Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center
Fifteen miles east of Asheville was the location of Black Mountain College, an experimental school in existence from 1933 to 1956. According to gay historian Martin Duberman, who chronicled its history in his exhaustive group biography, Black Mountain College: An Exploration in Community, the college was “the forerunner and exemplar of much that is currently considered innovative in arts, education and life style.” At Black Mountain, there were no required courses, no exams, and no formal grades. Students were responsible for planning their own course of study, participating in classes that often had fewer than 10 students each.
Black Mountain was also the nurturing ground of numerous queer writers and artists, including Paul Goodman, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage. Other queer lecturers during its history included Thornton Wilder, Ted Shawn, and Robert Duncan. Artists Robert Rauschenberg was a student at Black Mountain. The college’s literary journal, Black Mountain Review, published the work of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, among many others. Though gay men taught and studied there, however, homosexuality was not openly tolerated. When Paul Goodman, a lecturer in “psychotherapy (his own), literature, history, community planning and sex,” according to Duberman, applied for a full-time teaching position, the faculty voted against him, fearing that he would prove to be a sexual predator.
The original site of the school consisted of church buildings constructed by the Blue Ridge Assembly as a summer conference center for its members. For most of the year, the buildings were vacant, and Black Mountain founder John Andrew Rice saw it as the perfect location for his school. The main building, called Lee Hall (the photo below is of the porch), included both common rooms and individual living and study spaces for students.
The rental agreement with the church stipulated that the buildings and grounds had to be cleared of all college equipment and furniture by the beginning of the summer. Because of this, Lee Hall had a “Shaker plainness” to it, and many students had to construct their own desks and furniture. After a few years, the college purchased a more stable site at Lake Eden, a former summer resort with cottages and lodges on a human-made lake.
The college suffered chronic financial problems, and lack of students and money forced it to close in 1956. The property was sold off piece by piece, and part was leased as a boys’ summer camp. This museum and arts center in nearby Asheville documents the history and mission of the innovative school.