Marion Dean Ross: The Legacy of a Scholar

An Online Companion to an Exhibit in Knight Library, University of Oregon
January - April 2012
Curated by Edward H. Teague

Marion Dean Ross's legacy is on display throughout the four cases in Knight Library's two exhibit hallways.
Interweaved are photographs taken by Ross himself, reproductions from rare books acquired through the Ross endowment, and architectural models created by Ross's students.

This exhibit commemorates the contributions of Marion Dean Ross as a respected teacher, an original scholar, and generous benefactor. Twenty years ago, newspapers in the region announced with surprise a major gift to the University of Oregon. As the Register Guard reported: "The gift comes from a man who never married, had no known family at the time of his death, and who never owned a car or home, preferring to rent an apartment within walking distance of campus." That man was Marion Dean Ross, a professor of art history at UO from 1947 to 1978. Ross's bequest gave the university over one million dollars for the acquisition of library material.

This exhibit honors an individual who, like many others, have helped build and sustain the University of Oregon.

Ross: Teacher and Mentor

Marion Dean Ross was born in Williamsburg, Pennsylvania, on June 6, 1913. He received a B. S. degree from Pennsylvania State College (University) in 1935 and a Master of Architecture from Harvard University in 1937. He undertook post-graduate work at Harvard and the Universidad Nacional de Mexico. Ross taught design and architectural history at Tulane University, New Orleans, and briefly at Harvard, from 1937 to 1946. His first introduction to Oregon was as an army private stationed at Camp Abbott near Bend during World War II.

In 1947, Ross joined the faculty of the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts, now the College of Design. His instruction, well informed by his frequent travels abroad, included courses in general architectural history, Latin American architecture, Islamic architecture, and landscape architecture history. He created a popular course in Oregon architectural history. Ross became the first chair of the Department of Art History in 1963 when that program achieved departmental status. In 1962-63 he served as acting dean of the school. In 1978, Ross retired, becoming Professor Emeritus.

Ross was a demanding but highly respected teacher. Former students and colleagues could provide numerous anecdotes of a critical and impatient man, whose "scowl and cigar" were legendary.

But the same individuals also cherished his role as mentor. Ross succeeded in requiring architectural history as a part of the curriculum of architecture students, and making models of historic buildings was part of his pedagogical approach. The school retained approximately 180 models for exhibit and study that for many years have been preserved and maintained by the Department of Art History.

Ross's teaching skills went well beyond the classroom. He was highly valued as a lecturer. After retirement, he was invited back to the university to present a lecture series on Oregon architecture. This series was videotaped; however, the recordings have not been located. Fortunately, an audiocassette of a Ross lecture was preserved digitized. Listen to the streaming audio lecture of Ross's presentation of "Eugene Houses, Old and New", from 1988, accessible from UO's digital repository, Scholar's Bank.

Ross as Scholar

As a scholar, Ross is best known as a pioneer in the study of Pacific Northwest architecture and the author of landmark studies of Oregon's built environment. His article "Architecture in Oregon 1845-95" in the Oregon Historical Quarterly (1956) was the first scholarly exploration of this subject, followed in 1959 by an historical survey published in commemoration of the state's centennial.
His other publications appeared in professional and scholarly journals, ranging from Pacific Architect & Builder to the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. Ross was also an expert visual documentarian; the slides he took of the built environment are highly valued for research and instruction. Most of his images of the Pacific Northwest have been included in the amazing digital resource, Building Oregon. Ross was one of the founders of the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) in 1940, and in 1954 he collaborated in founding a regional SAH chapter which initially covered the interests of Pacific Coast states and provinces. Ross was an integral part of the affairs of the chapter from inception until his death. In 1995, a reorganized chapter centered in the Pacific Northwest was named in his honor -- the Marion Dean Ross Chapter.
Ross's scholarship, professional service, and teaching were major influences in fostering an interest in historic preservation in the Pacific Northwest. He directed Historic American Building Survey projects in Jacksonville, Oregon, in 1971, and in the Great Smoky Mountains in 1957. He served from 1970 to 1976 on Oregon's State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation, and in 1981 was awarded the Distinguished Preservationist Award by the Historic Preservation League of Oregon

During 1990, the south addition of UO's Lawrence Hall was under construction with its major purpose being a new home for the Design Library. It had been determined that the library's reading room be named after Professor Ross, and a fund to furnish the facility had been established in his honor. The room was formally dedicated on April 27, 1991, and the moving tributes made to Ross on that occasion can be found in University Archives. Ross had died a few weeks earlier, of a heart attack, on April 2, 1991.

Ross as Benefactor

In 1992, a year after Ross's death, it became publicly known that Ross bequeathed $1.2 million to the university. His will stipulated that the bequest be used to acquire books and photographs covering all periods of architectural history, to be selected by the art history faculty, and that the gift could not be used as a substitute for state funding. The Ross endowment also enabled the establishment of the Marion Dean Ross Distinguished Chair in Architectural History.

Over the past two decades, over 1,400 extraordinary and diverse periodical and book titles have been purchased with the Ross endowment, as well as hundreds of digital images, and resources in other formats.

Find out more:

Dr. Leland Roth's presentation, Marion Dean Ross: A Man Who Left a Hole in the Water, can be viewed on the UO Channel. Professor Roth's lecture makes use of much of the content prepared for the exhibit.

The exhibit was created by Edward H. Teague, Head, Design Library, University of Oregon, with the invaluable assistance of Christian Boboia, Exhibit Services, University of Oregon Libraries.

Exhibit website: Ed Teague. Updated September 13, 2012. Updated June 29, 2017.