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Adams Hall


Adams Hall, 1884. Studio: Pierce and Reed. Catalog no.: 1159.1

The frontispiece of the Bowdoin College catalogue for the fall of 1862 is a steel engraving of the campus showing the Chapel, Appleton, Maine, and Winthrop Halls; a partially obscured Massachusetts Hall; and, behind it, the newest building, later to be named for Seth Adams of Boston, who received an honorary degree from Bowdoin in 1858. The medical school section of the catalogue proudly mentions the new facility but advertises no changes in the medical curriculum.

Although Leonard Woods had long recognized the needs of the medical school, he could not address them before the completion of the Chapel. The death of Parker Cleaveland in 1858 after his fifty-three years at Bowdoin allowed a reevaluation of the medical and science curriculums. The venerable science professor had found Massachusetts Hall entirely adequate for both the Medical School of Maine and undergraduate science courses. His successor, however, fresh from Williams College, proposed at least one expansion plan before the concept of a new building was agreed upon. Paul A. Chadbourne, professor of chemistry and natural history, was at Bowdoin only from 18 5 8 to 186 5, yet his influence was extensive. In an undated letter to President Woods, Chadbourne described and diagrammed space needs for departments of chemistry and natural science.1 (In 1858 chemistry, mineralogy, natural philosophy, and mathematics made up the science curriculum at Bowdoin. By 1868 there were courses in chemistry, zoology, geology, natural science, botany, mineralogy, natural philosophy, physics, and mathematics.) Chadbourne's first tactic was to urge the conversion of Commons Hall, a brick structure on Bath Street built at the end of the 1820s. In 1859, undoubtedly with impetus from Chadbourne, and with the help of Governing Boards members and the Maine medical community, the College persuaded the state legislature to grant one-half of a township toward the construction of a new building. Cash from the sale of the land was to pay for the building.

The proposed building was envisioned as both the primary medical school facility and the laboratory for undergraduate science courses. For traditional believers in a sound classical education, a medical school must have been a practical concession, as its site demonstrates. Adams Hall is not in the quadrangle, nor is it in line with any buildings or at a calculated distance from other buildings. In fact, the New College (as Adams was called until 1866) was built on a triangle of land bounded by Bath Street and Harpswell Street. It was conveniently located but clearly not wholly integrated into the College.

Both the site and the dual purpose influenced the architect's placement of entrances. One occupies the long facade toward the College and originally led to a staircase to the medical school; the other faces what was once the apex of the Delta and led to the science facilities for undergraduates. Chosen as architect was Francis Henry Fassett of Bath, at thirty-eight already an experienced designer of frame and masonry Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, and Italianate structures.

The contract between the College and the principal contractors, James Pouliard and James Haley of Bath, stipulates the use of plans and drawings already made by Fassett and contains a construction timetable.2 Pouliard was responsible for all masonry work and plastering; Haley for carpentry, joining, plumbing, painting, iron work, and finishing. Together they were to be paid $11,576. No record of payment to Fassett has been discovered, nor are there documents about the choice of style for the building.

What is quite clear is the timeliness of Fassett's choice of the Italianate style. Coincident with the need for new and larger institutional and commercial buildings in this country was the emergence of the style derived from Italian Renaissance urban palaces and rural villas. By way of early Victorian England, a stylistic vocabulary of pediments, cornices, columns, pilasters, quoins, consoles, and arched openings furnished the imaginative architect with the makings of a robust, often sculptural style. Fassett had combined the new elements into a now-demolished high school in Bath. After Adams Hall, he designed the Sagadahoc County Courthouse on High Street in Bath in the same style.

Adams Hall is a three and one-half-story brick rectangle topped by a pitched roof whose end peaks were once finished in tall finials. The exterior is divided visually by a strong projecting brick belt course between the first and second stories: the first assumes the role of the basement story, while the second becomes the piano nobile. The second and third floors are combined on the exterior into one very tall area by shallow, two-story segmental arches which create something of the rhythm of a colonnade. Above each entranceway was originally a balustraded balcony supported by carved consoles; the south one reached across all three central bays. In addition, the semi-octagonal east end bay bore a crowning balustrade. Thus, although the building is quite simple in overall silhouette, the original embellishments imparted a more strongly sculptural appearance.

The quoins which mark the corners and the round segmental arches which cap the doors and windows were originally painted or covered with mastic. Probably the color matched the sandstone keystones. The cornices and window moldings were probably a similar color and not the present bright white.

The new canon of proportions that accompanied Italianate details called for ceilings at least twelve feet high. The height of each story is emphasized on the exterior by the tall, narrow, paired windows and the chimney stacks. Although there may be some argument for the practicality of these proportions for lecture halls, libraries, and dissecting rooms, the fact is that in domestic Italianate buildings, drawing rooms and kitchens had equally lofty ceilings.

Paul Chadbourne probably also influenced the design of the interior. He was a member of the building committee, and President Woods praised his contribution in the address at the opening. The semi-octagonal projecting bay on the east facade provided Chadbourne with the only private study for a professor on the campus, according to the recollection of Clement F. Robinson '03, son of Professor of Chemistry Franklin C. Robinson, class of 1873.3

Shortly after the construction of Adams Hall, Fassett moved to Portland, where his prolific career continued until his death in 1908. There he designed the former Portland Public Library and the Maine General Hospital. Ironically, this last institution was an important factor in the decision to disband the Medical School of Maine in 1920. Among the considerations was the distance between Brunswick and the city of Portland, with its technical and medical resources. But at the time it was built, Seth Adams Hall offered modern spaces, modern equipment, and a totally modern philosophy of teaching sciences. It was also the first solely instructional building at Bowdoin.

At the July 31 and August 1, 1866, meeting of the Governing Boards, three matters of particular significance were discussed. A vote was made to name the "new college" for Seth Adams, a Boston sugar refiner whose contribution had aided the construction; the resignation of President Leonard Woods was regretfully accepted; and deliberations were recorded over a site for a new building, Memorial Hall.

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

1. P. A. Chadbourne to L. Woods, undated, Sp. Coll., Leonard Woods Papers: Correspondence, 1859-1874.

2. Sp. Coll., Medical School Miscellaneous Papers, box 2, folder 4.

3. Quoted in Laboratory of Chemistry: History of Chemistry at Bowdoin, Description of the Building, Program of Dedication, June 6, 1952.

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