An entertaining article about Victor Gilbertson appeared in the Fall/Winter 2013 issue of The Confluence, the regional studies journal of Lindenwood University. ” ‘Everything May Yet Turn Out All Right’: An Architect’s Adventures in 1939-40 Europe,” by Miranda Rectenwald, tells how Gilbertson was able to use Washington University’s $1,500 Steedman Fellowship in Architecture to visit a great many places in Europe even as World War II was breaking out. He was on the last train from Cologne to Amsterdam and then was able to catch a freighter to Greece and to extend his travel through the Mediterranean until the following spring.
Establishing a Fellowship
At the time this article was published, I was researching the impact on St. Louis architecture of local businessman George Fox Steedman (1871-1940). George and his former sister-in-law Virginia Weddell gave $30,000 in 1925 to establish the fellowship in memory of Virginia’s late husband and George’s elder brother James Harrison Steedman.
The document that was signed to establish the fellowship identifies James in unusual language:
“James Harrison Steedman, Washington University, 1889, 1st Lieutenant U.S. Naval Reserves, Assistant Engineer Officer U.S.S. Oklahoma in 1917 and 1918, who at the age of fifty, suffering from a malady curable only by rest, refused to quit his post and knowingly made the great Sacrifice.”
We now know that the malady was diabetes, which was not easily controlled in those days before insulin, and especially in war conditions. James survived the war but never recovered. He died in 1921 in Montecito, California, where he was staying for the winter.
About James Steedman
Before his illness, James had headed the family firm, Curtis & Company, makers of sawing equipment and pneumatic machinery. The company had profited from the manufacture of munitions for the British and American governments during the war, and Virginia had inherited a substantial fortune. She soon married the distinguished American diplomat Alexander Weddell. At the time Virginia was creating the fellowship, she and her husband were also at the center of an international controversy. They had purchased Warwick Priory, a large house from the Tudor era, and were planning to dismantle it and move it from England to Richmond, Virginia, much to the dismay of English preservationists. The Architect, a British professional journal, wrote on October 25, 1925, that the episode showed “greed on the part of the seller and vanity, ostentation, and bad breeding on the part of the purchaser.” To repair their reputations, the Weddells announced that they would leave the house to the Virginia Historical Society, and today as Virginia House it is open for tours. The fellowship may also have been intended to dilute criticism.
In the early years of the fellowship, most of the winners of the fellowship were associated with Washington University, and many established successful architectural practices in St. Louis. George F. Hellmuth (1930) and Kenneth E. Wischmeyer (1931) had two of the largest offices here in the post-war years, and Lester C. Haeckel (1932) became a partner in William B. Ittner & Associates, a leading designer of school buildings nationwide.
Gilbertson’s connection to St. Louis was less direct. He had studied at the University of Minnesota and MIT and was working in St. Paul for O’Meara and Hills when he won. But that firm also had offices in St. Louis, where it was responsible for some of the most impressive Catholic institutions of the era, including Villa Duchesne in Frontenac, St. George’s Church at Gravois & Heege, the Carmelite Monastery in Ladue, St. Agnes home at Manchester & Woodlawn, and the former DePaul Hospital on North Kingshighway.
Some Sidelights on the Steedman Fellowship, continued…
The Steedman Fellowship is not simply an award for travel but is a post-graduate course that has a faculty advisor and a thesis requirement. Gilbertson stated in his plan of study that he was going to concentrate on churches. He never finished his thesis (not the only winner to fall short), but his excuse was better than most. He entered the military and served in the Pacific during the war. His subsequent architectural work was indeed shaped to a great extent by his exposure to the Old World. He and his former employer James Hills formed a new partnership in 1940 – Hills, Gilbertson & Hayes – and he had an active practice until his retirement in 1984. Some of his church designs were rooted in tradition, such as St. Constantine Ukranian Catholic Church in Minneapolis, but he was also associated with Eliel and Eero Saarinen in Christ Lutheran Church, also in Minneapolis, which was one of the most influential modern designs of the Post-War era.
George Steedman pursued his interest in architecture in several directions in addition to the fellowship. Following his older brother’s death, he decided to build his own house in Montecito, and he hired George Washington Smith, the most fashionable designer of California houses in the Spanish Revival style, which Smith to some extent invented. “Casa del Herrero,” the Blacksmith’s House, was furnished with glazed tiles and period furnishings acquired on several trips to Europe. In recent years, Steedman’s grandchildren have set up a foundation to open the house to the public, and the National Park Service has recognized it as a National Historic Landmark. Robert Sweeney’s excellent book about the house came out in 2009.
Steedman also used those European travels to acquire architecture books, which he gave to the St. Louis Public Library in 1928 along with a dedicated reading room and an endowment for the purchase of additional books. His idea was to raise the standard of architecture in St. Louis by exposing local architects to the great buildings. Today the collection includes original or fine editions of most of the masterworks in the field from about 1500 to the present.
Richard Bliss won the Steedman Fellowship in 1942, but because of the war, he was not able to travel until 1948. In his later years, he became an advisor to the Steedman Library, and he restored “Thornhill,” the home of Governor Frederick Bates in Faust Park. A later winner, Eugene Mackey III, is currently serving as library advisor. The fellowship’s impact on St. Louis architecture ended abruptly in 1977, when it was overhauled, mainly under the direction of Professor James Fitzgibbon, to attract a wider field of competitors. Since then, not a single St. Louisan has won, although several have been runners-up. Surprisingly, many of the winners in the 1980s were Post-Modernists, more disposed to traditional architecture than to modernism. David Mayernik, who won in 1988, remains a leader in the traditional architecture movement, based in the architecture school at Notre Dame. In 2003 he published Timeless Cities, An Architect’s Reflections on Renaissance Italy.
Over the years, the Steedman Library’s endowment has grown only modestly, but the Fellowship endowment is doing very well. The annual stipend is now considerably larger than the original principal, and enough money is left over to allow two Washington University undergraduates to travel as well. Thus even though the practice of architecture has changed radically since George Steedman’s day, his generosity continues to benefit the profession and the community.
The Steedman Fellowship in Architecture Competition Records are located at University Archives, and are open to all interested researchers.