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Coles Tower

Coles Tower, Wentworth Hall [now Wentworth Servery in Thorne Hall], and Chamberlain Hall [now Jewett Hall]

Coles Tower, circa 1966. Catalog no.: 1377.1.

In late October 1964, the Senior Center was dedicated on the Bowdoin campus. In its next issue, Newsweek ran an article about it entitled "Spike's Peak"; the following June, Architectural Record published an article entitled "Ivory Tower for Bowdoin College.1 Although modern tall buildings on campuses were no longer novel-Hugh Stubbins was concurrently working on four others-the site and the program at Bowdoin attracted wide attention.

President Sills had first enunciated the idea: "I have long advocated a dormitory for seniors ... it would emphasize college and class rather than fraternity."2 But it was his successor as president, James Stacy (Spike) Coles, who gave form to this need.

In its report in June 1962, the Committee on Plans for Future Dormitory and Dining Facilities, which had been convened to deal with planned growth in enrollment, recommended the proposed site, the proposed budget (not to exceed $3,100,000), and a proposed Senior Center Committee, which included then-Associate Professor William B. Whiteside (now Frank Munsey Professor of History) and Moulton Union Director Donovan D. Lancaster '27. Earlier that year Hugh Stubbins had appeared before the Trustees with a model of the proposed facility.

The plan for the building went much further than providing housing and affording class solidarity for the seniors. Reflecting the milieu of Oxford, whose colleges afford easy faculty-student interaction, and the new less formal educational style in this country, the Senior Center program was academic as well as social. The director and his family had living quarters in what is now Chamberlain Hall, where there were also suites for visiting scholars. The other flanking building, Wentworth Hall, provided dining facilities and a large lounge for lectures, recitals, exhibitions, and parties. This building was named for Walter V. Wentworth, class of 1886, Overseer from 1929 to 1958 and longtime chairman of the Committee on Buildings and Grounds.3 The lounge is now a memorial to Athern P. Daggett '25, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Constitutional and International Law and Government and acting president in 1967-1968.

The program of seminars, designed specifically to involve seniors in disciplines outside their majors, also provided faculty members with the opportunity to develop topics of particular interest to themselves. For everyone, including succeeding college generations, the Senior Center provided the mechanism for the loosening of what was still a rather formal style of college education. The new seminars, with no formal prerequisites, were limited to fifteen students. Each senior was to take two outside his major field on a pass/fail/distinction basis. Among the twelve seminars offered in the first year were "The Supreme Court and the First Freedom," "Historical Geography," and "The Person and the Mind-Body Problem."

From 1964 until 1971 the program was directed by William B. Whiteside. He was succeeded by Professor of Mathematics James E. Ward III, who was director for five years; the final director was Associate Professor of Romance Languages Gabriel J. Brogyanyi, who died in 1986. During these fifteen years there were far-reaching changes in the College, including a larger enrollment, a greater faculty-student ratio, an open curriculum, and the admission of women students. By 1978 it was apparent that, although the 1960s experiment had been abundantly successful and had brought great change to the form of education and the quality of campus life, it was no longer desirable to restrict the program to seniors. Much of the Senior Center program was formally integrated into the general college curriculum at this time. In 1980 the tower was renamed to honor James Stacy Coles, Bowdoin's ninth president; Chamberlain Hall had become the admissions office in 1977.

For the ten years before the Bowdoin commission, Hugh Stubbins had been increasingly involved in college and school projects. He also designed such large-scale ventures as Boston's State Street Bank and New York's Citicorp Center. In Maine, in addition to the Senior Center at Bowdoin, he designed the Morrell Gymnasium, the Coles house in Harpswell, and the Union Mutual building in Portland.

Stubbins is unusually attuned to the individual requirements of his projects. Coles Tower stands out in its adaptation to the site and to the rest of Bowdoin architecture. Although practical considerations dictated the choice of site, the Architectural Record assigned it extraordinary significance:

The tower thus becomes a symbolic structure, standing aside from the campus and yet overlooking it, which would seem to be an exact statement of its purpose and basic relationship.4

A sixteen-story tower would have been a major presence anywhere in the state of Maine, but clearly Stubbins wanted to integrate the Senior Center with its setting. Although the three-part complex is raised on a trapezoidal podium, the surrounding trees make a handsome transition to the scale of the neighboring buildings. The building materials are consistent with the rest of the campus, but the building is tied to its site in a subtler way by its general sculptural quality.

The sides of the square tower are not flat. Each one rounds out slightly, and the vertical brick piers-one wide and two narrow-project boldly from the window strips. As the piers touch the ground they splay out, forming an unusually springy and cathedral-like base.

The wider horizontal divisions are active, wedge-shaped forms, and the crowning member extends enough to ensure a strong shadow. The light-colored "lintel" idea is repeated on the two-story adjoining buildings, Chamberlain and Wentworth Halls; projecting alcoves in Wentworth, the dining hall, enliven the outside wall.

The Coles Tower complex is both subtle and theatrical. It is well worth taking the elevator to the sixteenth floor to see the magnificent view, especially to look down on the quadrangle. On the ground, the visual connection with Massachusetts Hall is particularly apparent from the path back to College Street.

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

1. "Spike's Peak," Newsweek (Nov. 2, 1964): 65. "Ivory Tower for Bowdoin College," Architectural Record 137 (June 1965): 146-149.

2. Brown, p. 325.

3. Other reminders of Walter V. Wentworth on the campus are the Wentworth Laboratory in Cleaveland Hall and a granite stone behind Massa chusetts Hall inscribed: "Generous gifts of Walter V. Wentworth of the class of 1886 are all about you."

4. "Ivory Tower for Bowdoin College," p. 146.

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