Thom Nickels: The last days of Walter Gropius

Walter Adolph Georg Gropius (1883-1969), born in Berlin into a family of architects, was the founder of the Bauhaus School of Architecture in 1919. Drafted in 1914 during WWI, he narrowly escaped death when he was buried underground for three days. But the “tough old bird,” as Gropius referred to himself when he was in his eighties, survived.

Gropius’s Bauhaus school attracted architects like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Fiona MacCarthy, in her 2019 biography of Gropius (Gropius: The Man Who Built the Bauhaus), wrote that he “had none of the puffery we associate with great architects.” 

In MacCarthy’s book we also learn that Gropius did not know how to draw and that his close associates claimed that he lacked a sense of humor. The novelist Evelyn Waugh concurred when he satirized Gropius in his novel, Decline and Fall as “stiff and doctrinaire.” 

The Bauhaus aesthetic has always had its fair share of detractors.

Tom Wolfe in his 1981 book, From Bauhaus to Our House, criticized the Bauhaus look for its “whiteness & lightness & leanness & cleanness & bareness & spareness” of design.

The Bauhaus design, Wolfe emphasized, turned houses into something resembling “an insecticide refinery.”

In 1936, Gropius was hired by Harvard University. He was married to a woman named Ise and living in a house in Lincoln, Massachusetts, a mere ten miles outside of Boston. 

Gropius died on July 5, 1969, after surgery at Tufts New England Medical Center in Boston where I was working as a hospital operating room orderly. 

Gropius had been admitted to Tufts with a serious inflammation of the glands on June 7 and scheduled for an operation on June 15. 

Mid-morning on June 15, I was approached by the OR head nurse who handed me a slip of paper with Walter Gropius’s name and floor number on it. This was my cue to take a stretcher and go to Gropius’s room and transport him to the OR. 

Growing up, I had heard the name Walter Gropius from my father and grandfather, both Philadelphia architects. I grew up in a world of architectural blueprints, drafting boards and endless issues of Architectural Digest. My father designed churches, schools and shopping centers on Philadelphia’s Main Line, while my grandfather designed Nazareth Hospital in the Northeast, homes in Center City, and numerous Catholic churches and schools in Reading and Philadelphia. 

With a stretcher in tow, I headed up to Gropius’ room, where I saw the great architect with his head turned towards the window. The window drapes were wide open, exposing the room to the early morning light and a view that was more than architectural: a large construction site filled with bulldozers and machinery going full tilt, as Tufts was adding a wing to the hospital. 

The noises coming from the site would have struck most patients as intrusive, especially those headed for surgery. 

But Gropius seemed to be in his glory. The view from his window in many ways seemed made to order. It was certainly in perfect alignment with Tom Wolfe’s description of the Bauhaus’s “whiteness & lightness & leanness & cleanness & bareness & spareness” of design.

Add to this the echoing sounds of jack hammers clanging like cathedral bells, and you have a kind of Walter Gropius symphony. 

I took note of Gropius’s hair: long and electrified looking, reminiscent of many Albert Einstein photos. The architect had an IV in both arms, and his hospital Johnny, open at the neck, exposed a battery of taped plugs and heart monitors. He was very thin but looked very much like a “tough old bird.”

I had no sooner stepped into his room carrying his red hospital chart then he turned to see who I was.

Dressed in a white coat and surgical scrubs, I immediately set about arranging the stretcher at a comfortable angle from the bed so I could check his patient ID as well as introduce myself. 

“Good morning, Mr. Gropius, I am here to take you to the operating room.” 

He nodded but did not say anything. 

I noticed a catheter strapped to the side of his bed so before I could help him move I had to detach it and hold it until I had him safely on the stretcher. 

There were also multiple IVs and wires attached to him which made a transfer to the stretcher a difficult proposition. Patients who could not be transferred to a stretcher usually went to the operating room in their beds.

I prepared to help him slide onto the stretcher by placing my right arm under his head and neck area while using my other arm to support his body.

“Take your time, Mr. Gropius,” I cautioned.

Ordinarily, when a patient cannot be moved from a bed to a stretcher a floor nurse had to called in to assist, but since this was no ordinary patient, the chief anesthesiologist from the OR came up to help me. 

Dr. X was a man with a quick and fiery temper. When things didn’t go his way, he had a tendency to curse and lash out. His displays of ill temper could be heard regularly in the OR, but because he was not a surgeon — surgeons were OR royalty — his tantrums tended to be confined to words rather than throwing things.

When Dr. X entered the room, the look on his face told me that a temper tantrum was inevitable.

“We’re going to have to take him down in the bed!” he said.

I wheeled the stretcher out of the room as Dr X rearranged the vast network of wires and poles above Gropius’ bed. To streamline the passageway through the doorframe, Dr X took one of the IV set ups and held it aloft while pushing the bed forward with his free hand as I pulled the foot of the bed towards the door. 

Most beds were able to squeeze through the hospital room doorways, so we expected Gropius’ bed to follow suit. But in the rush to get him to the OR, we failed to calculate the available space for an orderly passageway through the door frame.

Dr X was a tall man in expensive looking oval eyeglasses that made him look like an intellectual. He seemed confident that his rearrangement of wires and IV bottles would solve the problem. But it did not. As Dr X pushed the bed in my direction with an accelerated whoosh, something caught on the door frame and caused Gropius to jerk back violently.

A colorful curse word flew out of the doctor’s mouth. 

Gropius, looking into my eyes, seemed to be observing my reaction. His fixed stare was focused and unwavering until I felt that it was fixating on something else, something inside me. It was an eerie feeling although not unpleasant at all. 

Finally, when we had the bed positioned square with the door frame, Dr X said “Okay.”

I pulled the bed as Dr X pushed but we hit another snag.

The snag caused the bed to bump the doorframe which caused Gropius’s head to jerk back again. The IV bottles swung and clanged like cathedral chimes. The bed railings along the side of the bed, although in the down position, were not allowing us to pass through the doorway. 

Dr. X then maneuvered the bed so that it would hit the doorway from a different angle, but once again the sides of the bed hit the doorframe. For the patient, it must have been a little like riding in a car that hit a brick wall. 

Gropius’s upper body jerked back for the third time as Dr X uttered another colorful word. Once again, Gropius showed no reaction to Dr. X’s outburst but kept a steady gaze on me. I wanted the architect to close his eyes but he kept looking at me. I was feeling a little nervous by now but soon my eyes were drawn to his in a fixed stare. 

We seemed to be riding the waves of silent telepathic communication.

In the end, Dr X and I had to take off the bed railings, after which we were able to move the bed down the hospital corridor, into the elevator and finally into the operating room.

The massive construction site outside Gropius’s hospital window, complete with the sound of bulldozers and jackhammers, the ill-design of the doorframe and the mandatory dismantling of the bed in order to move it out of the room, conspired to create a sort of architectural nightmare. 

Finally, however, Gropius made it into the surgeons’ hands. 

A week after his operation, Walter Gropius’ obituary appeared on the front page of The New York Times: Gropius, the Shaper of Modern Design, Dies in Boston at 86

While preparing this column, I came across a poignant 2013 piece on Walter Gropius in The Boston Globe

“In Gropius’s vision, it was important for the ‘human element’ to be the dominant factor in modern communities. He lectured that ‘social loneliness was spreading’ and blamed the dehumanizing impact of the machine age. He wrote in 1950 that there was a ‘sickness’ in cities and towns that was the ‘pitiful result of our failure to put basic human needs above economic and industrial requirements.’” 

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, Frontpage Magazine and the Philadelphia Irish Edition. He is the author of fifteen books, including ”Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” “Death at Dawn: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” will be published later this year.

Leave a (Respectful) Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *