In memoriam: Vincent Scully, beloved teacher ‘helped shape a nation’

The Yale community mourns the iconic professor and architectural historian, who passed away Nov. 30 at his home in Lynchburg, Virginia, aged 97.
Vincent Scully seated at his desk.

Vincent J. Scully Jr. 1920-2017

Vincent J. Scully Jr., Sterling Professor Emeritus of the Arts, one of the nation’s most influential and respected architectural historians, and a legendary and beloved teacher to generations of Yale students died of complications of Parkinson’s disease on Nov. 30 at his home in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he had lived for the last six years. He was 97 years old.

There will be a memorial service on Saturday, Jan. 20 at 1 p.m. in Battell Chapel, corner of Elm and College streets. A reception will follow at the Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St. The service will be livestreamed here.

Today Yalies everywhere unite in mourning the loss of the legendary Vince Scully and in celebrating his remarkable legacy to Yale and to the built environment of the nation,” said President Peter Salovey. “No faculty member in Yale’s long history has had greater influence or been more loved. Because of Vince, generations of Yale graduates have learned not just to look, but to see. Because of Vince, architects, urban planners, historic preservationists, and landscape architects have gone about their work with sharper eye and keener understanding. Vince loved the cityscapes of his hometown New Haven as much as he loved the buildings and courtyards of his alma mater Yale, and throughout his career used these as exemplars of what he cherished.  What he believed and what he taught will not be lost because he helped ensure that it is all around us.”

A black-and-white photo of Vincent Scully delivering a lecture to a large audience.
The art historian’s lectures were so popular, they had to be held in large lecture halls. (Department of Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University)

Architect Philip Johnson once described Scully as “the most influential architectural teacher ever.” A native of New Haven, Scully joined the Yale faculty in 1947 and taught for more than 60 years. After his retirement from Yale in 1991 he joined the faculty of the University of Miami as Distinguished Visiting Professor. However, he continued to teach at Yale during the fall semester until 2009, alternating each year between introductory courses in the history of art and the history of architecture. 

His spellbinding classes were so popular that they had to be held in the Yale Art Gallery lecture hall and the Law School auditorium (which seated 400 and 500 people, respectively), and were often standing room only and ended with ovations. He used no notes and was known for the theatricality of his lectures and for urging his students to sit in the darkened auditorium absorbing the slides he used, not just to write down every word of his lecture.

Often his emotions overtook him and he growled at the slide technicians to adjust slides, paced up and down pushing his pointer into the screen, gesturing as if to bring his audience right up to or into the slide, and once fell off the stage in his overenthusiasm (he insisted he had jumped, not fallen). But whether speaking about Greek temples or New Haven landscapes, he carried his audience along with him, and by accounts of alumni who revered and remembered him for generations, he taught them to really see the world around them in a way that influenced them forever.

Vincent Scully lectures with photographic slides projected behind him.
The professor urged students to sit and absorb the images he used, not just to write down every word of his lecture. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Countless Yale graduates on countless town planning boards or historic preservation commissions in countless cities helped preserve and alter the nation’s landscape because of his passionate teaching. In the same way, he taught, trained, and mentored many of the nation’s foremost art historians, artists, architects, preservationists, and critics, including Maya Lin ’81, ’86 M.Arch., Charles Gwathmey ’62 M.Arch., Sir Norman Foster ’62 M.Arch., and Robert A.M. Stern ’65 M.Arch., who later became dean of Yale’s School of Architecture.

Mary Miller ’81 Ph.D., Sterling Professor of the History of Art and the first incumbent of the Yale professorship honoring Scully, said: “With classes that filled the Law School Auditorium and the YUAG auditorium for decades, Vincent Scully opened the minds of more Yale students than any other individual faculty member of the 20th century, right up until he gave his final lecture in the fall of 2008, and often across multiple generations.  Because of Scully, Yale students saw the world differently, understood the value of the sidewalk and the neighborhood, the historic structure and the soaring skyscraper: his courses at Yale were never known by their number, but simply as Scully.  Being a teaching assistant for Scully in graduate school inspired my own teaching and my ambitions for my students.”

In naming Scully one of the inaugural winners of the Howard R. Lamar Faculty Awards for Service to Alumni, the Association of Yale Alumni Board of Governors wrote: “… [Y]ou have helped shape the architecture of a nation. Architects have been inspired by your views on urban design and its effect on the community. And generations of Yalies have had the way they look at the world changed by you and in turn have changed the way others across America view, plan, and build it.”

New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger ’72, who also studied under Scully, wrote in the introduction to a book of highlights of Scully’s writings publishd by the Architectural League Medal in 1995: “Perhaps the most telling single sentence in all of these excerpts is the one he wrote in 1969, when he said that art history must be ‘conservative, experimental and ethical.’ It is a stunning trio of words, remarkable in their combination. You want to say it again and again, to celebrate the exquisite balance of ideas and principles inherent in it. Scully is conservative, since understanding and honoring the great work of the past is central to his very being; at the same time he is determinedly experimental, since for him the very point of honoring the past is to allow it to unleash the highest and best new ideas in the present; and he is profoundly ethical, for he believes that the noblest mission of architectural history is to encourage the building of community, and hence, of civilization.”

A black-and-white photo of Vincent Scully talking with Yale students.
Scully chats with students in the Law School auditorium. Many credit him with opening their eyes to the world around them in a way that influenced them forever. (Department of Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University)

Scully was the author of more than 20 books, spanning a range of topics. These include “The Shingle Style: Architectural Theory and Design from Richardson to the Origins of Wright,” “Frank Lloyd Wright,” “The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods: Greek Sacred Architecture,” “Louis I. Kahn,” “Pueblo: Mountain, Village, Dance,” “The Villas of Palladio and Architecture: the Natural and the Manmade,” and “Yale in New Haven: Architecture & Urbanism.” The latter was co-authored with his wife, Catherine Lynn ’81 Ph.D., Erik Vogt ’99 M.E.D., and Goldberger.

Originally an advocate of Modernist architecture, Scully later rejected that school of thought. In a 2004 interview with the Yale Bulletin & Calendar, he said: “What I learned as time went on was that Modernism was very faulty, in view of what architecture was. That it was a simplistic view of architecture. It was predicated on an arbitrary aesthetic. It was totalitarian in its mode of thinking. Everybody had to do things one way.” He recalled that while taking pictures of buildings during a trip to Italy as a Fulbright Scholar, “I began to realize as I was taking pictures of buildings that I had to use more than one camera frame, because the buildings had to be viewed in relation to one another. I began to learn that everything is in relation to everything else. Then I worked on Greek temples and realized that they had to be seen in the landscape in which they were set, and that landscape is sacred as well. God is in the landscape, and God is in the building. And in that relationship is the typical Greek balance between what nature wills and what man wants. So I began to see everything in that relationship, and I began to realize that the Modernists were not doing so.”

A black-and-white photo of Vincent Scully inspecting projection slides for a lecture.
The art historian, shown here reviewing slides for his lectures, condemned the unchecked sprawl of American cities. (Department of Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University)

Scully also recognized that the sweeping “urban renewal” efforts of the 1960s and 1970s were destroying much of the architectural heritage of America’s cities, and he became a leader in the preservationist movement and a champion of its cause. In that same interview in the Yale Bulletin & Calendar, Scully said: “We expect our buildings to outlive us. It's very important. The continuity of what we build in cities goes back to the very first cities of mankind. The idea fundamentally is that architecture should be permanent.”

A trustee emeritus of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Scully also condemned the unchecked sprawl of American cities and suburbs, and found much inspiration for what a city should be in the New Haven he remembered as a boy growing up there. The trust awarded Scully its highest accolade, the Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award in 2009.

Scully received the National Medal of Arts, the United States’ highest honor for artists and arts patrons, in 2004. The medal citation read: “For his remarkable contributions to the history of design and modern architecture, including his influential teaching as an architectural historian.”

Growing up in New Haven, Scully attended Hillhouse High School, on the site of what would later become Morse College, where he served as master 1969-1975. He entered Yale College at age 16 as a Sterling Memorial Scholar. He was a member of Jonathan Edwards College and was on the fencing team. He earned a B.A. in 1940. After a brief stint in the Army Air Corps, Scully became a Marine and served during World War II in both the Pacific and Mediterranean. He returned to Yale to earn M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in 1947 and 1949, respectively.

A New Haven native, Vincent Scully attended Hillhouse High School, on the site of what would later become Morse College, where he served as master 1969-1975. He entered Yale College at age 16.

His love of his hometown and his alma mater infused his scholarship and his teaching. He often used Yale and New Haven to make architectural points about building styles, context, and cities. In the introduction to his book “Yale in New Haven: Architecture & Urbanism,” Scully described the three-century evolution of the university and the city, and decried decisions that created physical barriers between the two. He also praised the beauty of buildings on both sides of the town-gown divide. He wrote of the Yale Bowl (which he loved and where he attended games from childhood to old age): “Spectators sit well back in it, perhaps a little too much so, but the command of space is imperial, the setting majestic, with New Haven’s other, less sacred red escarpment, West Rock, rising beyond the trees. … [T]he Bowl brought New Haven closer to Yale than it had been since the 1840s. Sport really was king for a long time in twentieth-century America, and New Haveners of every kind identified with Yale during its great football days and rode out to the Bowl on the open trolleys of summer and wept real tears when their own Albie Booth whipped Army — it seemed to them, all by himself.”

A photo of the 1960 photo of the Fourth-Year Yale School of Architecture Jury.
This 1960 photo of the Fourth-Year School of Architecture Jury shows (front row, from left) Philip Johnson, Paul Rudolph, and Vincent Scully. (Department of Manuscripts and Archives)

Two endowed professorships at Yale have been established in honor of Scully. In 1998, the Archimedes Associates, a group of Yale alumni, established a chair to be awarded to an individual in any field of study who best exemplifies his “excellence in teaching in Yale College” and “rigorous scholarship.” The chair has been held by Mary Miller, Alexander Nemerov, and, currently, Tamar Gendler. In 2003, the Vincent Scully Visiting Professorship in Architectural History was created at the School of Architecture. The chair has brought Kurt W. Forster, Dietrich Neumann, Mario Carpo, Stanislaus von Moos, Annabel Wharton, Anthony Vidler, and Kathleen James-Chakraborty to teach at the university.

The Yale art historian received numerous awards during his career. Among the most illustrious honor was the endowment by the National Building Museum of the Vincent Scully Prize to recognize exemplary practice, scholarship or criticism in architecture, historic preservation and urban design in 1999. Recipients of the prize have included Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Jane Jacobs, The Aga Kahn, Prince Charles, and Phyllis Lambert, and Robert A.M. Stern. In 1995 Scully was appointed the Jefferson Lecturer of the National Endowment for the Humanities and in 2003 was awarded the J.C. Nichols Prize by the Urban Land Institute.

Vincent Scully and wife Catherine Lynn posing in New Haven.
Vincent Scully and his wife, Catherine Lynn, pictured atop the Paul Rudolph Building in 2004. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Scully was married since 1980 to Catherine Lynn  (known as “Tappy”). He is survived by his three sons with his first wife, Susannah (known as Nancy), now deceased — Daniel, Stephen, and John; by a daughter, Katie with his second wife, Marian La Follette, now of Branford, CT; and by five grandchildren. 

The website Remembrances of Vincent Scully features tributes to the renowned scholar and professor by members of the Yale community and beyond. You can send us your remembrances here.

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