Herman and S. Helena Rosse Archive
The Herman and S. Helena Rosse Archive contains important materials for the study of architecture, theatre design, theatrical production, and film design in the 20th century. Established in 1988 by members of the Rosse Family, the archive is centered on the work of Herman Rosse, a distinguished artist and architect, and of Helena Rosse, a talented landscape designer. It consists of books, manuscripts, paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, documents, and artifacts.
Recognizing that this archive would be a valuable resource for scholarship at Williams, members of the Rosse family have worked to reunite a large portion , from the divided estate of Herman and Helena Rosse, a substantial number of books, manuscripts, paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, documents, and artifacts. This process of acquisition continues today. Exhibitions from the archive are held from time to time; a handlist for Herman Rosse: Designs for Theatre [PDF] is available on this site.
The Chapin Library is grateful to Allianora Rosse, Carolyn Serotta, Dirk Rosse, Jean Rosse, Joris Rosse, Maryvonne Rosse, Michael Rosse, Paul Galdone, and Rosanna Rosse for the creation of this archive and their generous support.
Biographical Sketch of Herman Rosse
Herman (or Hermann) Rosse was born in The Hague, Netherlands, on 1 January 1887. He did not complete high school past the third year, but took classes at the Akademie van Beeldende Kunsten, The Hague, and (because at sixteen he was too young to matriculate) audited at the Polytechnische Hoogeschool in Delft, working closely with Professor Sluyterman. Later he attended the Royal College of Art at South Kensington, London, receiving the “Schools Associateship in Ornament and Design, incl. Architecture” on 19 July 1907. One of his teachers at South Kensington was the distinguished architect and decorative designer C.F.A. Voysey.
After receiving an inheritance from his paternal grandfather, Herman traveled around the world. He spent most of his time in Japan, Java, and Borneo, learning especially the Asian arts of masks and batik (which would inform his 1923 book with Kenneth Macgowan, Masks and Demons). Finally he landed in California, where he attended Leland Stanford University and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree, received 13 January 1911.
Herman then returned to the Netherlands, where he found his first assignments in designing, remodeling, and decorating residences, such as Smidswater 25 in The Hague. Around 1911 he was also engaged at the Peace Palace in The Hague, then being built. This was a splendid opportunity for a young artist, for which he was recommended because of his achievements at South Kensington. He designed and painted ceilings and a majority of the building’s panels, stained glass, tiles, and marquetry. With the aid of assistants, the work was completed just in time for the opening of the Peace Palace on 28 August 1913 (see further, The Peace Palace by Arthur Eyffinger, published in 1988). While working there he had the added pleasure of meeting Sophia Helena Luyt, who was working for the English garden architect Mawson. Herman and Helena were married on June 14, 1913.
On the strength of his work at the Peace Palace, Herman was awarded a commission to design the decorations in the Netherlands pavilion at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, which opened in 1915. He and his bride set out for San Francisco shortly after their marriage, settling first in Palo Alto (1913–14). Their first child was born there. In addition to working at the Netherlands pavilion in San Francisco, Herman also painted murals for various people, such as Maxwell Anderson. In 1915 the family moved to Menlo Park, where Herman had designed their house and several others around a common green. The Rosse house had a large studio and a sundial on the side wall. There a son was born in February 1916, and a second daughter in March 1917. Herman taught some courses at Stanford during this period, and also summer courses at the University of California.
At the end of World War I, in 1918, the family returned to the Netherlands for a visit. Herman had accepted an appointment at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and though they hated to leave California it was necessary for his work. Their house was rented out. Unfortunately, they did not know that they had to have re-entry permits to return to the United States, as they were not U.S. citizens. Herman eventually received a special permit to return, but Helena and the children had to remain in the Netherlands and come in on the quota again. In the meantime, another daughter was born, in January 1920 in The Hague. In the summer of 1920 the family was reunited and lived in the North Shore artists’ community at Ravinia, Illinois until 1923. In addition to teaching at the Art Institute of Chicago, Herman did interior designs, as well as fabric designs for Marshall Field’s, and became involved with Ben Hecht, Kenneth Macgowan, and others, with resulting book illustrations and theatre designs (e.g. Nativity with Cloyd Head and Eunice Tietjens and for Mary Garden’s Chicago Grand Opera), among other work.
Since involvement with theater frequently took Herman to New York, he decided to leave the Art Institute, and the family moved to the New York area in 1923. His former classmates from Stanford, Henry Varnum Poor and Maxwell Anderson, already had moved east to New City, in Rockland County, New York, and invited him to come out to see the possibilities. New City was becoming an artists’ colony: also there were Mary Mowbray Clark, Martha Ryther and her husband, Morris Kantor, Ruth Reeves, Millia Davenport, and Frank Ernest Hill. These were all young couples with children about the same ages as the Rosses’. It was a close, friendly community, living primitive but very creative lives. The Rosses decided to stay in New City and build a “house of our own”. A two-bedroom frame house was built in 1924, with a studio-garage about forty feet away. A sixth child was born here in July 1925. By 1926 business was improving considerably, enough to allow a trip to Europe and to build a big stone house to connect the original frame house and the studio. A back wing, which housed the dining room from the American Designer’s Gallery (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art), was added in 1928.
These were busy years for Herman, when he was involved with theater, vaudeville, and musicals. Tryouts usually were in New Haven, and Herman was away from home a great deal. He also started the American Designer’s Gallery at this time. In addition, he was designing the renovation of the house that Ben Hecht had bought in Nyack, New York, and he was doing book illustrations. A seventh child was born in September 1928.
In 1929 Herman was offered the job of Art Director for John Murray Anderson’s film King of Jazz, and was brought out to Hollywood by train in style on the Twentieth Century Limited. Herman found a house in Hollywood. He wrote home frequently, and was obviously very homesick; however, he had always been quite excited about the stage effects and costumes he had worked on before, and the idea of being able to put things on film was very exciting. At the end of 1929, although still working on King of Jazz, he came home for the birth of his eighth child, in January 1930. This was a bad period for Herman, as he had to return to Hollywood. As soon as possible, Universal Pictures sent for the rest of the family, who also traveled by the Twentieth Century Limited, in two luxurious “drawing rooms”.
Herman won the Academy Award for Art Direction for his work on King of Jazz (this is in the Chapin Library’s collection). He was kept on for another year after the film was finished. The family stayed in Hollywood until summer 1931, when they spent some months in Carmel-by-the-Sea. 1931 was notable for Herman’s set designs for the James Whale-Boris Karloff film classic Frankenstein: his large ink and wash visualizations are in the Rosse Archive at Williams. For that day and age, pay was good at Universal. A trip to Europe was planned for the fall months. An added incentive was a show that was going to be produced in London that fall by John Murray Anderson, called Bow Bells, for which Herman was asked to design the sets. He and his family were in the Netherlands from September 1931 to January 1932, then returned to New City. But by then it was hard to find work in the theater, as those were the Depression years. When an appointment came to Herman from Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands in 1933, it was difficult to turn it down. He had hoped for further movie contracts, but other than one for The Emperor Jones starring Paul Robeson, which was shot on Long Island, none materialized. There was a large family to take care of – a ninth child was born in July 1933. The Rosses therefore left for the Netherlands in early September of that year, and Herman became Professor of Decorative Art at the Technische Hoogeschool in Delft.
During this time, in addition to lecturing in Delft, Herman was involved in various projects, mainly connected with world’s fairs. He worked on the Netherlands pavilions in Brussels and Paris in 1934, and in New York in 1939. He had to be in New York for the final construction and installation of the large pavilion there, and took the opportunity to renew contacts. He had also done some theater work during summers before this. In the Netherlands he did some shows for the Koninklijke Schouwburg in The Hague, one in Rotterdam, and one in Amsterdam. (The Toneelmuseum in Amsterdam has most of the designs for these shows.) In 1939 Herman brought back to the Netherlands an assignment from Billy Rose to decorate his new nightclub, the Diamond Horseshoe. Herman also designed a restaurant in Delft, and participated with his students in various contests for buildings and city planning.
In May 1940 the Netherlands were invaded by Hitler’s troops, and the Rosse house in Hoornwijk was partly requisitioned by the Dutch forces, who were trying to protect the country. This was rather futile as it was cavalry facing tanks, and after a five-day battle the Dutch forces capitulated. Life became more and more difficult for the Rosses surrounded by German installations, including a base from which V-2 rockets were launched. There were strict curfews and food was increasingly scarce. It was a feat to get from day to day. The German installations were bombed regularly, and windows had to be replaced each time. Herman continued his lectures in Delft, and was connected for some time with underground communication. He also continued work on his “Reflections” series of paintings, and worked with architect Jan Wils, first on a plan for developing The Hague and later on a redevelopment plan for Scheveningen. Both of these plans were exhibited in The Hague, and the Scheveningen plan was published in two volumes.
In spring 1945 the family was liberated by American, Canadian, and British troops. Herman went through a difficult time when someone at the University accused him of being a collaborator. The accusation was totally unfounded, and he was cleared, but it soured his relationship with the Technische Hoogeschool and he started to look at other options. He visited the U.S. in the fall of 1946, and Billy Rose and Ben Hecht convinced him that there would be adequate work for him if he decided to return. It was a real gamble, and not very much work materialized from either of those men. Probably at the suggestion of Mrs. Isaacs of the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA), Herman applied to the Papermill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J. and was appointed Resident Stage Designer. He worked at the Papermill Playhouse for a dozen years, from around 1948, until it changed its policies and became a repertory theater. Herman had to commute a long distance, and sometimes stayed over and slept on a cot in the theater when there were rush jobs. He also took on the editorship of the newsletter of the Greater New York chapter of ANTA, Chapter One and did much research and writing for it. In 1949 he won the competition to design the Tony Award, the silver prototype of which is at Williams.
In late March of 1965, while turning a mattress, Herman had a heart attack. At his request, Helena did not immediately summon assistance. He was eventually moved to the hospital in Nyack, where he died on 13 April 1965. He was cremated and his ashes were buried beside a large stone near the model Greek theater he had built into the hillside behind the family house in New City. He had found recreation in building this 25 percent scale model, and he and Helena had taken a long delayed trip to Greece to see Greek theaters not long before. Helena Rosse passed away in January 1982.
The Chapin Library staff would like to thank Rosanna Rosse for supplying most of the information on which this sketch is based.
These Word documents contain preliminary lists of holdings in the Herman and S. Helena Rosse Archive. Addenda and refinements are in process. Printed books previously owned by Herman Rosse and his family, which are now part of the Chapin Library’s collections, are recorded in the Williams College online catalog FRANCIS.
Most of the Herman and S. Helena Rosse Archive is held in off-site storage, but materials may be retrieved for use in the Chapin Library's reading room at the Southworth Schoolhouse given sufficient notice.