Giving Up the Horse – Ted Dreier and Walter Gropius

Theodore (‘Ted’) Dreier was – in many ways – the unsung hero of Black Mountain College. John Andrew Rice receives much of the credit for the College’s founding, though Dreier was at his side following the famous ‘Rollins fracas’ (1) and remained a central member of the College community for the first sixteen years of its existence. Dreier was never the outspoken and confrontational pedagogue that Rice was, nor was he a ground breaking artist like Josef or Anni Albers, the other longest-serving members of the BMC faculty. However, Dreier’s contributions to the College were just as – if not more – crucial to its survival than anyone else’s. Through his dogged commitment, patient accounting, and relentless fundraising, Black Mountain College continued operation through immense difficulty. Dreier gave much of his life to the College, which could never have survived without him.

Summer Arts Institute Faculty, Black Mountain College, 1946. Left to right: Leo Amino, Jacob Lawrence, Leo Lionni, Ted Dreier, Nora Lionni, Beaumont Newhall, Gwendolyn Lawrence, Ise Gropius, Jean Varda (in tree), Nancy Newhall (sitting), Walter Gropius, Mary "Molly" Gregory, Josef Albers, Anni Albers. Courtesy of Western Regional Archives.

Summer Arts Institute Faculty, Black Mountain College, 1946. Left to right: Leo Amino, Jacob Lawrence, Leo Lionni, Ted Dreier, Nora Lionni, Beaumont Newhall, Gwendolyn Lawrence, Ise Gropius, Jean Varda (in tree), Nancy Newhall (sitting), Walter Gropius, Mary “Molly” Gregory, Josef Albers, Anni Albers. Courtesy of Western Regional Archives.

An engineer with a degree from Harvard, Dreier always wished he could spend more time teaching at Black Mountain. He was listed in various Black Mountain Bulletins as the instructor in mathematics and physics. Later, he spent a great deal of time preparing a course on the ‘Philosophy of Science.’ Yet most of the time, he found himself in charge (first as treasurer, later as rector) of the College’s finances and its physical plant. Many of his wealthy contacts were called upon time and time again to rescue Black Mountain from collapse. Dreier had an unshakable belief in the College’s mission, so eloquently put forward by Rice from the beginning, but he matched that ideological commitment with a practical ability to raise funds and win supporters – the much-needed ‘Friends of the College.’ His family lived at Black Mountain, and his son – Ted Jr. – grew up and studied there. The distressing chapter of Dreier’s Black Mountain story came years after Rice’s departure, when – after the Second World War – the College went through its most difficult and trying period.

An American of German descent, Dreier had very close relationships with Josef and Anni Albers, and also – on even more personal terms – with Walter and Ise Gropius, and their daughter Ati, who graduated from Black Mountain College in 1946 and who was the godmother of the Dreiers’ daughter. Founder of the legendary German design school, the Bauhaus, Gropius exercised enormous influence over Black Mountain. Though he never served there permanently, he was a member of the Board of Advisors, taught at the famous summer art institutes, and acted in generous friendship toward Black Mountain and the Dreier family.

In the Bauhaus Archive, Berlin, a large portion of Gropius’ collected correspondence illustrates the close relationship his family had with the Dreiers. It also – quite painfully for one invested in the history of the College – tells the story of Dreier’s disillusionment and, finally, his departure from the radical institution he played such a large part in creating. One letter to Dreier shows the sacrifices Gropius was willing to make in order to allow his daughter Ati’s continued education at Black Mountain:

I had meant to write to you regarding Ati when your letter arrived. Meanwhile I have carefully checked up on my financial status regarding a second college year for Ati. I have given up my horse, our second car and we put up a roomer in Ati’s room. After this the utmost my shrunken budget allows me to spend for Ati’s next College year is 1000$. I should like to leave it to you to decide which may be the better way for Ati to make good on the difference either in your summer camp or here in war work.(2)

In response, Dreier assured Gropius that Ati might find work as part of the summer music institute – work that would not be so demanding as in a war factory or on the College farm, and which would allow her time and energy to pursue her studies in art. On April 26, Dreier wrote, ‘Ati was quite jealous of my having heard from you before she did but she was really extremely happy to think that there was a good chance now of her coming back next year […] I have a feeling myself that it would be a good thing and I believe that the Albers agree with me.’

Many other letters between Dreier and Gropius sketch a close, familial relationship. They invite one another and their families for visits to Cambridge, Mass., Black Mountain, and New York; they recount holidays together and hopes for putting the College’s affairs in order. Dreier even wrote to Ise Gropius about the possibility of moving to post-war Germany:

The other day we had a faculty candidate for history who had been in Military Government in Germany for a year speak. He had been Educational and Fine Arts Officer […] Most people liked his talk which was certainly very interesting, but there is something that bothers me terribly about the kind of aloof objectivity with which such a man can talk about Germany and the people and the problems of education and denazification. Although I am naturally not considering any such thing seriously because I still hope things may work out here at Black Mountain (and please consider my mentioning it confidential), the idea had crossed my mind that if I left maybe a place that I could be of as much use as any would be in Germany […] But the very thought of living comfortably in a country while everyone else was half-starving and discouraged is something that would be almost impossible to do if one has any feelings for the people at all. (3)

With the closeness of their relationship, it is no wonder that Dreier included Gropius in the mailing of his resignation from Black Mountain. On August 31, 1948, Dreier wrote to Walter and Ise, ‘This is just a line to say that the die is finally cast. A few days ago I came to the conclusion that I simply could not undertake another reorganization of the college […] I said I wanted to leave.’ (4) In fact, Dreier stayed on just a bit longer in order to help transition to the leadership of Josef Albers as College rector.

Beside personal correspondence, one of the most fascinating pieces in the Gropius collection is Ted Dreier’s ‘Summary Report – Black Mountain College: the First 15 ½ Years,’ written as part of his resignation. The ten-page document was written at a point when Dreier was understandably frustrated and bitter, yet the clarity (and even charity) of his writing still comes through when addressing the core principles of the Black Mountain experiment. He writes, ‘For 15 ½ years Black Mountain has stood for a non-political radicalism in higher education which, like all true radicalism, sought to find modern means for getting back to fundamentals.’ (5) This, he concedes, was largely achieved in the early years, and the character of the College under Albers exemplified these ideals. Dreier saw the reconstitution of the College after the War as the period in which things changed. Infighting was rampant. Younger members of staff who – Dreier points out – had no connection to the foundation of the College advocated divergent pedagogies. ‘There has to be agreement,’ Dreier wrote, ‘about method as well as about aim, and readiness to follow the method.’ (6)

Yet Dreier had not entirely given up hope for Black Mountain, even as he knew his time there was finished: ‘If the effort is made to continue the College it will have to be made by others who may or may not stand for what Black Mountain has stood for in the past.’ Even in despair, Dreier anticipated a rebirth of the College. This is exactly what would happen, very much in the way Dreier describes. When Charles Olson became the dominant force at Black Mountain in the early 1950s, he looked back to the founding principles laid out by Rice and Dreier, while also looking toward a future that would be, in many ways, quite different. Olson’s Black Mountain – and especially his style of leadership – would probably not have been met with Dreier’s enthusiasm. (We must recognize, Olson’s leadership finally failed; he was not the organizer and fundraiser that Dreier had been.) In the end, it was Olson – not Dreier – who had to spend years liquidating the College’s assets and setting its affairs in order. But, after Dreier’s departure, the College did gain new life. Many people today know of Black Mountain through the Olson phase, which included writers Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan, and the creation of the “Black Mountain Review”. However, Dreier must be given his due. If it were not for his strenuous efforts on behalf of the institution, there would have been no place at Lake Eden for those who followed.

by Jonathan Creasy
Trinity College Dublin/ New Dublin Press

(1) Rice was terminated from his tenured position as professor at Rollins College in Florida when the College’s President, Hamilton Holt, objected to Rice’s teaching practices and general demeanor. A famous hearing occurred, held by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), in which Rice was vindicated, but he left Rollins anyway. This is the fabled beginning of the move toward Black Mountain. Most of the initial faculty and students at BMC followed Rice from Rollins. Dreier was a key member of this group. (For more detail, see Martin Duberman’s Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, Dutton: 1972.)
(2) Letter from Walter Gropius to Theodore Dreier, April 16, 1944. The Bauhaus Archive, Berlin.
(3) Letter from Theodore Dreier to Ise Gropius, August 22, 1947. The Bauhaus Archive, Berlin.
(4) Letter from Theodore Dreier to Walter and Ise Gropius, August 31, 1948. The Bauhaus Archive.
(5) Dreier, Theodore. ‘Summary Report – Black Mountain College: The First 15 ½ Years.’ Walter Gropius Collection, The Bauhaus Archive, Berlin.
(6) Ibid.