Celebrating the Centennial: Finding the Janus View

February 6, 2014
McKim, Mead & White Building, 1914
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This year marks a century of the American Academy’s presence on Rome’s Janiculum Hill and by now it gives an impression of organic belonging here. Few of us could imagine the academy anywhere else, but it took nearly twenty years for its founders and devotees to find the right home. Given its origins with the American School of Architecture, the founders carefully sought out a series of dignified circumstances for their school. Before relocating to the Janiculum, the budding academy occupied the Villa Aurora on the Pincian Hill followed by the Villa Mirafiori beyond Porta Pia. It was a generous bequest from Mrs. Clara Jessup Heyland in 1909 and the sustained patronage of J. Pierpont Morgan that finally made the construction of the McKim, Mead & White building possible, thus uniting the American Academy in Rome and the American School of Classical Studies once and for all under one roof.

In 1894 the American School of Architecture rented eight rooms of the Villa Torlonia near the Spanish Steps, which constituted the first home of the would-be academy. Yet the founders soon had their eye on a property formerly belonging to the impressive grounds of the 17th-century Villa Ludovisi and constructed on what had once been the ancient Horti Sallustiani. At that time, the Villa Aurora was named for the ceiling fresco that decorated its front hall by Baroque artist Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, better known as Guercino. With 80,000 square feet of terrace space and gardens designed by French landscape architect André Le Notre, it was an impressive site for the school. However the annual cost of its rental surpassed the school’s total income. Two appropriate sub-tenants had to be found in order to share the grounds and defray the cost: the newly established American School of Classical Studies and the British and American Archaeological Society Library. Less than three months after being legally recognized by the State of New York, the American School of Architecture which had changed its name to American Academy in Rome in 1897, took up residence at the Villa Aurora, where it would remain until July 1906. Given the small size of the villa, fellows had to take their meals elsewhere and an arrangement with the Café Greco on Via dei Condotti allowed for active exchange with other artists and students at the oldest coffee shop in the city. Yet the villa’s limited space would lead to rising tensions between the Schools of Architecture and Classical Studies and ultimately the academy had to find more adequate spaces.

The generosity of trustee Henry Walters allowed the Academy to secure a permanent home at the Villa Mirafiori on the Nomentana beyond Porta Pia. The first President of the AAR, Charles Follen McKim, believed that the acquisition of a permanent home for the academy would strengthen its petition before Congress to become a national institution and facilitate raising an appropriate endowment. In 1905 the bill recognizing the Academy as a national institution passed in Congress, and the following year, the Academy purchased Villa Mirafiori. However, the academy’s move there was not entirely welcome, given the Villa’s remote location. Director George Breck, who supervised the move, wrote, “Going to Mirafiori knocks the attraction of the Academy into a cocked hat, for it will have no… outside social intercourse, no nearby restaurants…” Indeed socializing at the Café Greco would be a thing of the past.

Strangely enough it was on the very day that the purchase of Villa Mirafiori was finalized that the Academy received a proposal from Clara Jessup Heyland to sell her Villa Aurelia on the Janiculum Hill to the academy at a discounted rate. Mrs. Jessup Heyland of Philadelphia and her husband, British Major Alexander Heyland, had purchased the villa in 1881 when it was largely in ruins as a result of French bombardment during Garibaldi’s defense of Rome. Mrs. Jessup Heyland then set about an extensive restoration of the villa and gardens. At that time her offer was financially untenable, but Mrs. Heyland was persistent in her devotion and bequeathed the Villa Aurelia to the academy upon her death in 1909.

Despite differences of opinion, the trustees accepted Mrs. Heyland’s bequest and the merger of the two schools was approved in 1911. The current academy arrangement therefore came into effect as a result of the academy’s new home on the Janiculum, which would provide adequate space for collaboration and expansion of both original mandates. Construction of the McKim, Mead, & White building was delayed by stone cutters strike, but its doors finally opened on October 1, 1914. Its completion represented the end of the academy’s struggle to settle and the beginning of its ability to thrive.

More information about the upcoming Reunion in June 2014.