By Susan Motander
Dr. Robert W. Winter, Occidental College’s Arthur G. Coons professor emeritus of the history of ideas, died on Feb. 9. He was 94. When I last spoke with Bob he was as full of life and energy as ever.
I first met the man who would be my academic advisor, mentor and ultimately friend in September 1973 when he gave his annual lecture, “LA the Magnificent.” This was Bob’s slide show celebration of the bizarre, wonderful, eccentric and eclectic architecture of Los Angeles: everything from the mansions of Beverly Hills to the donut shaped donut shop and the Brown Derby.
The conclusion of that lecture in Thorne Hall remains to this day one of my favorite memories of Bob. He ended after conclusions about New York (international), Chicago (bustling) and San Francisco (cosmopolitan), by throwing himself down on the stage in front of a slide of the Watts Towers with an LA sunset behind them shouting, “But LA is magnificent.”
I maintain it was Bob who was magnificent. He had a delightful sense of humor that came through in all his many books. While his official title was professor of the history of ideas, it was architecture that was his passion, especially focusing on the arts and crafts movement, bungalows and Ernest Batchelder in whose former home he lived in the Arroyo Seco. Even before I started at Oxy, my parents had Bob’s guides to Southern and Northern California architecture (co-authored as were many of his books by David Gebhart).
He loved the absurd. He once wrote of the Aztec Hotel in Monrovia, writing merely “words fail.” He once explained to me that it was not truly Aztec, but more Mayan, calling it “neo-pre-Columbian.” That was Bob. I have a special fondness for the Aztec Hotel as my grandfather put it off limits to military personnel during WWII citing the “female independent contractors working out of the bar.”
It should be no wonder that I chose the Aztec Hotel as the site for my own wedding using a Lynn Van Dam pen-and-ink portrait of the hotel as the cover with Bob’s critique as the message on the front. In a note from my mother on the inside it read: “When words fail, actions are required, therefore my daughter Susan will marry” etc. We had Bob give the welcome at the wedding. He gave a full history of the neo-pre-Columbian architecture and the Aztec while hawking his next book. One friend remarked it was the only wedding he had ever attended that almost seemed to require a syllabus.
Years later I was gifted with a dog named “Winner.” I would never have a dog with such a plebian name. I immediately rechristened him “Robert W. Winner PHD” (not a doctor of philosophy, but a “pretty handsome dog”). When I told Bob, he immediately replied with his puckish almost impish grin, “In my youth, I was considered a pretty handsome dog myself.” Unlike Bob, the dog knew he was in trouble when I called him Robert W.
That sense of humor also showed in Bob’s story of how he became the professor of the history of ideas. Occidental President Alfred J. Coons [sic] recruited Bob from UCLA; however the members of the history department and especially the chair of the department did not like him. So Coons created the Department of the History of Ideas with Bob as its sole professor and chair. When telling this story Bob usually giggled with glee at how clever Coons was. Ultimately the two departments were combined.
In his office at Oxy at one time, there was a chair reputedly built for William Howard Taft who after his presidency embarked on a lecture tour of the U.S. Taft, weighing in at over 700 pounds, had been breaking chairs all across the country. Oxy, not wanting to be the site of another such fiasco (according to Bob), had this special chair built to accommodate the great man’s bulk.
One day when two other history professors were in Bob’s office with me, he got the great idea to see if the chair could hold all that weight. Cliff Kroeber crowded in next to me with Norm Cohen on my lap. Bob was just about to land on Kroeber’s lap when the dean of the faculty walked in. Not missing a beat Bob sat and explained we were conducting a historical accuracy test of the validity of the claim that the chair was the one built for Taft. Grinning, Bob proclaimed it was.
That was Bob. He was magnificent.