AP Art History: Global conversations spanning the centuries

It was hardly an ideal day for a stroll outside. The usual beautiful views from the windows from Room 301 were instead framing truly unwelcoming weather, a thick layer of low-hanging clouds shrouded the campus, and it was clear to see that the rain wasn’t going to let up any time soon. But Nora Warren’s AP History class still seemed enthusiastic for the day's activity—something they had been preparing to do for weeks—a “history walk” around Strub Hall, looking for Greco-Roman influences in the architecture.

The students had already learned many of the basics: Greek columns, pediments and stoa. Roman domes, coffered ceilings and the early use of concrete. And they had walked around their houses and parts of their towns to find these elements, sometimes in the most unexpected places, from a fountain in a neighbor’s backyard to the Colosseum-inspired shape of the Rose Bowl. Before braving the elements, Ms. Warren prepared the class for new ways of seeing. She brought out several books that featured the central building of Mayfield Senior School—Strub Hall— cataloging it as a piece of notable Los Angeles architectural history, when it was still known as “Marshallia.” This century-old Beaux Arts marvel was designed to be a private home—and an opulent one at that—as it was considered the most expensive house West of the Mississippi, before it was gifted for the express purpose of becoming a school. Ms. Warren outlines some of the main features of Beaux Arts style in the late 19th century: emphasizing grand arrival halls, buildings designed to convey the sense of heaviness, honoring the history of ancient (Greek or Roman) ideals, used widely by government institutions and as homes for the wealthy. Classical details, highly decorative surfaces. Rational. Ordered. Symmetrical. Many students appear visibly impacted by a sense of recognition in these descriptions. Suddenly they started to think of their school as something bigger than their school. It’s beautiful. But why is it beautiful? To whom? And for what purpose?

“Buildings have conversations with each other and the landscape around them,” says Ms. Warren, espousing theories of renowned Yale architectural history professor Vincent Scully. Lots of buildings change purposes over the years, and Strub Hall is no exception. Having just concluded the construction phase of the “Strub Hall: Century 2" Campaign, these students have seen how this space adapted to what Cornelia Connelly called the “wants of the age,” in real time. As the students scattered to look for Greco-Roman influences, inside and outside of the building, they were also reminded of the (cleverly hidden!) state-of-the-art structural retrofits that existed beneath the stunning ancient-looking exteriors. Ms. Warren explains, “I wanted to give us a chance to think about this environment that serves as both 'home' and school to our Mayfield community, and how it 'has a conversation' with us about the past, present, and future.”

Once they started looking, signs of Greco-Roman influences were everywhere. Miranda Gallegos ’23 remarked on the Greek Doric columns at the front door, Carla Martinez Rivas ’23 found those columns at the side of Pike Auditorium, Juliana Boutros ’23 pointed them out near the Pergola Lawn. At the back of the Pergola, Audrey O’Rafferty ’24 correctly identified the open air stoa, a pediment and a dome, all inspired by Ancient Rome. Cornelia Halferty ’24 noticed the coffered ceilings in the living room. Cecilia Kvochak '23 remarked on the crossing buttresses and a high ceiling on the 3rd floor of Strub, all showing classical Greek and Ancient Roman influences.

“AP Art History has opened my eyes to art that is all around us,” says Miranda McDevitt ‘23. She explains, “AP Art History helps us acquire information and inspiration that influence how we think, experience and see the world.”

It’s not hard to believe that Ms. Warren teaches both in the history and the theology departments at Mayfield. Her spiritual sense is pervasive in the way she experiences and discusses art. “Theology examines our encounter with the Spirit,” she says. “Art is the expression of the Spirit.”  And Ms. Warren finds a very comfortable educational baseline inside the Holy Child mission, and points out that Cornelia Connelly’s early curriculum had a major emphasis on the arts. Art classes were always treated with the same amount of respect as other courses because Cornelia was firm in her belief that engaging with art was an ideal place to hone necessary and difficult skills.

And Cornelia’s legacy of critical strength through studying the arts is very much alive within the students at Mayfield. Karina Norton ‘23 says, “I think (AP Art History) causes you to see the world in a different light,” saying she now looks at “architecture and paintings and photographs and automatically begins either taking note of simple details or analyzing."

Since Camille Pidoux ‘23 started taking this class, she has also seen a shift in her own perspective. “I am now looking at things differently,” she says. “What inspires me most about learning about Art History is that art has such a lasting effect on people's lives, for generations. We can really see people’s mindsets at the time that art was made and how it changed over time. “

A lot of classes in high school can inspire a student, but it’s a bit more rare to have a class that also helps provide the tools to understand and then express that inspiration. The way Art History straddles so many disciplines, it ignites the skills of an agile mind. Art is intellectual, it is personal, it is spiritual, it is literary, it is practical, it is scientific, it is disruptive, it is sublime.

An unexpected fire alarm interrupted the Strub history walk briefly, as everyone had to line up on the North Lawn, under a light drizzle. But once the fire drill concluded, everyone reconvened on the West Porch, which occasionally offers glorious views of Downtown LA on clearer days. Out of the rain, and under the “stoa” of that porch, the class reported that they had seen examples of Greco-Roman influences, filtered through Beaux Arts style, and some remarked on the impressive architectural journey that Strub Hall had taken over the last century. And at this point, Ms. Warren asked the students to look over to the drenched Arroyo Seco before them, and asked students not to just see that lush landscapes that this porch was designed to frame 100 years ago, but to also see what the indigenous Tongva-Gabrielino people might have seen from this vista for thousands of years before this building was erected. She notes that they will examine art historical sources of these dwellings when they embark on studies of “Art of the Americas” later this year--and explore the ways these spaces served first peoples' physical needs and amplified spiritual aspirations—as people and as a community. And although those dwellings are no longer physically there on the horizon, Ms. Warren reminds the class they remain very much part of this conversation between buildings, and the people who made these dwellings are not part of the past, but of our shared present, and people who may be deeply influential in the ways we dream of dwellings of the future.

In the back of her mind, Ms. Warren thinks of details of the AP exams, and she curates lessons to include all the major pieces of art that should be covered, and works to equip her students with tools of comparative analysis, to be able to discuss pieces of art across the world and across time. When students leave her class, she wants them to be able to “scrutinize their world and express what their ideas are cogently in writing and in speaking.” But, she adds, she also hopes they will be, ”empathetic people who have a taste of what's important to people all over the world…expressed through their art and their architecture. That really gives them a deep sense of being part of a global human family.”

Ms. Warren says her students’ contextual and comparative analysis make this AP Art History material evergreen for her—they help her to approach certain topics in ways she would never have imagined without them. “Students bring new perspectives to our study of the past—there is a mutuality in teaching and learning.” She says simply: “Every school year is a miracle.” 
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.