Architect, Landscape Designer, Visionary
Born in the Army fortress of Charlemont near the Belgian-French border, Joseph Ramée was trained in Paris in the 1780s by the fashionable and eccentric François-Joseph Bélanger (1744-1818), architect to the Comte d'Artois (youngest brother of Louis XVI). Ramee assisted Belanger with several commissions, including the Comte's private domain, the Bagatelle.
In 1790, Ramée started his own practice, but the outbreak of the French Revolution disrupted his life and career. Drawn into a plot against the radical government, he had to escape France in April 1793. He practiced architecture in Belgium briefly before fleeing the advancing French military for Germany, where he designed the Börsenhalle in Hamburg in 1803.
But as a foreigner, Ramée encountered difficulties obtaining commissions, forcing him to diversify his practice. In addition to his architecture and landscape designs, he created new forms of picturesque parks and gardens and established an interior decorating and furniture company with another French émigré based in Hamburg. Ramée's surviving works from this period include Baur's Park on the Elbe River west of Hamburg,the mausoleum of the Mecklenburg Princess Helena Pawlovna at Ludwisglust, several country estates in Denmark and the exquisite interior decoration of the Erichsen Mansion in Copenhagen, now headquarters of the Danske Banke.
In 1810, economic and political turmoil in Germany and Denmark prompted Ramée, now married and a father, to move once again. After a brief period in Paris, in 1812 he accepted an invitation to go to America. David Parish, a wealthy Swiss-German entrepreneur who was the son of one of Ramée's German clients, hired Ramée to be the architect and town planner in the development of a large tract of land near the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York.
Unfortunately, the outbreak of the War of 1812 curtailed this ambitious project, and though Ramée did execute many buildings for his patron, including houses, barns and churches, there was not enough work to keep him fully occupied. In response, Parish made efforts to find other commissions, and in January 1813, he introduced Ramée to Union College President Eliphalet Nott in Schenectady.
Already in the college building business, Nott hired Ramée almost immediately to draw up plans for the new campus for the fairly grand sum of $1,500 (roughly $18,100 today).
Ramée worked on the Union College design for more than two years, sending drawings mainly from Philadelphia, although he returned to Schenectady at least once to confer with Nott and most likely to supervise the construction of North and South Colleges.
Although one of the most experienced architects in the United States at the time, Ramée found little significant work outside the Union commission, mainly because of the unsettled economy but also, perhaps, because of the difficulty he faced adjusting to life in America. (It appears, for instance, he never learned English proficiently.) Ramée submitted a brilliant and highly original design to the 1813 competition for the Washington Monument (interpreting a Roman triumphal arch) in Baltimore, Md., but the jury preferred to give the award to an American architect. Ramée's submission to the competition for the Baltimore Exchange, in 1815, was also unsuccessful.
In Europe, meanwhile, with the fall of Napoleon and the restoration to the throne of the Bourbon monarchy, professional prospects improved for Ramée, and the architect returned home in 1816. But ever the wanderer, he spent the remaining years of his life working in several places, including Belgium and Germany as well as France.
In the 1820s and '30s, he devoted much of his effort to producing engraved and lithographed publications of his designs for publication in Paris. Three of these publications are known; the surviving copies of each are extremely rare; for example, there are only three known copies of Parcs et Jardins – one of which is now in the Schaffer Library at Union.
Despite the brevity of Ramée's stay in the United States, he made significant contributions to American architecture. His designs, many of which were exhibited in 1814 at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, introduced America to a new level of sophisticated planning, especially in the integration of architecture and landscape.
Most importantly, Ramée's design for Union created new standards of collegiate and university planning, which have helped shape American campuses ever since.