From a portrait painter to an architect: the Path
“I was always pretty good at drawing and painting, which I loved to do” – Hugh Newell Jacobsen for the Artist Toolbox in 2010.
Born in March 1929 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Hugh Newell Jacobsen was the son of John Edwall Jacobsen and Lucy Ellen Newell. John was a meat importer, but he worked as a war shipping administration during World War II.
Since his early years, Hugh Newell Jacobsen dreamt of becoming a painter. In 1951, he completed his Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts from the University of Maryland. This leaning towards the 2-dimensional art is somehow witnessing in the remarkable flatness of his buildings. However, his father, John, wasn’t sure about Hugh’s career choice of becoming a painter.
He advised his son to consider a career that would marry both arts and business: architecture. Having listened to his father’s advice, Hugh went back to university and completed both a Bachelor’s and a Masters of Architecture from Yale University in 1955.
Having completed his architectural diplomas, Hugh Newell Jacobsen went to work for Philip Johnson in the same year: 1955. Judged by his boss, Hugh was rapidly discarded. Between the years 1957 and 1958, he worked alongside Keyes, Lethbridge, and Condon and was mentored by Louis Kahn.
Jacobsen Architecture: the Firm
“I feel sorry for anyone who’s not an architect” – Hugh Newell Jacobsen for 2010 interview.
In 1958, Hugh Newell Jacobsen decided to pursue architecture under his own name. He created the Jacobsen Architecture. Today, Jacobsen Architecture is partnered with Hugh’s son, Simon. Jacobsen Architecture is based in Georgetown, Washington. The office was at the same time a workplace and the Jacobsens’ house. “The city has wonderful colonnaded rooms that no one can ever see” – Hugh Newell Jacobsen to the New York Times, 1984.
In his early works, Jacobsen worked on renovation projects of historical buildings and up to a hundred houses in Georgetown. That was when he kick-started his real personal, professional career, and new commissions started to come in.
Cleaned regionalism or modernism?
“Clean up and abstract.” This was the motto from which Jacobsen’s architecture was emerging from. He claimed that when he has been commissioned a house somewhere, he would study deeply the regional architectural style of the location. Afterward, he would clean it up and abstract it as much as possible—borderline, modernist.
According to the Washington Post’s obituary, Hugh Newell Jacobsen’s architectural style was recognizable for their “monopoly houses because of their resemblance to the piece from the board game” (March 4th).
Jacobsen architecture’s main reason puts the emphasis on breaking down houses into a multitude of them, instead of having one significant element, is his conviction that “a good architecture never shouts at its neighbors” (Hugh Newell Jacobsen, 2010). His incredible attention to detail made crafting each more minor part of the house so meticulous and continuously arranged into a modern composition. All of his works are identifiable just by looking at them. They offer the luxury of simple common characteristics yet so unique. This modesty of design was only limited to the architecture itself. Indeed, most of his clients were highly known people such as Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis, Meryl Streep, Queen Noor of Jordan, Kind Hussein, and many more.
His philosophy relies on the following theory: if there is still some pair of shoes lying underneath the bed, he would not have done his job. A small selection of his work
Hugh Newell Jacobsen renovated the Arts and Industries Building, the Renwick Gallery, and built the west terraces of the U.S. Capitol.
One of his single house projects that stands out the most is the Blumenthal House, built in 1971 in Maryland. It embodies Jacobsen’s architectural language at its best. One can find the recessed entrance, the interior spaces, the articulation of the roofs, the high ceilings, the white skin, and the flush gutters.
The Martha’s Vineyard Residency is a project conceived for Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis. The construction was completed in 1981. The house was located on a farm, looking at the Atlantic Ocean.
Awards and Activities
Hugh Newell Jacobsen was a juror at the AIA awards program for over 50 years. He was also a lecturing professor in various international universities. Jacobsen was an active member of the International Hassan Fathy Institute and the National Advisory Board of the Masonry Institute.
Jacobsen published various articles for numerous magazines such as Architectural Record, Architectural Digest, House and Garden, and the New Republic. He also edited a book called “A Guide to the Architecture of Washington DC” in 1965.
Jacobsen wrote a monograph, “Hugh Newell Jacobsen, Architect,” published in 1988. Three volumes followed later on: 1994, 2007, and 2018.
Jacobsen joined the American Institute of Architects in 1971. He was also elected at the National Academy of Design as an Academician in 1992.
Jacobsen was honored by the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Fine Arts (Maryland, 1993), Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters (Gettysburg College, 1974; Bradford, 1990).
Jacobsen received in 1971 the Tau Sigma Delta Silver Medal for Distinction in Design.
Hugh Newell Jacobsen: a husband and a father
Jacobsen was a loving husband, married to Ruth Kearney until death tore them apart in 2010 when she lost her life. As a beautiful couple, they were the parents of three children: John, Matthew, and Simon (who is the Jacobsen Architecture partner).
End of a wonderful life
The maestro of simple, clean and discreet architecture, Hugh Newell Jacobsen, passed away at age 91 on March 4th 2021, a week before his 92nd birthday, at Front Royal, in an assisted-living center. The reason for his death is still blurred between complications due to the novel coronavirus, or due to a recurrent, unrelated covid-19, pneumonia.