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Curtis Pool

Curtis Pool

Curtis Pool, date unknown. Catalog no.: 1403.1.

During the years of planning and fund raising for the Sargent Gymnasium and Hyde Athletic Building, the College reluctantly decided to forego a swimming pool. After World War I, a swimming pool began to figure prominently in the yearly list of priorities in the Report of the President.

There was ambivalence in the president's wish to build a swimming pool, for the administration of athletic programs was complicated, and the president had yet to organize to his own satisfaction this increasingly important part of student life. Some funds, for instance, were generated and controlled by the Athletic Council, an autonomous group composed of alumni and undergraduates.

The building of a swimming pool introduced to Bowdoin an unusual and extraordinarily generous person, Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis. The founder of the Curtis Publishing Company in Philadelphia had been born in Portland and later spent his summers in Camden. Curtis had left school when he was sixteen. His first publishing venture the year before had been destroyed by Portland's great fire of 1866.

In 1913 Curtis was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree. A letter to President Hyde explains why he was not there to receive it:

To confess to you, I thought degrees were only conferred upon graduates. My ignorance has cost me the satisfaction of being present at a time such as never will, in all probability, happen to me again ... I am particularly proud to have it come from Bowdoin-the college of my native state and located in my mother's native town.1

The College did give him another honorary degree in 1927, and he served as a Trustee from 1930 until his death in 1933. Although no one seems to know exactly why Cyrus Curtis was interested in Bowdoin, William John Curtis, class of 1875, Trustee and benefactor of the College for many years, also had a summer home in Camden and was a native of Brunswick. He was not a relative of Cyrus Curtis but may have been known to him. In any event, in 1926, Cyrus Curtis telegraphed President Sills his intention to give Bowdoin a swimming pool and a new organ for the Chapel. The Kotzschmar organ in the Portland City Hall was also a gift from Curtis in memory of his father's friend, the Portland organist Hermann Kotzschmar.

Curtis's benefactions to Bowdoin continued in the form of gifts to the faculty retirement fund and a substantial gift for faculty salaries. In the 1940s his generosity was compared to that of Thomas Hubbard and of Charles Potter Kling, who had given a generous donation of European silver and drawings to the Museum of Art. Curtis gave to other educational institutions in Maine and Pennsylvania and to many worthwhile projects in Portland, Camden, and Philadelphia.

The task of choosing an architect he left to the College. The building committee of two Trustees and two Overseers was chaired by Franklin C. Payson, class of 1876, a lawyer in Portland. Meetings were held late in 1926. The decision to choose McKim, Mead and White was made in December. Construction began, as was customary before the advent of wintertime construction, in April 1927.

A number of architects, among them John P. Thomas of Portland and Harry Coombs '01 of Lewiston, expressed interest in the project. In his reply to Coombs, Franklin Payson wrote: "several years ago the Boards voted unanimously to employ Messrs. McKim, Mead and White of New York as the College Architects."2

Documents reveal that in 1919 the firm agreed to act as "consulting architect" to the College.3 This was still the optimistic era of campus planning that had begun as a self-conscious Beaux-Arts-inspired effort at the turn of the century and was to become a major though not faultless tool for dealing with the immense growth of colleges and universities in the years following World War II. At this still innocent moment in Bowdoin's history, McKim, Mead and White replied:

Inasmuch as it appears at the present time unlikely that such an appointment would make very serious demands upon our time, it will be entirely agreeable to us to waive any retainer and to charge for our time on a per diem basis.4

Although the college architect was content to review the plans of a local architect for the swimming pool, the committee voted to award the commission to them. The supervising partner was James Kellum Smith.

Unlike the Sargent Gymnasium and Hyde Athletic Building, the Curtis Pool structure is not pretentious. McKim, Mead and White designed a graceful rather than monumental entranceway. In the projecting pavilion the door is flanked by white Doric columns supporting an entablature; above is a semicircular fanlight. The scale of the other openings is as pseudo-domestic as the use of a fanlight. The two-story elevation and hipped roof also disguise the bulk and the intention of the building. The joining to its predecessor building, the Sargent Gymnasium, is handled with tact. The Curtis Pool building is gracious; its ample and well-proportioned fenestration conveys a lightness appropriate for swimming.

In January 1928 the new pool was dedicated, and the first dip was taken by the governor of Maine, R. Owen Brewster '09. The Orient's editorial expressed thanks to Cyrus Curtis for the chapel organ and for the pool, with particular gratitude because he had no direct ties to the College.5

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

1. C. H. K. Curtis to Wm. D. Hyde, June 30, 1913. Sp. Coll., Cyrus H. K. Curtis h 1913 bio-file.

2. F. Payson to H. Coombs, Nov. 1926. Sp. Coll., Bldgs.: Curtis Pool.

3. Report of the President, 1918-1919.

4. McKim, Mead, and White to K. C. M. Sills, Dec. 7, 1926. Sp. Coll., Bldgs.: Curtis Pool.

5. Jan. 11, 1928.

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