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John Rex Cunningham

John Rex Cunningham (L) at the 1927 graduation ceremonies. Dwight Stephens, new graduate, is pictured at right. Stephens later joined the OSU faculty.
John Rex Cunningham (L) at the 1927 graduation ceremonies. Dwight Stephens, new graduate, is pictured at right. Stephens later joined the OSU faculty.

"Andy," said June, "it would be a shame for Rex Cunningham to pass into history without some record of his life and work being created. He touched many lives, changed for the better many of his students and friends! We can't let him be forgotten." -- June Wicker (Class of '40) to Craig Gray Andrews (Class of '40) at a 1985 Reunion.

Most reading this newsletter know little about the man for whom the Architecture Library is named. Nevertheless, all have been affected by his legacy.

John Rex Cunningham was born on September 30, 1902 in Grand Island, Nebr. As Oklahoma Indian Territory was opened for settlement, in 1904 the family moved to Lone Chimney, a rural community south of Pawnee, Okla. Cunningham graduated from Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College in 1925, earning a B.S. in Architecture, and joined the faculty as Instructor in 1927.

Philip A. Wilbur, then Acting Head of the School of Architecture and Applied Art, hired Cunningham. Wilber, himself a graduate of the school, would over the next three years, assemble a sort of "Dream Team," of faculty who would become pioneers in the field of quality architectural education for the next thirty-five years.

Cunningham became an integral part of what many still remember as the "Golden Years," in the decade after WWII, when twice the Beaux-Arts Societies of New York and Paris recognized OSU as the outstanding architectural school in the nation.

Cunningham's artistic talents were recognized early in his career. In 1937, a local newspaper referred to him as "one of the Southwest's leading watercolorists and delineators."

Rex preferred to let his graphic abilities, rather than words, do most of his teaching. According to Craig Andrews, Cunningham employed the "SHOW not TELL" style of teaching. "To 'show' a student how to do something often involved actually doing some of it for him, so the student could then try it for himself."

Rex Cunningham Architectural Resource Center
Rex Cunningham Architectural Resource Center

Years later, Ray Means, confided to Andrews how this teaching method lead to a difference of opinion between Cunningham and some of the younger design critics brought in to teach after WWII.

These new younger instructors had complained to the Head of the Department about Rex's helping some of his students by doing a bit of the rendering, or presentation drawing on their designs. As a result, Means said, those designs received higher grades in the judging than they might otherwise have been given.

Thus, the younger instructors reasoned, Rex's students enjoyed an unfair advantage over their fellow students.

Rex was incensed, and forthwith intended to resign his job as instructor. Means talked him out of it. Cunningham went on to teach at OSU until his retirement in 1966.

Cunningham's architectural legacy on the OSU campus can be seen in the jewel-like Bennett Chapel on the campus' southern edge. According to the Centennial Histories Series, "The idea for the chapel had its roots in 1944 when members of the Blue Key honorary fraternity wanted to build a chapel to honor Oklahoma A & M students killed in WWII. President Henry Bennett enthusiastically endorsed the idea and asked Rex to design the chapel.

Because the Bennetts loved to visit the old Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, John Rex Cunningham designed the chapel in the same style. Cunningham envisioned the 120-foot chapel steeple to be a close replica of the Williamsburg edifice."

The project languished for years due to a lack of funds. After the tragic death of the Bennetts in a plane crash in 1951, a move began to build a memorial chapel in Bennett's honor. After many delays it was finally dedicated in October, 1957.

Bennett Chapel by Rex Cunningham
Bennett Chapel by Rex Cunningham

Two watercolor renderings of the Bennett Chapel by Cunningham hang in the School of Architecture. The first is of the original design of a modified Georgian chapel and the other is of the contemporary design that was actually built.

Both of these works illustrate Rex's incredible facility with watercolor. "His painting techniques are difficult to describe, but easy to comprehend," Craig Andrews wrote in his biography on Cunningham.

It seems especially fitting to have a library named in Cunningham's honor. Rex once said that he had learned to read at an early age. By age six he was reading novels by Dickens.

His boyhood obsession with reading led him into a genuine interest and lifelong fascination with books and writing. By the end of his life he had collected a personal library of 2,000 volumes, including many first editions from the 17th and 18th centuries.Some of these were so rare and valuable, he had to obtain special permission from the British government to remove them from the country.

In his later years, Rex taught himself the craft of bookbinding. In the course of re-binding his collection, he created handsome, leatherbound works of art.

John Rex Cunningham died on September 30, 1971, exactly sixty-eight years to the day from his birth. In this, his centenary year, the library that was dedicated in 1978 as "a living memorial to Mr. C." is alive and well and continuing his legacy of service to the students of Oklahoma State University.

Most of the material for this article came from an unpublished manuscript, John Rex Cunningham: A Remembrance by Craig Gray Andrews. "C.G." sent a copy of the booklet to the School in 2002. Thank you Craig!

Susan Bobo Architecture Librarian