the show and book was ''monolithic''). While he had a scholarly love of detail, reviewers sometimes criticized him for being unwilling to generalize too much, and for failing to place works within a larger historical framework. He had a charming penchant for turning proper names into stylistic adjectives - Soanian, Puginian, Schinkelesque, LeDolcian.
In 1960 at Smith College the growing scandal which involved Newton Arvin, threatened also to engulf America’s preeminent architectural historian, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, another Harvard luminary. Hitchcock, in Werth’s words, was “a high-toned WASP with Rabelaisian appetites … [who] openly entertained a large circle of young homosexual faculty members from area colleges who idolized him.” As it turned out, Hitchcock’s papers included explicitly homosexual correspondence from the noted American composer and New York Herald-Tribune music critic Virgil Thomson, and might just as easily have contained similar letters from Hitchcock’s other close friends, architect Philip Johnson and Lincoln Kirstein, founder of the New York City Ballet.
In 1968, Hitchcock moved to New York City, where he lived in a town house on the Upper East Side and taught at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts. Over the last decade, he remained aloof from the post-modern-versus-modern debates. In 1981, he finished his last work, ''German Renaissance Architecture.''
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