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If you like Vincent Scully's story, you might also like:
J. Carter Brown,
Frank Gehry,
Philip Johnson,
Maya Lin,
Norman Mailer,
David McCullough
and Tom Wolfe

Vincent Scully's recommended reading: A Farewell to Arms

Related Links:
Scully Prize
The Patriarch

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Vincent Scully
Vincent Scully
Profile of Vincent Scully Biography of Vincent Scully Interview with Vincent Scully Vincent Scully Photo Gallery

Vincent Scully Biography

Architectural Historian

Vincent Scully Date of birth: August 21, 1920

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  Vincent Scully

Vincent J. Scully Jr. was born in New Haven, Connecticut, the home of Yale University. His mother was a trained singer, passionate about music. His father, Vincent Sr., was an automobile salesman who enjoyed a measure of success until the Depression demolished the market for new cars. The elder Scully was later active in local politics and eventually became President of New Haven's Board of Aldermen. Neither of his parents had attended college, but growing up in the shadow of Yale, young Vincent set his sights on the university at an early age. He graduated from New Haven's Hillhouse High School and entered Yale on a full scholarship at age 16.

As an undergraduate, Scully felt out of place -- an Irish Catholic in what was still a largely Protestant institution, dominated by sons of the nation's English-descended elite. He paid his expenses by waiting on his classmates in the dining hall and worked off his frustrations in competitive fencing. He graduated in 1940 with a degree in English, a course he planned to continue in graduate school. The only portent of his future career was his A-plus in art history. With war already raging in Europe and Asia, he dropped out after one day in graduate school to join the Army Air Corps. He hoped to become a fighter pilot, but failed flight school and transferred to the Marines. When America entered the war, Scully served in both the European and Pacific theaters of combat, ending the war as a major.

During the war, he met and married Nancy Keith, an art history graduate from Wellesley College. His military experience, including service in the Mediterranean, fed Scully's own interest in art history. Having seen firsthand the waste and destruction of war, Scully was moved to a deeper appreciation of the enduring monuments of civilization. After his discharge from the Marine Corps in 1946, he returned to Yale and decided that he too would study art history rather than English.

The years following World War II saw the rapid acceptance of the modernist International Style of architecture, pioneered by European masters such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe and championed by Americans such as Philip Johnson. Scully was impressed with the new style, but he found himself increasingly drawn to explore the historic domestic architecture of his native New England. A photograph of the Low House, designed by Charles McKim in 1886, led him to Rhode Island, and he made a thorough study of the many outstanding 19th century houses built in and around Newport. In his 1949 doctoral dissertation, The Cottage Style, he identified two distinct styles of 19th century American domestic architecture, what he called "the stick style" and "the shingle style." The terms he invented were quickly adopted by his peers and became a permanent part of the vocabulary of American architectural history.

Scully was already teaching architecture to undergraduates at Yale; after receiving his doctorate he was hired to teach full-time and in time became a Junior Professor of the History of Art and Architecture. He would teach at Yale for the next 60 years. Vincent and Nancy Scully had three sons in rapid succession, and the junior professor sought out the legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright to build a house for his new family. He paid Wright for the plans, although he was forced to admit that he couldn't afford to build them and eventually designed a house of his own.

Vincent Scully Biography Photo
In 1952, Scully and his co-author Antoinette Downing won the Alice Davis Hitchcock Award for their book, The Architectural Heritage of Newport. Throughout his career, Scully sought a balance between respect for the past and appreciation of the new. He was an early champion of the work of Louis Kahn, a Yale colleague who designed the new Yale Art Gallery, completed in 1953. Scully's book, The Shingle Style: Architectural Theory and Design from Richardson to the Origins of Wright, published in 1955, defined America's role in the evolution of world architecture. Scully would return to this work repeatedly in his career, revising and updating it as new developments refined our understanding of the past.

Scully continued his consideration of America's modern architects with monographs on Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn. Scully summarized his beliefs about modern architecture in his 1961 book, Modern Architecture - The Architecture of Democracy. From the most recent developments, Scully turned his attention to the classical heritage in The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods: Greek Sacred Architecture (1962) in which he stressed the relationship of architecture to landscape, a theme that would recur in his later work.

Scully entered the public arena as an outspoken opponent of New York City's plan to replace the historic Pennsylvania Station with a new Madison Square Garden sports arena and a train station sunk below street level. Scully and his allies could not stop the wrecking ball, and the Beaux Arts-style landmark was demolished in 1963. Comparing the old Penn Station to the new, Scully remarked, "One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat."

The campaign to save Penn Station mobilized a coalition of activists committed to preserving historic buildings, as well as the human values they represented. Their struggle led to the creation of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Further destruction of New York's architectural heritage was largely averted, and the preservation movement spread to other American cities.

He debated author Norman Mailer in print over Mailer's assertion that modern architecture was destroying the core of America's cities. Scully believed that modernism was not intrinsically incompatible with the organic life of cities, but Mailer's argument made a deep impression on him, and his own thinking continued to evolve.

Vincent Scully's appreciation of the new was always tempered by a reverence for the past, valuing older buildings not only as works of art, but as essential components of the fabric of urban life. Since the 1950s, Scully had been concerned that freeways, large apartment blocks, and other features of contemporary planning were destroying neighborhoods and undermining Americans' sense of community. Although Scully continued to celebrate the best in modern architecture, he cautioned his students and readers that in the rush to embrace the new, much of value in America's architectural heritage was being lost or devalued.

In the 1960s, Vincent and Nancy Scully, also a Yale faculty member, were divorced. In 1965 Vincent Scully married Marian LaFollette Wohl. The couple had one daughter. As the turbulent '60s progressed, Scully's passion for his subject, his enormous erudition, and his flair for drama made him one of the most popular lecturers in Yale's long history. His course, "History of Art 112A," was moved to a law school lecture hall that could seat 500 students at a time. With the hall darkened like a theater, Scully illustrated his lectures with multiple slide projectors, swinging his pointer from screen to screen to compare works from disparate cultures, leaping from continent to continent, and century to century.

In addition to his art history class, Scully taught in the Yale School of Architecture, where his students included the noted architects and urbanists Robert A.M. Stern, Charles Gwathmey, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Stern introduced him to the work of architect Robert Venturi, who stressed the organic vitality of cities and scorned the efforts of architects and city planners to cleanse the urban environment of variety and spontaneity. Scully was among the first prominent academics to embrace Venturi's work. As Scully's students became architects, city planners, community leaders and elected officials, his ideas gained influence at many levels of society. Duany and Plater-Zyberk became leading advocates of "New Urbanism," which sought to restore an emphasis on community values in city planning. New Urbanists value the frequency and variety of human interaction found in traditional towns and villages, and seek to recreate it through low-rise mixed-use development, avoiding the extremes of both urban congestion and suburban sprawl. Scully shared his thinking on the subject with the general public in his 1969 book American Architecture and Urbanism.

Vincent Scully Biography Photo
From 1969 to 1975, Scully served as Master of Morse College, one of Yale University's 12 residential colleges. A distinctive feature of Yale life, the residential colleges offer students the intimacy of a small college experience within the larger university setting. The master of each college lives within the individual college complex and is responsible for the welfare and cultural life of the college's students. Interestingly, Morse College stands on the site formerly occupied by Scully's old high school. Unlike most of his Yale colleagues, Scully was a native of New Haven and never lost interest in the city around him. He successfully opposed a plan to route highways around the Yale campus, a scheme that would have cut off the campus from the surrounding neighborhoods.

Year after year, Scully's classes were filled to capacity, and his lectures brought a stream of distinguished visitors to his darkened lecture hall. As his lectures drew on an enormously wide-ranging knowledge of world culture, his books, 20 in all, covered a vast range of subjects, from Native American Pueblo building to the villas of the Venetian Renaissance master Andrea Palladio. He revisited the subject of his earliest work in his 1974 book, The Shingle Style Today, or the Historian's Revenge. In the 1970s, Scully's second marriage came to an end. In 1980 he married fellow art historian Catherine Lynne. Since their marriage they have collaborated on numerous articles.

In 1983 he was named Sterling Professor, Yale's highest academic appointment. Scully summarized his views on the relations of nature and the built environment from prehistory to the present in Architecture: The Natural and the Manmade, published in 1991. That same year, Vincent Scully officially retired from Yale University, retaining the title of Sterling Professor Emeritus. The university has named two endowed professorships in his honor. In the mid-'90s Vincent and Catherine Scully moved to Coral Gables, Florida. The couple have written numerous articles together and for many years taught spring semesters at the University of Miami, while Vincent continued to lecture at Yale in the autumn. Throughout the '90s, he remained active in university affairs, successfully opposing the administration's plan to demolish several buildings of the old Divinity School.

Four years after his official retirement, the National Endowment for the Humanities chose Scully to deliver the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest humanities honor. He presented his lecture on a favorite topic, "The Architecture of Community."

In 1999, the National Building Museum honored Vincent Scully with a prize named in his honor, establishing the Vincent Scully Prize "to honor individuals who have exhibited exemplary practice, scholarship or criticism in architecture, historic preservation and urban design." In 2003 the Urban Land Institute awarded Scully its J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionary Urban Development. The following year, President George W. Bush, a Yale graduate, presented Scully with the National Medal of Arts, for "his remarkable contributions to the history of design and modern architecture, including his influential teaching as an architectural historian."

Despite being officially retired, Vincent Scully continued to lecture at Yale and at the University of Miami until 2009. To the very end, his lectures drew capacity audiences and frequently ended with standing ovations. He continued working, and rowing on Long Island Sound, as long as his health allowed, before he finally gave up teaching altogether at the age of 89. In all, he had taught at Yale for 61 years. After his retirement, Scully and his wife, Catherine Lynn, Ph.D., made their home in Virginia.

In 2011, the Yale Art Gallery held a gala dinner in honor of Scully's 90th birthday. A number of his former students attended and spoke on the occasion, including Maya Lin and author David McCullough. Maya Lin recalled that Scully introduced her to the memorial created by Edward Lutyens for the soldiers who died at the Battle of the Somme in World War I, informing her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. McCullough recalled that it was Scully who taught him to see the Brooklyn Bridge as a work of art, inspiring one of McCullough's first books. Architect Philip Johnson summarized the achievement of Vincent Scully most succinctly, calling him "the most influential architectural teacher ever."

This page last revised on Nov 24, 2015 20:28 EDT
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