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Crombie Taylor, Architect-Historian, Dies at 85

by James Lytle

Crombie Taylor

CROMBIE TAYLOR, the pioneering architect and former USC professor who initiated the first restoration of Louis Sullivan buildings and led the Institute of Design in Chicago to some of its greatest applications of Bauhaus principles to American architecture and design, died of congestive heart failure May 24 at his home in Santa Barbara. Taylor was 85 and had returned to California in 1993, after spending four years restoring a Louis Sullivan building in Iowa.

“To his students and colleagues, Taylor was an iconoclastic and wide-ranging thinker who worked with single-minded determination to preserve unrecognized but valuable American buildings,” said Sam Hurst, emeritus dean of architecture. “He never flinched at the opportunity to champion Louis Sullivan.”

Born in Oakmont, Pa., in 1914, Taylor studied architecture at Penn State and Princeton University. He joined the Institute of Design faculty in 1944, after teaching architecture for three years at Georgia Tech. Taylor served as an instructor and secretary-treasurer to the institute board under Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and as assistant director with Serge Chermayeff, who succeeded Moholy-Nagy upon his death in 1946.

When Chermayeff left the institute in 1951, Taylor was named acting director, a post he held until 1954. During Taylor’s tenure, student enrollment increased sixfold and, according to architecture critic Hana Wringler, the institute realized extraordinary progress: “The accomplishments of the department of architecture reached their pinnacle. All the tools of technology, of communication theory, and sociology were exploited, the latest construction methods were investigated and new, original ones were developed.”

AFTER LEAVING the institute, Taylor practiced architecture in Chicago, designing a series of award-winning private residences and public buildings, including the Hull House Uptown Center, celebrated for their simplicity and elegance. Among the young architects who admired Mies van der Rohe, Taylor was the first to treat interior spaces as opportunities for serious visual embellishment. He was, for example, the first modern architect to value and use Tiffany glass and Oriental carpets in spare modern interiors, and his mixing of 18th- and early 19th-century furniture in these spaces was widely imitated.

As restoration architect for Roosevelt University, Taylor undertook the first restoration of interior spaces at Sullivan’s Auditorium Building in the 1950s. Taylor discovered and reproduced the long-neglected and forgotten polychromatic stencils that Sullivan used to create spatial illusions on interior walls and ceilings.

According to the Chicago architect John Vinci, then Taylor’s student, Taylor’s 1967 restoration of the Banquet Hall was “a revelation that introduced a new way of thinking about Sullivan.” Vinci, who reconstructed Sullivan’s Stock Exchange Trading Room and the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1970s, said that Taylor’s work with Sullivan buildings, conducted at a time when he had to overcome considerable professional and public resistance, has guided all subsequent understanding of Sullivan’s treatment of private space.

In 1968, Taylor prepared a major exhibition of Sullivan’s polychromatic two-dimensional ornament for the Smithsonian Institution. For his accomplishments as a preservation architect, Taylor was elected a fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1973.

An accomplished architectural photographer, Taylor developed innovative technology for using visual images in classroom teaching and in cultural institutions.

In 1962, Taylor became professor and associate dean at the USC School of Architecture, where he taught design and prepared stunning automated, multi-screen slide programs on the history of modern architecture. His programs on Chicago architecture and Sullivan’s banks were featured by the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry as part of its bicentennial celebration in 1976, and later exhibited throughout this country and in England and Germany.

TAYLOR BROUGHT faculty of national and international prominence to the School of Architecture and instituted programs notable for collaborative teaching. He staffed and directed a joint two-year basic design curriculum in architecture and fine arts, established graduate degree joint programs in urban design and gerontology and founded a unique doctoral program in building science directed by Konrad Wachsman.

Following his retirement from USC in 1985, Taylor formed the Van Allen Foundation and restored Sullivan’s Van Allen Department Store in Clinton, Iowa, for use as a community center, and began to prepare book-length publications with the vintage photographs, stencil patterns and photographs he had made for his restoration and teaching projects. The first of these, written with longtime collaborator Jeffrey Plank, will be published by Henry Abrams in 2000.

After moving to Santa Barbara in 1994, Taylor continued his preservation work, converting the famous Brooks Institute Garages on Camino Viejo into two elegant residences.

Taylor is survived by his wife, Hope, three children, Victoria, Beth and John, and several grandchildren. Donations may be sent to the Hospice Services of Santa Barbara.

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