WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels with the WPA Guides: Black Mountain College, North Carolina

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

Black Mountain Dormitories

Black Mountain College was founded in 1933 by several professors who had been fired by Rollins College for refusing to sign a loyalty oath. The founders purchased land outside Asheville, North Carolina and both students and teachers pitched in to design and build the campus. Conceived as a progressive college, Black Mountain stressed a balance of education and cooperative labor. Students and faculty worked together on an equal footing in farm work, construction projects, and kitchen duty.  Students participated on all levels in the administration of the school. Only two courses were required—a course on materials and form taught by Albers and a course on Plato—and there were no grades. Students could decide when they were ready to graduate and were presented with handcrafted diplomas when they did so. 

The North Carolina Guide was written just after Black Mountain College was founded and it’s writers expressed greatest interest in the the radical organization of the school:

“The aims of [Black Mountain College] are to keep it so small that no one person will ever have to devote full time to administrative work and, by integrating academic work with community life, to develop resourcefulness and general intellectual and emotional fitness.

Students and instructors associate on an equal basis, residing in the same building and working together in classroom, dining hall, field and forest. There are no required courses, no fraternities and sororities, and no football team […]  Emphasis is laid upon the plastic arts, music and dramatics.”  

North Carolina guide, p.531.

The Guide did not anticipate the outsized influence that the college was to have upon the arts. But it is for that influence that Black Mountain is so well-known and admired. Black Mountain placed arts at the center of its curriculum and, in 1933, the college welcomed Anni and Josef Albers and Walter Gropius, prominent members of the Bauhaus School in Germany, who came to teach at the school as refugees from Nazi Germany. With Albers as college president, Black Mountain attracted an amazing group of talented artists as both teachers and students. Buckminster Fuller built his first geodesic dome on the campus. Painters Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Motherwell, Cy Twombly, Franz Kline, and Willem DeKooning all taught there. Choreographer Merce Cunningham formed his legendary dance troupe at the school.

Avant-garde musician John Cage gave his first performances at Black Mountain. His most famous composition, 4’33″, was first performed there in August,1952. The piece lasted for precisely 4 minutes and 33 seconds during which time pianist David Tudor sat at the piano, consulted a stopwatch and turned the pages of the score, but never played a single note. 

The atmosphere at Black Mountain was one of rich collaboration. Students and faculty lived together in the dorms and met for inspirational “happenings” in the living room of the main dormitory. Multi-disciplinary performances were staged throughout the campus.

Black Mountain had no endowment and, over time, it incurred significant debts. The college was forced to close in 1957. Albers left to chair the Art Department at Yale and Gropius joined the faculty of the Design School at Harvard. Despite having to leave, they and the other faculty and alumni kept the spirit of Black Mountain alive well after it closed. Albers’s seminal book, Interaction of Color, remains required reading in art schools everywhere. Gropius designed a major part of the campus at the Harvard Law School and Anni Albers furnished his buildings with her weavings and original textile designs. Cage, Fuller, Cunningham dominated their fields for years to come while the school’s painters captured the hearts and pockletbooks of museums and collectors everywhere. It is no stretch to say that late 20th Century art, music and dance all sprang from a tiny college in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

Today, The Black Mountain Foundation maintains a small museum and research library in Asheville. The Museum hosts rotating exhibits of alumni art work and its library contains the full and impressive array of the art books that alumni have produced. It also displays Anni Albers’s original loom and original photos of the faculty and the campus. 

A visit to the Museum is impressive but I found it more exciting to visit the campus itself. The property is now home to the Camp Rockmont for Boys. I telephoned the camp office and was warmly invited by the Assistant Director to stop by for a tour. The campus remains almost exactly as it was in the days of the college. The original classroom building now houses the camp’s offices and in summer the campers live in the original dorms. The buildings ring a pond and the grounds are lovely. Echoes of art remain. You can sit in the original chairs in front of the huge stone fireplace where “happenings” were held and imagine the scene. You can view frescoes that a faculty member painted on the walls of the pottery studio in 1944. The feeling of a lively art community is palpable even 60 years later.

The Black Mountain College campus has started to offer guided tours of the campus in partnership with the land’s new stewards, Lake Eden Preserve. Find out more details about the tours here.

March, 2021

Anni Albers Loom
Anni Albers’ Loom

Black Mountain Classroom building

Black Mountain Classrooms and Ceramics Studio
Black Mountain Classrooms and Ceramics Studio

Black Mountain Dining Hall

Black Mountain Dining Porch

Black Mountain Dining Room

Black Mountain Living Room

Black Mountain Pond and Blue Ridge Mountains

Black Mountain Pond

Black Mountain Pond

Black Mountain Museum

Black Mountain Museum

In the Museum

In the Museum