In the late 1940s, architect Alexander Cochran built himself a house on Lake Avenue in North Baltimore. It is no exaggeration to say that North Baltimore was shocked.
Because instead of the usual, comfortably conservative building, Alex Cochran's house was -- gasp -- modern; it was low-lying and flat-roofed, with floor-to-ceiling windows that let the indoors and outdoors flow into one another. Moreover, Cochran and his wife, Caroline, filled the house with modern furniture and art, and they spent the next several decades there championing causes from integration to world federalism.
Alexander Cochran was that unlikely combination -- a moneyed aristocrat devoted to making the world a more modern, more democratic place. That's the theme of a book and an exhibit on Cochran (1913-1990), both called "Alexander Smith Cochran," both created by architectural historian Christopher Weeks and both presented by the Maryland Historical Society. The book is due in mid-September, and the exhibit runs through Sept. 24.
Weeks, who has published a dozen books on architecture and gardening in the Chesapeake region and has two more in the works, was commissioned to do the book by the Cochran family about three years ago. He never met the architect and knew little about him. "I thought it was going to be some little puff piece when I was first approached," he says. "I had no idea how interesting it was going to be."
Cochran was born to wealth and privilege, the descendant of a carpet manufacturing magnate and the son of parents with houses in Baltimore County and on Mount Vernon Place.
As a student of architecture at Yale and then Harvard, Cochran was exposed to the teachings of Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius, among others. He served in the Navy in World War II, then settled in Baltimore. Here, the leading architect of the day, Laurence Hall Fowler, was adept at beautifully designed mansions in various historical styles. The succession was seemingly assured. Elizabeth Constable, one of Cochran's friends, remembers, "We all thought he was about to pick up Mr. Fowler's baton. We all were surprised."
Instead, Weeks contends, Cochran became the key proponent of modern architecture in a Baltimore mired in tradition. Aside from his own house, he designed modern houses for others, including banker Harrison Garrett and developer James Rouse. The best Cochran architecture is his "gem-like Baltimore houses from the late '40s and early '50s," Weeks says. "As a group, they are nothing to be ashamed of in terms of what was going on nationally."
But they didn't win universal praise in Baltimore. One outraged Baltimorean wrote in an anonymous 1950 letter to Cochran, "If a native son -- with extraordinary advantages of intelligence, culture, and education can be so lacking in loyalty to his background, his traditions, his opportunities . . . what can we expect of the ignorant -- the vulgar -- the money-mad?" Cochran's own mother refused to set foot in his house; instead, as Weeks writes, she "summoned family members outside to speak to her while she remained sitting in her car."
In spite of entrenched opposition to his ideas, Cochran's architecture firm, eventually known as Cochran, Stephenson & Donkervoet, prospered. From the 1950s through the 1970s, Cochran himself designed houses, churches, apartment buildings and low-income housing. With Rouse, he was responsible for the Freedom Apartments and Shopping Center on Erdman Avenue in 1951 and the Waverly Redevelopment Project on Greenmount Avenue in 1953 -- which were, Weeks writes, "the first privately funded redevelopment projects in the United States . . . ."
One of his late projects was the renovation in the 1960s of Mount Royal Station, a former railroad station, into a building for the use of the Maryland Institute, College of Art. It was widely hailed as a superior example of adaptive re-use of architecture. All of these projects and more are pictured in the exhibit.
Cochran also wrote and lectured on modern architecture and made efforts to bring distinguished architects to work here. For a new church for the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, where he was on the vestry, Cochran sought world-renowned Pietro Belluschi, who designed a building of great distinction.
But, Weeks points out, bringing modern architecture to mid-century Baltimore was only part of Cochran's life. "Architecture was the art through which he tried to bring modern thought to Baltimore," says Weeks. "But it was not the only medium."
He and his wife, Caroline, worked unceasingly for liberal causes. She and he were a true working partnership," says Weeks. "They were movers and shakers in the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, and organizations such as the United World Federalists and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He was on the [Baltimore] Planning Commission for decades. Her main thrust was Planned Parenthood."
Cochran made the most of his talents, Weeks thinks. "And that includes his money and family social position," he says. "But the use of his connections was not for self-aggrandizement. It makes him sound like a saint to say he spent his life working for the benefit of others, but I think he did.
"He set an example that one looked after those less fortunate. Nowadays it seems that the landscape is full of selfish people. He was somebody who realized that there are more fulfilling things in life than getting a new BMW."
What: "Alexander Smith Cochran"
Where: The Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 24
Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors, students and ages 12-18
Call: (410) 685-3750
Note: On Sept. 19, from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., the Maryland Historical Society will present an evening called "Remembrances Alex Cochran." It is free and open to the public. Speakers will include James W. Rouse, Phoebe Stanton and Walter Sondheim Jr. Christopher Weeks will sign copies of his book.