The Visionists: Boston’s turn-of-the-century Bohemians

A quest for beauty and truth—plus some pretty crazy pageants

Ralph Adams Cram, head of the MIT Department of Architecture and member of The Visionists, dressed as Merlin in 1916.

By Joshua Kastorf, Boston-based Filmmaker

If you’ve spent time at MIT you may recognize this image, which hangs in the Infinite Corridor. If you suspected there were some interesting stories behind it, you were right.

The photo is part of a display commemorating MIT’s 1916 move to Cambridge from its original home in Boston’s Back Bay. It shows Ralph Adams Cram, the MIT professor and former head of the Department of Architecture, who celebrated the move by creating an elaborate pageant. Called “The Masque of Power,” the pageant included hundreds of students in historical costumes—and Cram, who cast himself as the wizard Merlin. Cram also designed an ornate barge, the “Bucentaur”, inspired by similar craft used by medieval Venetian nobles, to carry the MIT seal across the Charles River.

Cram’s enthusiasm for costumed pageantry and all things medieval can be traced back to his younger days as an emerging architect, writer, and key figure in Boston’s bohemian scene of the 1890s. His circle of artist friends, who called themselves “The Visionists,” enjoyed donning costumes inspired by history for their secretive meetings in a rented loft in downtown Boston.

In their journal The Knight Errant, they compared themselves to medieval heroes, questing for beauty and truth amid the ugliness and greed they saw in the rapidly-industrializing world.

Boston and Cambridge are full of images and places that hint at fascinating stories from our past, waiting to be rediscovered. I explored many of these while researching my documentary, “The Visionists of Boston,” the first film about this group. I first learned of the group’s existence while reading about one of my favorite photographers, F. Holland Day, who was also a member. I was surprised to discover his connection to Cram, whose picture I had always wondered about while walking the Infinite Corridor.

Day was among the most influential American photographers at the turn of the 20th century, but is not well remembered today. He was a friend or mentor to many other artists, including photographer Edward Steichen and poet Kahlil Gibran. The cover of Gibran’s collected works features one of several portraits that Day took of Gibran when Gibran was a teenager. Although Gibran did not publish his first book until he was 35, those teenage portraits are the most beloved images of him among his fans. Like the image of Cram, they are clues to a fascinating story for those who care to investigate.

In recent years there has been much discussion in Boston of how to make it a more inviting city for artists, and I hope a greater awareness of our past will inspire our future. I made this film to remind Bostonians that this has always been a special place for arts and culture, and to encourage them to look deeper into the stories behind the images and places they see every day.

To learn more about The Visionists of Boston, visit The Visionists website and Facebook page.

The MIT School of Architecture + Planning: Design is the space between people and their environment. This is our territory.

The MIT School of Architecture + Planning: Design is the space between people and their environment. This is our territory.