By Avigail Sachs, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Jane West Clauss (1907–2003) was an early proponent and practitioner of modern architecture in the United States, and the first American woman to work in Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret’s atelier. With her partner Alfred Clauss, she designed and built Little Switzerland in Knoxville, Tennessee, one of the first residential communities in the United States whose design was influenced by the European modern movement.
In her long career she collaborated on the design of several important public buildings and numerous private homes in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. As an instructor at Beaver College (now Arcadia University), she trained a generation of interior designers for collaborative work with architects.
Early Life and Education
Jane West Clauss was the daughter of two University of Minnesota academics. Her mother, Elizabeth Sophia Beach of Faribault, Minnesota, completed her studies there in 1896 as valedictorian of her class and three years later was appointed to teach in the Department of History at her alma mater. At the end of the year, however, she resigned her position and married Willis Mason West, a senior colleague.11University of Minnesota Alumni Association, The Minnesota Alumni Weekly 1, no.1 (September 14, 1901). University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy, http://purl.umn.edu/52973 Willis West was a prolific writer; he was the author of a series of high school-level textbooks and several histories of the United States, the topic of the courses he taught at the University of Minnesota, among other works. These books, especially The Story of American Democracy, Political and Industrial (1922), expressed his complex opinions on American politics and established him as a public intellectual. Elizabeth Sophia Beach was his second wife; West already had seven children from his first marriage. Jane, born in 1907, was her father’s eleventh and her mother’s fourth child.
In 1912, Professor West relinquished his position at the university in order to operate a dairy farm near Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Jane West and her siblings loved living on the farm despite the extremely cold winters and the many chores. For the most part, the West children were homeschooled, though they did attend one-room schools when they were available. Family meals included lessons in history, mathematics, and reasoning.
Jane West enrolled at the University of Minnesota, as did her thirteen siblings, and graduated in 1928. Although her father urged her to study social work, she insisted on a career in design and chose to pursue studies in interior decoration. The four-year program at Minnesota was divided between two years of courses in the College of Science, Literature, and the Arts and two in the College of Engineering and Architecture.22University of Minnesota, “Bulletin, 1925–1926. University of Minnesota” (1925), University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy, http://purl.umn.edu/56147 By the time West officially received her degree in early 1929, the program had been renamed Interior Architecture, better reflecting the content of the curriculum.33University of Minnesota, “Commencement Program, 1929. University of Minnesota” (1929), University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy, http://purl.umn.edu/57546 As a student, West was a member of Alpha Alpha Gamma, one of the first architecture sororities in the United States.44Tim Brady, “Pioneering Women’s Architecture Society at the U of M” (2013). http://www.design.umn.edu/about/news/emerging/fall_2007/alpha_alpha_gamma.html
Upon graduation, she moved to Chicago, where she found work at the design studio of W. P. Nelson Co., which was working with the architectural firm Holabird and Root to revamp railroad coaches. West was already interested in modern architecture and later remembered this project, rather derisively, as “Combination Salad.”55Jane West Clauss, “Jane West Clauss,” Courtesy of Clauss Family (n.d.): 5. However, she did appreciate the opportunity to learn about presentation techniques. As the impact of the Great Depression became more and more apparent, her father offered to support her on a trip to Europe. On May 1, 1931, Jane West and her sister Elizabeth set sail for Norway. It was a stormy crossing, made even harder by the news of their father’s death. Once in Europe, the sisters embarked on an ambitious tour of the built and natural environments of Norway, Sweden, Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, then attended the XIII International Housing and Town Planning Congress in Berlin in 1931. West, as she recounted later, was most interested in the “modern apartment buildings and housing designed by the famous architectural names from Holland, France and Germany.”66Ibid., 6.
When the sisters reached Paris, Jane West decided to remain in the city and to approach Le Corbusier about an unpaid position in the atelier he ran with Pierre Jeanneret. Le Corbusier was not in the habit of hiring women, but West was persistent, and he eventually relented, making her the first American woman to work in the atelier and the third woman, after Charlotte Perriand and Ingrid Wallberg, to join the firm.77While it is difficult to determine the sex of all the names in the atelier’s list of employees, it seems that Jane West was only the third woman to work with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret. See “Repertoire des collaborateurs de Le Corbusier ayant travaille a l’atelier,” Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris. Le Corbusier came to appreciate West’s efficiency and organizational ability, and her time there was seminal to her development as an architect. Not only was Le Corbusier designing some of his landmark projects at the time (West worked on the Swiss Pavilion at the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris and the Salvation Army building in Paris88“Short Biography of Jane West Clauss, AIA,” Courtesy of the Clauss Family (circa 1970), 1.), but “the fact that nearly everyone in the office had been trained in a different country led to some extremely interesting arguments over construction details, acceptable room sizes, etc.”99“Jane West Clauss,” 12–13.
Nearly a year later, West returned to the United States with the clear intention of pursuing a professional career. In New York of the early 1930s, however, she found that talent, ambition and even letters of introduction from Le Corbusier were not enough to secure a paying job. She declined an unpaid position in Oscar Stonorov’s office, feeling that the lack of a salary would not be offset by a stimulating, educational experience like the one she enjoyed in Paris.1010Oscar Stonorov (1905–70), a German-born architect, immigrated to the United States in 1929, bringing a strong commitment to social beliefs of the modern movement, especially affordable housing. When West was seeking employment, Stonorov and his partner Alfred Kastner were designing the Carl Mackley Houses in Philadelphia. In the early 1940s, he collaborated on housing projects with Louis I. Kahn. Instead, she engaged in graphic work and sold unpainted furniture at Macy’s. Nonetheless, she found New York an exciting place for an architect interested in modern architecture, and she soon met many likeminded designers and activists, including Albert Frey, Norman Rice, and Catherine Bauer. (Frey and Rice had also worked for Le Corbusier.)
West’s most important introduction, however, was to the German-born architect Alfred Clauss, with whom she would share both her professional and private life. Clauss was originally from Munich, where he studied architecture. He then worked on housing projects in Hamburg, where he was given the nickname Seppel, which he would use for the rest of his life. Like his future wife, Clauss chose to apprentice with one of the leading modern architects, Mies van der Rohe, and he worked with him on the design of the German Pavilion in Barcelona. After arriving in New York in 1930, Clauss secured a job with the firm of Howe and Lescaze in Philadelphia. He was especially proud of his work on the PSFS (Philadelphia Savings Fund Society) building, for which he designed both building schemes and furniture. There he also met George Daub, with whom he collaborated on several projects both before and after World War II. Together they designed a modernist filling station for Standard Oil of Ohio. This project, along with a design of a winter house for Philip Johnson’s mother, were featured in the 1932 Exhibition of Modern Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art. Clauss was also instrumental in organizing the 1931 “Rejected Architects” exhibition of architects whose work had been excluded that year by the Architectural League of New York; the show was patterned on the famous “Salon des Refusés” of 1863 in Paris.
In 1932, Clauss was unable to offer West a paid position. She was intrigued by his work, however, and she spent her evenings with him and his group of architects working on designs and competitions. A few months later, the two set out for a tour around the United States with Alfred’s brother Walter Clauss, who was visiting from Germany. The travelers spent five months on the road, spending less than two dollars a day, which Jane West later described as “glorious.”1111“Jane West Clauss,” 12–13. At the end of the trip Clauss stayed in Chicago to work on designs and models for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair with Louis Skidmore, and West soon joined him and found work in the interior design studio of the Mandel Brothers. West and Clauss enjoyed life in Chicago but did not stay there long, as Clauss was soon hired by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to work as an associate architect. Thus, in 1934, the couple found themselves living atop Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, Tennessee, and it was there that they were married on December 22, 1934. The couple remained in Tennessee for over a decade, moving from Chattanooga to Knoxville, where their three children, Peter, Carin, and Carl, were born.
The Clausses’ life in Knoxville was one of experiment and adventure. Alfred Clauss continued to work with the TVA on the design of visitor centers and prefabricated trailer homes, as well as posters and other promotional materials. West Clauss, barred from employment in the same agency as her husband, volunteered with the National Park Service and designed furniture for the recreation areas on the shores of the newly created reservoirs. The Clausses also undertook private architectural work, on which they collaborated fully. They designed homes for Joseph and Susan Mengel and for personal friends Henry Hart and his wife. As Mardges Bacon points out, this second home most clearly reflects West’s experience working on the Swiss Pavilion in Le Corbusier’s atelier.1212Mardges Bacon, Le Corbusier in America: Travels in the Land of the Timid (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), 293.
The Clausses also bought a tract of land overlooking a grand view of the Smoky Mountains, located at the end of a road named Little Switzerland. Here they built a small split-level home for themselves and designed six more, four of which were completed, including a second, more permanent home for the Clauss family. Together these homes form one of the first—if not the first—communities in the United States to be designed completely in the “International Style.” These houses were widely published in professional magazines, including Progressive Architecture,1313“Little Switzerland, Knoxville, Tennessee, Development Restricted to Houses of Contemporary Design: Alfred and Jane West Clauss, Architects,” Progressive Architecture 27 (February 1946): 69-84.Domus,1414“La Casa degli Architetti,” Domus, no. 210 (June 1946): 5-8; “Un Villaggio in Cooperativa,” Domus, no. 210 (June 1946): 4–8.Architectural Forum,1515“House Portfolio: Fifty Studies of New Houses under $10,000,” Architectural Forum, no. 72 (April 1940): 276–77. and the Architectural Review.1616“Four Houses at Knoxville,” Architectural Review 96 (December 1944): 163–168; “Two Houses at Knoxville, Tennessee,” Architectural Review 96 (July 1944): 5–7. In 1989, they were the subject of a longer scholarly article by architectural historian Lawrence Wodehouse.1717Lawrence Wodehouse, “Houses by Alfred and Jane Clauss in Knoxville, Tennessee,” ARRIS: Journal of the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians 1, no. 1 (1989): 50–62.
The houses in Little Switzerland are replete with references to the work of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. These include, as Wodehouse explains, strip windows, exposed stone around the fireplace, modern furniture, and an elaborate gumwood ply veneer, which was made to look like van der Rohe’s marble finishes.1818Lawrence Wodehouse, The Roots of International Style Architecture (West Cornwall, Conn.: Locust Hill Press, 1991). More importantly, the designs exhibit the depth of the Clausses’ understanding of modernist ideas and the mastery with which the designers adapted the style to specific conditions, such as the steep natural terrain and materials like hollow tiles and local timber. The houses in Little Switzerland were all built on a limited budget, and the family—both parents and children—undertook a lot of the construction work themselves, including laying bricks and shoveling cement. West Clauss saw this time as an opportunity to put “theory” into practice and a chance to overcome some of the limits usually placed on women architects, especially the expectation that they would not engage in physical work.
In 1945, in search of better schools for the children, the Clauss family relocated to Pennsylvania, where they replicated many of the endeavors they had undertaken in Knoxville. They bought a plot of land in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, and in 1948 designed and built the Jane West House. Four years later, the family built a second house on the adjoining lot, which was similar to the first but smaller and covered with a butterfly roof. The second house was intended as an investment to help finance the eldest son’s college career, which was starting at that time, and would be included in Katherine Morrow Ford and Thomas H. Creighton’s book Quality Budget Houses: A Treasury of 100 Architect-Designed Houses from $5,000 to $20,000 in 1954.1919Katherine Morrow Ford and Thomas H. Creighton, Quality Budget Houses: A Treasury of 100 Architect-Designed Houses from $5,000 to $20,000 (New York: Reinhold, 1954).
An important feature of the Jane West House was the Clausses’ upstairs work area, to which they almost invariably adjourned after dinner.2020Carole Gabler, “Philadelphians at Home, the Clausses Drew a Blueprint for a Happy, Working Marriage,” The Sunday Bulletin (October 30, 1960). This was the hub of what was a professional partnership in all but name. Over the years, Alfred Clauss partnered legally with several architects (Clauss and Daub; Gilboy, Bellante and Clauss; then Bellante and Clauss, followed by Bellante, Clauss, Miller and Partners; and finally DiLullo, Clauss, Ostroski and Partners). Concurrently, he opened an office in his own name, which would later become Clauss & Nolan. It is the various firms listed above whose names appear in professional publications. West Clauss was a full participant in all of the projects as a collaborator, although she is usually credited only as a consultant or as a participant in the interior design. Indeed, so close was the couple’s partnership that for many years West Clauss did not consider it necessary to register as an architect in her own right. In 1960, however, her husband and her daughter Carin urged her to apply for a professional license, and on August 3 of that year she became a registered architect in Pennsylvania.
The designs on which West Clauss collaborated ranged from residential to institutional, industrial, and public projects. Many of the early houses are located in Vineland and Long Beach Island, New Jersey. The Shapiro house is but one example of the modernist touch they brought to their design. The Schwedle house, built for the president of Vineland Chemical Company and his wife, was unusual within their oeuvre: it represents one of the few occasions in which the Clausses disagreed and presented the clients with two alternatives. Carin Clauss remembers that it was with “delicious delight” that her mother celebrated when the Schwedles chose her scheme.
Yet the Clausses were most proud when they could bring their professional expertise to the question of “how to house individuals who were indigent, infirmed (sic), abandoned, and/or confined and who, because of their particular condition or circumstance, had been denied any of the basic elements of good housing.”2121Alfred Clauss, “Letter from Alfred Clauss to The American Architectural Foundation, dated July 11, 1994,” Courtesy of the Clauss Family (1994). In a letter written in 1994, Alfred Clauss singled out three projects that epitomized this approach: The City’s Home for the Indigent Aged (“Riverview,” 1955), a Children’s Reception Center for abandoned and abused children, completed in 1957, and the Philadelphia House of Detention (1962). All of these included art, murals, and sculpture as an integral part of the design.
One of the largest projects West Clauss undertook in her career was the dignified interior design of the Federal Courthouse located next to Independence Hall in Philadelphia. As can be seen in her drawings, she paid special attention to the lighting of each courtroom and to providing both the participants and the observers adequate accommodation. Another large undertaking was the design and supervision of the construction of the New Jersey Health and Agriculture Building in Trenton, New Jersey.
By 1963, West Clauss’s role in the design and supervision for the Health and Agriculture Building required so much of her time that she retired from a teaching position she had held at Beaver College for fourteen years. West Clauss’s pedagogy was emblematic of her approach to design. She worked to instill in her students an understanding of costs, materials, equipment, and furnishings. Her goal was for the students to be trained to “go directly into an architect’s office,” or to “do interior detailing” and “know how equipment must be laid out, or who will work for contract designers.”2222Lisa Wald, “Mrs. Jane Clauss Retires; Faculty Member Since 1949,” The Beaver News 38, no. 12 (May 12, 1963): 3.
West Clauss joined the American Institute of Architects in 1964 and was included in the 1970 American Architects Directory. The Clausses retired from active practice in 1980. Jane West Clauss died in 2003, a few years after her partner, in Madison, Wisconsin. Reflecting on her career as a woman architect, she wrote:
In summary, I must say that architecture is hard work—for man or woman. But it is an exciting and rewarding profession, and if I had another life to live, I would make the same choice. I have, of course, had the tremendous advantage of being married to a talented and dedicated architect and we have complemented each other very well, but it is a field in which a woman can succeed even without such an advantage. And it is a field in which a woman can contribute much toward a better way of life for all of us.2323West Clauss, “Short Biography of Jane West Clauss, AIA,” 3.
This profile could not have been written without the generous help of Peter, Carin, and Carl Clauss, the children of Jane West and Alfred Clauss. The memories, insights and images they shared made their mother’s (and father’s) personalities and professional achievements shine.