Arthur Cogswell and The Power of Stories

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

My father died unexpectedly Wednesday night. He of course has always been special to me, and has taught me a great deal about the joys of creating things for a living, as well as about how to live a life. What has been striking over the past few days is hearing from so many people who also considered him a mentor and/or father figure. The number of people who counted him as a friend is surprising, even though I’ve always known he met very few people he didn’t find fascinating. Even the firefighter who answered the 911 call found something about him that was special, and can’t quit calling and stopping by the house to tell us so.

Arthur Cogswell was not a tall man, but he was larger than life. He was known by those who worked for him for his policy of treating any idea, no matter how far fetched, as a possibility, a kernel of thought that might be an auspicious beginning, a tender shoot that could possibly be nurtured into something big. In his architectural firm, that gave young employees the courage to try new things. In his own work, it gave him the freedom to design things no one had ever done before, like an outdoor theatre with a retractable roof, long before that was standard equipment for major football venues.

It is why he has spent the last decade or more moving a very big idea forward, one small step at a time. Years ago, on a trip to India with his wife Marian, he was struck with an idea that even those who loved him the most sometimes considered a little crazy. He conceived a way to apply the principles of architecture to an elegantly simple solution for creating rain in the desert, thus creating arable land in areas where the population is currently starving.

I grew up in houses that were his modernist experiments. They happened to also win architectural awards, but I craved a simple brick ranch like friends down the street.

I also grew up with him telling me stories. Stories about Chapel Hill back when it was truly a village, stories about his childhood along the St. Johns River, stories that his father told him when he was a child.

One of the stories he told me many times was about Mr. Ackland. I was thinking of it the other day, when I was letting friends far and wide know that his memorial service would be at the Ackland Art Museum’s Hanes Auditorium. The way my father told it, Mr. Ackland was looking for a university that would take his money to build an art museum. UNC stepped up to the plate. Mr. Ackland expressed his one caveat, which was that he be buried in a large stone vault in the museum. Powers that be agreed and the deal was sealed.

Years later, Mr. Ackland finally died and his body was shipped by train to Chapel Hill. It showed up at the railroad depot, which I think was down by the present day Carr Mill. It was a Friday afternoon in August. The station called the university, but nobody seemed to know anything about the big wooden box, so they decided to let it wait there on the platform until Monday.

Imagine the smell. Friday to Monday in the August heat. According to my father, the stench was unbearable when Mr. Ackland was installed in the burial vault in a prominent corner of the museum. I remember him mentioning scented candles and large flower arrangements, neither of which seemed to put a dent in the unmistakable odor of a rotting corpse.

Is that story true? Certainly parts of it are, and possibly the whole thing. To me, the important thing is to keep telling the story. My hope is that I remember most of the stories he told me over the years. That I remember to tell them to my son. And that he remembers to tell them to his own children, and so on and so on. In that way, a small part of my father can be in the world forever.

For Arthur Cogswell’s obituary, click here.

For a recent post on the work environment at Cogswell/Hausler, click here.