Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Origins of the Center for Hellenic Studies

Last night I read a short book of that title written in 1990 by Eric Lindquist. The CHS sits on a few relatively secluded acres at the dead end of Whitehaven Street off of Massachusetts Avenue. It borders the huge green spot on maps of Washington, D.C., called Rock Creek Park, which separates Mass Ave from Georgetown. The Center is surrounded by the Dutch, Italian, British, and Brazilian embassies, as well as the Naval Observatory, which serves as the residence for the Vice President, and is directly across the street from the home of the Clintons. It consists of a central building, with an internal courtyard, which houses the library on the main floor and basement, offices for administrators and fellows on the main floor, a kitchen and dining room with outdoor patio on the basement floor, and a large gathering room with kitchenette, fireplaces, and piano on the main floor. Behind the main building is the director's residence. Just to the side is the "stoa" building, which has seven apartments for visitors and single fellows, with laundry room and gym. Lining the driveway are houses for married fellows, one of which has been converted to a high-tech seminar building.

The current director is Gregory Nagy, who still splits his time between the Center and his teaching duties at Harvard University. Before him, the position was shared by Deborah Boedecker and Kurt Raaflaub (1992-2000), Zeph Stewart (1985-1992), and the original director, Bernard Knox, who ran the Center from 1963 until he retired in 1985. Because Knox was previously scheduled for a sabbatical in Greece and tenure as Sather professor at Berkeley, Michael Putnam, from Brown University, was appointed as temporary director for the first year. During that year, the Center was run from the Tompkins House across the street, while construction was underway on the campus. The fellows were responsible for their own housing in Washington, but had studies there and were given lunch daily. There was no library until the Center acquired the private library of Werner Jaeger, who died in 1961, and portions of the libraries of Arthur Stanley Pease and Arthur Darby Nock, who also died around that time. According to Knox, some of the fellows from that first year saw an advantage in the lack of a library: it forced them to concentrate on writing.

The Center as it currently exists is quite different from its initial conception. Its origins are in Paul Mellon's desire for an institute that would focus on the study of the humanities in a world where education had become increasingly focused on sciences and technology. From the beginning he had Washington, D.C., in mind, believing that the United States capital had too few cultural institutes compared to other countries. His father had set up the National Gallery out of the same concern. The idea began to take shape when Huntington Cairns (a lawyer who was intimately involved with the National Gallery) suggested that the institute be dedicated to the promotion of Hellenism in the United States. He was convinced that it should not merely be a research center, but that it should be active in bringing back the humanistic ideals which he felt had faded from American society. He fiercely believed that it should not be associated with a university, since he felt the universities of America had failed in this regard, having become vocational centers. He referred to it as "the Residence" throughout his campaign.

The idea took shape in the physical world when Marie Beale, a wealthy widow, and friend of Cairns, offered land on Whitehaven Street for such an institute. Only months after she signed papers to that effect, she died in Zurich, and the project entered a confused phase of realization. Beale's lawyers had encouraged her to incorporate stipulations that would protect her interests, and the task of sorting it all out was given to the Old Dominion Foundation. As happens with many idealistic ventures when it comes to realization, the process was taken over by administrators and lawyers, who had practical concerns, and the concept that Cairns had in mind slowly rotted in boardrooms. Harvard University was motivated to keep the project alive, because it stood to inherit money from Beale only if an institute was established on that location, even if it had no association with the university. In the end, the University, through then-president Nathan Pusey, and the board of the Old Dominion Foundation decided to create an institute to support the research of young scholars, who often found inadequate time for writing amid the demands of developing classes. The Center provides housing, stipends, and fellowship for twelve young scholars from across the world each year, where they can spend a full year doing research and writing with no other demands on their time.

Lindquist lays out the interesting history of the Center's history from conception to realization in more detail, of course, than I can offer here. Although I had known about the general structure and operations of the Center, I was fascinated to learn that it grew out of a very different idea of Huntington Cairns, as an idealistic society devoted not to academic work, which was being done in the universities, but to reestablishing the Hellenic and humanistic tradition as a vital part of society. He opened a last desperate presentation to the Old Dominion Foundation with a quote from Gilbert Murray: "The next generation must use all its strength, all its wisdom, to see that the main drift of the world is Hellenic and not barbarous." Cairns saw the project as no less than an effort to save civilization, but most of the other players did not share his sense of society's lapse into barbarism.


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