Thursday, September 27, 2007

Catholic University Dedicates One of Gay Architect's Last Designs

On September 25th Houston's University of St. Thomas commemorated the addition to its campus of another landmark design by the late world-renowned archtect Philip Johnson. The landmark is an entrance marker at the northeast corner of the campus, heralding the university as a gateway to Houston's highly regarded Museum District. Johnson completed the landmark's design before his death in 2005.

Press releases by the university, speakers at the dedication and media coverage noted that Johnson had also designed the university's Chapel of St. Basil, as well as other Houston landmarks like the Rothko Chapel, Pennzoil Place, Transco Tower (now Williams Tower), and the home of the late arts patron and philanthropist Dominique de Menil. Other Johnson designs in Houston include the Republic Bank Center (now Bank of America Center) and the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture at the Universty of Houston.

Johnson designed numerous famous structures elsewhere. A partial list: his own Glass House in New Canaan, CT; the Seagram Building in New York City, as well the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center; the Boston Public Library; the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza in Dallas; the IDS Center in Minneapolis; the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, CA; Comerica Tower in Detroit; Puerto de Europa in Madrid; Das Amerikan Business Center in Berlin; Turning Point in Vienna.

What coverage of the new landmark did not point out is that Philip Johnson was a gay man, who lived with his partner David Whitney for 45 years. Johnson died January 25, 2005, at the age of 98. Whitney died June 12, 2005, at the age of 66. I do not know if Johnson's sexuality or long-term same-sex partnership had any impact on his work. But it is not insignificant that a Catholic University named after St. Thomas Aquinas would have much of its campus and two significant buildings designed by an architect widely known to be gay. At the very least, perhaps the university can teach the official church something about treating gay people with dignity and respect.

Below is an edited version of the university's press release announcing the dedication of the new landmark. The complete text is available at

“The University of St. Thomas has been blessed with some of the earliest and the latest Philip Johnson designs,” said University President Dr. Robert R. Ivany. “During the middle 1950s, the late Houston arts patron Dominique de Menil brought a virtually unknown Johnson to Houston to design her own home, then to create what would become the Academic Mall here at the University. His influence on Texas, Houston and St. Thomas campus has been a lasting one.”

More than 50 years ago Philip Johnson drew plans for the new University of St. Thomas campus at the behest of philanthropist and art collector Mrs. Dominique de Menil. The first buildings on the Johnson-designed Academic Mall were completed in 1958. On the new Mall, the Jones Hall auditorium/lecture hall as well as the exhibition gallery became the heart of the cultural and artistic activities on campus. The last of the Mall buildings, Malloy Hall, was dedicated in 2001.

Johnson came out of retirement during the mid-1990s to design the Chapel of St. Basil, dedicated in 1997. Located at the north end of the Mall, the Chapel faces the Doherty Library at the south end, an architectural arrangement that represents dialogue between faith and reason. Thus, the architecture embodies the philosophy of UST’s patron, St. Thomas Aquinas. The Philip Johnson design, with classrooms opening onto a lush, green lawn, resembles Thomas Jefferson’s design of the University of Virginia.

Just as Johnson came out of retirement to design the Chapel of St. Basil, the architect also rendered a “landmark” design to herald the University as a gateway to the Houston Museum District.

The Johnson landmark consists of a granite-clad reinforced concrete structure with a studded cross attached at the same angle of repose as the cross in the west wall of the Chapel of St. Basil. The black granite monument, also called a stele, which stands about 36-feet tall and 14-feet wide, alludes to the black granite plane that bisects the campus Chapel. The white granite plaza around the landmark is made of the same material as the plaza in front of the Chapel. Additionally, the landmark has a 17- x 32-foot reflecting pool tiled with a blue glass tile. A water wall, standing 6-feet in height, is erected on the plaza’s west side. The water cascades behind a set of aluminum letters that spell out “University of St. Thomas.”

The site of the Philip Johnson work is named in memory of Edward P. White, a major University of St. Thomas benefactor.

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