Stone’s UAlbany design draws criticism, praise 50 years after creation

In the fall of 1964, when students at the University at Albany began moving into the Dutch Quad dorm
Construction work is shown on the academic podium at the University at Albany in the mid 1960s. (UAlbany archives)
Construction work is shown on the academic podium at the University at Albany in the mid 1960s. (UAlbany archives)

In the fall of 1964, when students at the University at Albany began moving into the Dutch Quad dorm on the new uptown campus, it wasn’t love at first sight.

“They moved into a place that was really overwhelming and depressing, and at that time still very much a construction site,” said Ray Bromley, a professor of social geology and currently Vice Provost for International Education at UAlbany.

“That area had been a pine barrens and a golf course, so there was a lot of blowing dust and virtually no vegetation because they had cleared and leveled the entire site. It was a massive construction project on an unprecedented scale.”

Fifty years later, Edward Durell Stone’s vision of the campus is still being questioned by everyone from architectural historians to average citizens. To some it is a massive monstrosity of cold concrete, and to others it represents a unique example of a highly efficient and practical college campus planned by one of the top architects of his era.

Benjamin Hicks Stone, the architect’s son, admits that the UAlbany campus was probably not his father’s finest work, Edward having also designed Radio City Music Hall, the Museum of Modern Art, the Kennedy Center, 2 Columbus Circle and the U.S. Embassy in India. But in the 1950s and ’60s, it was typical of what many top architects were doing.

“It was a grand vision of modern architecture, and in that era that’s what architects did,” said Stone, whose book on his father, “Edward Durell Stone: A Son’s Untold Story of a Legendary Architect,” was published in 2012.

“My dad died in 1978 and while we were close, we didn’t really talk about architecture that much, so he didn’t have a lot to say about the Albany campus. But I think I can put myself into his shoes, channel him as well as anyone, and if we were to rank his works, that one might not be as high as he would have liked.”

Stone does understand some of the criticism.

“So many of us have our warm memories of our college life, and that includes ivy-covered brick walls and tree-lined quadrangles,” said Stone, who now runs his own architectural firm in New York City.

“Because of those memories, when you see something that doesn’t fulfill those expectations or jibe with your memories it is quickly rejected out of hand. There’s no doubt that in some ways it is very powerful and impressive, but in other ways you can feel dwarfed by it.”

The Dutch Quad, the first building to open on the new campus, is one of four residential complexes that sit at the four corners of the large Academic Podium at the center of Stone’s creation. Each quad — the others are Indian, Colonial and State — consists of eight three-story buildings surrounding a 22-story tower.

Rockefeller project

The project was conceived by New York governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, who just a few years earlier had hired another well-known architect, Wallace Harrison, to design his other grand brainchild, the Empire State Plaza.

“For decades Nelson Rockefeller was one of my dad’s most influential clients and advocates,” said Stone. “He did work for the Rockefellers as early as 1937 when he designed a bathroom for Abby Rockefeller, Nelson’s mother. They liked him, and the Rockefeller family was highly esteemed in dad’s eyes.”

People shouldn’t get the idea, however, that Stone had unlimited financial resources to work with.

“People are surprised to hear that he had a tight budget, and my father wasn’t sure if he could make his budget with the concept that he had in mind,” said Stone.

“Because of budgetary constraints the interiors are fairly spartan, and there are not a lot of lavish architectural details. Overall, looking at all of it it’s a powerful design statement, but it didn’t have the personalized approach to design that my dad’s smaller projects would have had.”

Established in 1844 and originally called the New York State Teachers College, UAlbany’s downtown campus at 135 Washington Ave., remains a vital but smaller part of the university. When the school decided to get bigger and build a new and more modern home farther west on Western Avenue, the move wasn’t an easy one for students or faculty.

UAlbany history professor Warren Roberts, who recently retired, started teaching at UAlbany in 1963.

“I admired Stone’s design from the beginning, but I had complaints from the beginning,” he said. “I had an inside office that had no windows, which I found oppressive. Structural problems showed up early on and they have been continuous. My aesthetic response to Stone’s design was positive; the problem lay in the details of the design.”

Roberts added that Stone may have had little to do with the particular designs and workings of each building, such as the installation of phone lines. Donald Reeb, a retired economics professor, said things were still pretty unsettled when he began teaching at the university in 1965.

“Even then it was still chaos,” said Reeb. “The Albany State offices did not have individual phone lines and a contractor had to be hired to go throughout the buildings drilling large holes in the floors to run telephone wires. The result of the drilling was cement cores about eight inches thick and three inches in diameter that many faculty used for paperweights for many years.”

Bromley concedes that there were numerous negative aspects of the campus.

“They skimped on the landscape and signage, and there are some bad interior configurations,” he said. “But no significant work of architecture is without criticism. Our campus was meant to be striking and special, but it was also done on the cheap.”

Positive aspects

He’s also, however, eager to talk about what’s great about the place.

“Stone didn’t like cars or parking lots, so he put them on the periphery of the campus,” said Bromley. “At Albany you can walk outside and because of the canopy roof, generally walk to any classroom and be out in the open air, but out of the snow and rain. There’s also an underground tunnel system that can take you just about anywhere on campus. If you want to be able to move around as a pedestrian, and not worry about finding a parking spot every time you go to a different class, this is a great campus. And, I think there’s been some significant improvement in the last 30 years.”

Roberts also counts himself among those who like the campus, despite its drawbacks.

“I always responded positively to Stone’s podium,” he said. “I walked it for almost 50 years. I admired its scale and sweep, the shifting patterns of light, the fountains, and the unified design.

“I also admired Stone’s effort to place cars on the periphery of the university,” continued Roberts. “That his conception was compromised by the sheer pressure that resulted from enrollment increases was beyond his ability to control. The conception was a noble one.”

Construction of the campus wasn’t complete until the summer of 1972. Soon after, a rumor began circulating throughout UAlbany that Stone had copied his design from an earlier work he did in the Middle East.

“The idea that my dad would recycle a design for a very important work for his most influential client is scurrilous,” said Hicks Stone. “I think a university professor posted that on his website, and it’s absolutely preposterous. If I can put that one to rest that would be great.”

Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]

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