Former Colorado Mountain College professor Robert Baker blends architecture with education in history book
August 7, 2015
Steamboat Springs — Phippsburg resident and longtime college educator Robert P. Baker has self-published an ambitious book, "Liberal Arts —Education and College Architecture in Steamboat Springs — a Personal HIstory," that succeeds in blending three story lines, including the history of the small college now known as the Alpine Campus of Colorado Mountain College.
One story line is the arc of Baker's own career in higher education, including a four-year stint teaching at Stanford University. The second story line is the metamorphosis of Yampa Valley College in Steamboat Springs from a liberal arts college in a ski town into the modern Colorado Mountain College (CMC).
And finally, Baker highlights the career of former Steamboat Springs architect Lincoln Jones whose buildings were integral to the early years of the college and its liberal arts tradition.
Jones designed the original, distinctively 1960s modern buildings of Yampa Valley College on Woodchuck Hill overlooking downtown Steamboat Springs. It was the demolition of those buildings, during a 21st century building boom undertaken by CMC, that was the impetus for the book. Baker was dismayed at seeing the history of the buildings, which had come to symbolize liberal arts education in Steamboat, torn down.
It's clear, from the book's brief first chapter, that Baker honors the foundation of a liberal arts education in which college students spend at least their first two years exploring the width and breadth of intellectual pursuits available to them at a college as a means to discover who they are meant to be, including those fields of study that do not necessarily lead directly toward a market-driven career.
Baker attended Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, leading to a life spent in academia. In 1960, he went on to study history at Stanford where, in 1964, he began teaching Western Civilization.
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"My students were very critical of many of my opinions and readings, and I encouraged their criticisms," he wrote in his new book. "Over a four-year period, I learned that the best teaching comes when students believe that they have some control over what goes on in the classroom, that the teacher is also a learner, and that everyone in the room contributes to the learning experience."
When his contract at Stanford was up, Baker moved on to Colorado State University and then, Yampa Valley College, where he became enamored of the college buildings designed by Jones, who was himself heavily influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Jones co-architected the First Christian Church of Boulder with a dramatic "prow" of a roofline that emulates some of Wright's buildings. After Jones moved to Steamboat to begin a new practice, he landed the job of designing new buildings at Yampa Valley College, and he created very non-traditional buildings like Willett Hall with cantilevered roof lines over the entrances to buildings that were not square but with a perimeter defined by 30-degree angles.
The buildings were difficult to navigate, and Baker said Friday, that was precisely the point.
"These buildings were built as experimental liberal arts buildings," Baker said. "The labyrinth is an educational tool that liberal arts uses to get students out of their comfort zone so they are open to new ways of looking at things."
Jones' buildings made a statement, but by the 21st century, Colorado Mountain College had something more practical in mind, and the original buildings came down to make way for CMC's new academic building, which makes its own architectural statement, taking advantage of dramatic views of the ski slopes on Mount Werner.
"Liberal Arts — Education and College Architecture in Steamboat Springs — a Personal HIstory," is available exclusively at Off the Beaten Path bookstore, 68 Ninth St. in Steamboat, and through its website.