David Coffin, longtime scholar of landscape design, dies at 85
By Eric Quiñones
Princeton NJ -- David Coffin, a longtime faculty member in Princeton's art and archaeology department who influenced generations of scholars with his authoritative research on Italian Renaissance garden and landscape design, died of heart failure Oct. 14. He was 85.
A beloved teacher known for his modest demeanor, Coffin joined the faculty at Princeton, his alma mater, as a lecturer in 1949 and retired as the Howard Crosby Butler Memorial Professor of the History of Architecture in 1988.
"He opened up the field of garden and landscape studies as an academic discipline with his award-winning writings on Italian villas," said Patricia Fortini Brown, chair of the Department of Art and Archaeology.
John Pinto, the current Howard Crosby Butler Memorial Professor of the History of Architecture, noted, "He trained an entire generation of scholars who deal with the history of garden and landscape design. Of the generation that is out there now, many of the best were trained by him. His published work provided important early models for work going on now."
In May, a group of Coffin's former students held a tribute dinner for him, at which they announced plans to publish a collection of his writings. "Not only did he train a lot of students who have gone on to do important work, but they continued to the very end to honor, respect and be guided by him," Pinto said.
While serving on Princeton's faculty, Coffin wrote two award-winning books, "The Villa d'Este at Tivoli" (1961) and "The Villa in the Life of Renaissance Rome" (1979). After transferring to emeritus status, he wrote "Gardens and Gardening in Papal Rome" (1991) and "The English Garden: Meditation and Memorial" (1994), as well as a historical guide to Princeton's Graduate College (2000). His last book, a biography of Italian architect Pirro Ligorio, is set for publication in January 2004 by Pennsylvania State University Press.
"Since I first encountered Professor Coffin's magisterial books on Renaissance architecture and landscape architecture, I admired him as a path-breaker in the understanding of the interaction of architecture and landscape," said Gloria Kury, the art history and humanities editor at Penn State Press, who worked with Coffin on his final book.
As chair of the art and archaeology department from 1964 to 1970, Coffin was involved in planning major renovations to the Marquand Library of Art and Architecture, one of the country's oldest art libraries. In addition, he was one of the principals in establishing the program in landscape architecture at Dumbarton Oaks, an internationally known Harvard University research center based in Washington, D.C.
In 1982, Coffin won Princeton's annual Howard T. Behrman Award for distinguished achievement in the humanities.
A native of New York City, Coffin received an A.B. from Princeton in 1940 and, after serving in the Army during World War II, returned to earn an M.F.A. in 1947 and a Ph.D. in 1954, all in art and archaeology. He was a lecturer at the University of Michigan for two years before joining the Princeton faculty.
Coffin, who lived in Princeton Township, is survived by his wife, Nancy; his daughters, Elizabeth Coffin-Allerhand and Lois Coffin Jenny; his sons, Peter and David; and eight grandchildren. No campus memorial service has been planned. Contributions in his honor should be sent to the Professor David Coffin Memorial Fund, Princeton University, c/o Nancy Kalmikoff-Gift Records, P.O. Box 5357, Princeton, NJ 08543-5357.