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What We Know About Parsons School of Design’s Namesake

The story behind Frank Alvah Parsons, the man who made art and design accessible to New Yorkers

A hundred and fifty miles from Parsons’ campus in New York City is a small town in the foothills of the Pioneer Valley called Chester. With a population of 1,380, Chester’s only claim to fame was emery, a mineral used in the nineteenth century for grinding metal (and later finger and toe nails). But Chester also has a forgotten connection to our school. It wasn’t until last winter, while researching Frank Alvah Parsons for a larger project, that I found (on eBay!) a postcard Parsons had printed for his summer home, the Ventura Lodge — located in Chester, MA. What was Parsons doing in Chester? How long had he lived there? And what had brought him to Chester in the first place? These questions only spurred me to dig deeper, as I realized the only stories of our school’s namesake stemmed from Wikipedia and a few sentences on our institutional website. What else didn’t we know about his life? If Parsons was important enough to have such a prestigious school named for him, I thought there must be more to this story.

Frank Alvah Parsons was born 1863 in Chesterfield, MA, about 30 miles away from the house pictured in the postcard. He grew up in a modest home; his father worked as a mechanic and supported the family of five on a meagre income. Parsons became interested in education at a young age through work at secondary schools throughout Massachusetts. Though he was working as a teacher and principal in schools that did not emphasize the arts, this time seems to have been formative for his career as an educator. After working in higher education, Parsons began his own studies at a nearby community college then called Normal School in Bridgewater, MA. But Parsons had bigger ambitions, and transferred to Columbia University where he earned his bachelor of science degree in Fine Arts from the Teachers College. While still studying at Columbia (he graduated in 1905), Parsons joined the faculty of the New York School of Art (founded as the Chase School in 1896) in 1904.

Whether in his studies or work, Parsons was a self-made man. There is little (if any) published scholarship on the life of Parsons, and in reading obituaries and university websites, it becomes increasingly obvious that he spun a tale of his life that was widely accepted. In compiling a timeline of Parsons’ activities, it seems much of his autobiography was colored by his dreams and perhaps shaped by what a premier art school needed in its leader. In the timeline of Parsons life, one finds accounts of decades traveling Europe learning about great art and design before he joined the New York School of Art. The Normal School is never mentioned, but Columbia was often highlighted, as this narrative seemed more appropriate for the high society types with whom Parsons would rub elbows, including board members such as Elsie de Wolfe. The reality was that Parsons had barely left Massachusetts when he took his post under William Merritt Chase, and while he did travel to Paris briefly, he was not yet the worldly gentleman he would become.

This isn’t to say that Parsons did not deserve his place at the New York School of Art, where he soon became president. Parsons was an intelligent man whose accomplishments are still visible today. During Parsons’ years at Columbia he met William Sloane Coffin, with whom he would collaborate on a series of talks that eventually led to the creation of the Art Trades Club of New York City, granting Parsons entrée to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a frequent lecturer. Today, Parsons is credited as being one of the club’s founding members, which greatly influenced his work and lectures across the country.

Perhaps most importantly, and most widely known, is the fact that Parsons revamped the New York School of Art as the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, developing the first programs in interior design, costume design, and advertising (graphic) design within a formal higher education setting. In bringing these various disciplines to the school, he was the first person who sought to professionalize art and design and make it democratic and accessible to a wider variety of aspiring practitioners. Prior to Parsons bringing these fields to the school, they were viewed as more frivolous trades rather than areas of study. One entered them through apprenticeship rather than education — a system which favored men above women, white designers over people of color, and the well-heeled over the working class. Through the incorporation of applied arts into an institution of higher education, Parsons helped lower the barriers that had kept out so many young designers. These accomplishments within the New York School of Fine and Applied Art made Parsons well ahead of his time — and made it natural for the school to be renamed Parsons School of Design in his honor in 1941.

Parsons’ theories and writings on art and design education could have played a role in what brought him to Chester, MA. However, it seems most likely that his second home in Chester was to play a part in the life he wanted to create, portraying the role of an affluent gentleman. The Ventura Lodge turns out to have been not only his summer residence for twelve years, but also the home base for a summer program from the New York School of Fine and Applied Art. For a few summers, 50 to 100 students boarded trains to the Pioneer Valley, where, in the town’s schoolhouse, they studied topics similar to what was taught in New York: studio and landscape painting, color and design theory, interior decorating, and clay modeling. Outside of class, Parsons and his students integrated themselves into town life.

The Valley Echo, a Berkshire newspaper, details the colorful “town life” the students and faculty brought with them to Chester. The August 5, 1910 issue includes an article about a party attended by those affiliated with the school, including Parsons and his mother, writing, “…but another celebrity of the sex, no less feminine a person than Cleopatra, was embodied with glittering effect by Thomas Cooley.” In their fancy costumes, the students and faculty spent the evening gallivanting around town and creating elaborate tableaux, including the Portia of Abbey, painter Frans Hals, and perhaps most notable, their depiction of “A Lady in White Shawl” by William Merritt Chase, the school’s founder. Visual games like these were common diversions of the upper classes during the Gilded Age, and one wonders to what extent Parsons was imitating those society gatherings held just a few miles away in the mansions of the Choate family, the Morgans, or Edith Wharton (who would go on to sit on the Parsons Paris board in subsequent years).

The summer school didn’t last for long, but Parsons maintained his residence in Chester until 1917. In fact, he took so much interest in Chester that he led a town beautification campaign, for which he is still remembered.

Parsons continued to lecture and write throughout the 1920s, and remained president of the New York School of Fine and Applied Art until his death in 1930. Nearly 80 years later, it is only now that the story of his life is coming into focus. Some of this biographical obscurity was intentional, but the onus is also on The New School and Parsons today to better reckon with the lives of our founders if we are to understand our school’s history. If it had not been for a chance find on eBay, the story of “Parsons North” would have likely been lost forever. As Van Day Truex, a former student of Parsons who would go on to become the president of Parsons in 1942 once said, “… obviously the school’s name was later changed to the Parsons School of Design because it was that for years, nobody ever called it the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts…he was the school.”

Molly Rottman is the Associate Director of Academic Communications in Parsons School of Design at The New School.

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