Désiré Despradelle (1862-1912)

Architecture Class

Désiré Despradelle with Students in an Architecture Class, circa 1898
In this photograph, Despradelle can be seen, in the shadows, towards the right of the room, seated at a drafting table under a lighting fixture. On the back wall hangs the elevation for Eugène Létang's Thermal Baths (Bains d'Eaux Thermales).

Constant Antoine Désiré Despradelle was a flamboyant, charismatic professor of architecture at MIT from 1893 until his untimely death in 1912. Although he completed several significant projects in the Boston area, Désiré DespradelleDespradelle's influence was most widely disseminated through his students, who went on to teach and practice architecture across the United States.

When Despradelle arrived in Boston from Paris in 1893 to assume the post of Rotch Professor of Architectural Design at MIT, his work had already attracted international attention. After a successful course of study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and under the guidance of his patron Jean Louis Pascal, Despradelle went on to prepare drawings for and win prizes in the prestigious architectural competitions of his day. He was awarded the 1889 Premier Second Grand Prix de Rome for his design of A Bathing Establishment by the Sea.

Working closely with Department Head Francis Ward Chandler of the architectural firm Cabot and Chandler, Despradelle continued an educational approach initiated by the Department's founder William Robert Ware, which relied heavily on the French model. It was during Despradelle's tenure that most of the Department's early goals were realized. Many students and colleagues felt it was Despradelle who successfully transplanted certain key aspects of the atelier to the Department. Among them was Guy Lowell, a former student and fellow instructor of Despradelle's, who went on to design Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Lowell felt that competitive camaraderie and the judging of projects led students to collaboration and an exchange of ideas, more so that each student working in isolation. Despradelle critiqued his students' work, as Pascal had his, making suggestions, correcting errors, and offering encouragement to all. His methods for teaching architecture were highly successful. As MIT president Richard Maclaurin related at opening exercises for Despradelle's Memorial Exhibition in 1913:

"... I have been told by dozens (of students) ... that he would rather spend weeks and months in training and encouraging a young man to find himself than quickly to turn him into some way that was not naturally his own. Now that capacity, that power, simple though it is when you talk about it, is one of the rarest things on earth."

Despradelle's arrival from France had been followed by a visit to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Inspired by what he saw, he crystallized plans for the Beacon of Progress, a towering 1500-foot monument dedicated to the American nation. When the drawings for the Beacon of Progress were exhibited at the 1900 Paris Salon, Despradelle garnered new laurels and was awarded a gold medal.

In 1894, he submitted plans for the Baltimore Courthouse and entered the local Boston fray about how best to reconfigure Copley Square with a letter and plans to the editor of the Boston Transcript. January 1898 saw him in California investigating the site for the proposed University of California at Berkeley. He entered the Phoebe Hearst competition with his partner Stephen Codman, and they placed third out of 150 international entrants. Despradelle went on to design numerous projects in Boston, including the Berkeley Building in 1905, a complex of factory and warehouse buildings at Causeway and North Washington Streets from 1906-1912, and the acclaimed Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, now Brigham and Women's Hospital, which opened after his death. He also served as advisory architect for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Widener Library at Harvard, and MIT's Cambridge campus. However, it was as a teacher that Désiré Despradelle most influenced the development of architecture in his adopted country.

Proposal for the New MIT Cambridge Campus

Proposal for the New MIT Cambridge Campus
bird's-eye view, circa 1911
pencil, watercolor and gouache on paper

Proposal for a Department Store in Copley Square

Proposal for a Department Store in Copley Square
elevation, circa 1905
pencil, colored pencil and gouache on tracing paper

Return to Tall Office Buildings