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Pierson, William H., Jr.

    Full Name: Pierson, William H., Jr.

    Other Names:

    • William Harvey Pierson, Jr.

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1911

    Date Died: 2008

    Place Born: Bloomfield, Essex, NJ, USA

    Place Died: Williamstown, Berkshire, MA, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): architecture (object genre) and sculpture (visual works)

    Career(s): curators and educators


    Williams College architectural historian; one of a group of Williams faculty who launched the careers of major American art museum curators of the late 20th century. Pierson’s parents were William H. Pierson, Sr., and Sara Gilchrest Pierson, née Gilchrist. He was trained as an opera singer. Pierson studied with the landscape painter Charles Warren Eaton while in high school. He entered Yale University as a painting major, receiving a B. A. in fine arts in 1934. He earned Yale’s first master’s degree in painting in 1936. He married a sculptor he met at Yale, Margaret Post (d. 2002) the same year. Teaching life drawing at Yale, one of his students was the future architect, Eero Saarinen. Pierson taught at the Hawkin School, Cleveland, Ohio. Pierson entered art history program at New York University under a Yale fellowship, traveling to Paris in the summer of 1939 to study art history in Paris. His combination of studio and art history trained led to his recruitment to Williams Collection by art history professor S. Lane Faison, Jr. in 1940. Pierson graduated with an M.A. in art history from NYU in 1941. Almost immediately, the United States entered into World War II and Pierson enlisted into the U.S. Navy assigned to the Navy’s secret radar program, designing and overseeing shipboard radar installations. He coordinated the decoy communications for airplanes and shps making it appear a landing would take place in southern France in 1944; in the Pacific theater he oversaw communications for the Battles of Okinawa and Iwo Jima, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star. After discharge, Pierson returned to Williams as an assistant professor in 1946, founding the studio-art program at Williams. He pursued a doctorate from Yale, writing a dissertation topic on the industrial architecture of New England in 1949. Pierson began lecturing in art history and architectural history at Williams, founding the first courses a the college in the history of American art and photography. He rose to associate professor in 1951 and (full) professor of art history in 1956. Pierson, along with Faison and Whitney Stoddard, formed the art-historical team at Williams referred to as “the Holy Trinity” and later the “art mafia.” Pierson’s dedication to industrial architecture led to his spearheading a nonprofit organization in the 1970s to rescue Harrisville, NH, the only intact New England mill town from the early 19th century. Together with the architectural historian William H. Jordy, he wrote American Buildings and Their Architects beginning in 1970 (through 1978). He retired as professor emeritus from Williams in 1973. His Buildings of the United States, a projected 60-volume series documenting the built environment with the Society of Architectural Historians, began in 1993. He died of heart failure at age 97. Pierson was working on a revision of American Buildings and Their Architects at the time of his death. Students inspired by Pierson’s undergraduate lectures included James N. Wood, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, Thomas Krens, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and Alexander Powell III, director of the National Gallery in Washington. Pierson was a highly dramatic lecture style that undergraduates remembered. Lecturing in his deep, professionally trained baratone voice, he tore up his lecture notes at the conclusion of every class to emphasize never giving the same lecture twice. A devotee of the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Pierson considered himself a transcendentalist.

    Selected Bibliography

    and Brooks, R. R. R., eds. Williamstown: The First Two Hundred Years. McClelland, 1953; and Davidson, Martha, eds. Arts of the United States: A Pictorial Survey. McGraw-Hill, 1960; American Buildings and Their Architects. New York: Oxford University Press, vol. I. The Colonial and Neoclassical Styles. 1970, vol. II. Technology and the Picturesque, the Corporate and the Early Gothic Styles. 1978; Contributor, Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects. Macmillan, 1982.


    “2 Named for NYU Study, Yale Fellowships Awarded for Graduate Fine Arts Work.” New York Times November 18, 1938, p. 18; [obituaries:] Grimes, William. “William H. Pierson Jr. 97, Art Historian.” New York Times December 12, 2008 p.B 11; Marquard, Bryan. “William Pierson, Art Professor Influenced Generations of Curators.” Boston Globe December 12, 2008, p. 9B.


    "Pierson, William H., Jr.." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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