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Massachusetts Hall

Massachusetts Hall
1799-1802
AARON AND SAMUEL MELCHER III

Massachusetts Hall, 1940. Catalog no.: 9035.1 It was two full years after the signing of the charter for Bowdoin College before documents appeared proposing the first building. During those two years, the specifications changed four times. The most significant modification, made under economic pressure, was to build a structure one-half as long and one story lower than had been planned. This first Bowdoin building answered all the earliest college needs: quarters for the president, quarters for students, and spaces for recitation and chapel.

. . . 15th day of May 1798 . . . There shall be erected on some part of the above thirty acres of land, as to the Committee, hereafter shall be judged to be most suitable, a building fifty feet long & forty feet wide, three stories high, with a cellar defrayed from such donations as have or may be made. . . . And it is further voted that John Dunlop Esqr Benjamin Jones Porter, Esqr & Docr Charles Coffin be a Committee to solicit & receive donations, procure materials, & erect the said building as soon as possible. . . . The building aforesaid to be either of wood or brick as the Committee shall judge best, according to the material given. . . .

And one year later, May 15, 1799:

Voted, that the Committee, for building a house, for the use of the College, proceed with said building with all due speed ... a sum be appropriated, not exceeding twenty-four hundred dollars. . . . That the first story of the house ... be ten feet in the clear, the second story nine feet, and the third story seven and a half, in the clear. . . . That there be two pediments on said building; and that its entry be ten feet in width. . . .

The building committee, with Captain John Dunlap (or Dunlop), a prosperous Brunswick merchant, as its chairman, hired Samuel Melcher III and his brother Aaron, busy and reputable Brunswick housewrights, to erect the new building.

Although neither a contract with the Melcher brothers nor more detailed notes on the building design have come to light, there is clear proof of Melcher participation. The accounts of Dr. Charles Coffin, a member of the building committee and clerk of the works for the project, mention payments to the Brunswick housewrights. (The accounts also note regular payments for large quantities of rum.) Comparison of Massachusetts Hall with more fully documented Melcher structures, such as John Dunlap's own house, finished in 1800, Winthrop Hall of 1822, or other Melcher structures in Brunswick reveals stylistic and technical characteristics typical of the Melchers' work.

Samuel and Aaron Melcher were gifted and practical builders. Their answer to the needs of the fledgling College proves their ability to work within a tight budget, yet rise above its limitations. In fulfilling the College's requirement for three floors, their plan bears a resemblance to high-style Federal houses in Portland, Boston, and Salem designed in the period 1796 to 1807 by Alexander Parris, Samuel Mclntire, and Charles Bulfinch. Massachusetts Hall, however, has never had a domestic air: it is austerely monumental. The brick block is uninterrupted by decorative stringcourses or other devices to mark the stories; the relatively small size of the simple Federal entranceway, the restrained cornice, and the hipped roof also emphasize the imposing bulk of the building. Lest this structure seem only blocky, the well-proportioned doors and windows outlined by white moldings are of such appropriate width that the facades are enlivened. The depth of the structure, four bays, would be unusual for a domestic three-story elevation.

Massachusetts Hall was formally named in 1802 at President McKeen's inauguration. Changes were made almost immediately, the most dramatic being the addition of a belfry cupola. The cupola remained until 1830, although the bell had been moved to the College's first chapel in 1818. The roof had suffered from the added weight. Over the years the original hipped roof has been changed slightly. It is now of a steeper pitch and the peaks are flattened. The chimneys today are shorter than old views show.

In 1803 Massachusetts Hall served as president's house, students' residence, chapel, library, and classroom. The president moved to a newly built residence, approximately where Searles Science Building now stands, within the year; a frame chapel and library was built by 1805; and by 1808 the first dormitory, Maine Hall, was completed.

Massachusetts Hall then served as general classroom space. Science experiments were conducted by Professor Parker Cleaveland in the former kitchen. In 1820 the building was turned over to the Medical School of Maine, providing classroom and laboratory space until the school outgrew its quarters and was moved to Adams Hall in 1860. Cleaveland had died in 1858, leaving to the College an extensive collection of minerals and natural science specimens.

As Massachusetts Hall was in need of repair, Cleaveland's son-in-law, Peleg W. Chandler, class of 1834, hired the Boston architect Abel C. Martin to remodel the upper floors into a natural history museum. The Cleaveland Cabinet, as the collection was called, was built by Richard T. D. Melcher, son of Samuel Melcher III. Martin raised the easterly porch to its present two-story height and united the second and third floors into balconies surrounding a central well.

It is clear from the opening remarks for the new Cleaveland Cabinet in 1873 that Massachusetts Hall was regarded as a historic landmark that should remain unchanged at least on the exterior.1 In 1936 and in 1941 extensive interior renovations were carried out to accommodate, variously, the college administration, faculty offices, and classrooms. It now houses offices of the Departments of English, Philosophy, and Religion. Faculty meetings are held in the Faculty Room on the third floor.

Text From: Patricia McGraw Anderson's The Architecture of Bowdoin College (Brunswick, Maine: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 1988). ©Bowdoin College.

1. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Samuel P. Benson, and John D. Lincoln, Address Made at the Opening of the Cleaveland Cabinet (Boston: James R. Osgood, 1873).

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