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Heating Plant

Heating Plant, formerly Sargent Gymnasium

Heating Plant, formerly Sargent Gymnasium, 1905. Catalog no.: 2159.1.

Of all the Bowdoin College buildings, this is the only one to have been altered substantially on the exterior. Built in the mid-1880s as the College's first gymnasium, it is now the central heating plant.

It is difficult for a culture addicted to strenuous exercise and demanding sports to imagine a time when physical endeavors were considered ungentlemanly and antithetical to academic pursuits. All of America's earliest colleges passed from absolute prohibition of athletics to a system of German gymnastics in the 1820s. Outdoor activities, especially gymnastics and gardening, were emphasized in the 1850s, but it was not until the 1870s and 1880s that gymnasium structures were built. Harvard's Hemenway Gymnasium, designed by Peabody and Stearns, was reputedly the largest until it was surpassed by Princeton's gymnasium in 1903. Physical education, physical culture, and hygiene entered the college curriculum, became requirements, and received credit toward the degree during the last three decades of the nineteenth century.

Bowdoin had tried German gymnastics in the 1820s under the tutelage of John Neal of Portland, a maverick writer, art patron, and Liberal. In the early 1860s, space in Commons (now part of the Department of Physical Plant) was found for gymnastics and physical training. The program was directed by William C. Dole until he left for Yale in 1870, whereupon Dudley Sargent was recruited from a visiting circus. In 1872 physical training became compulsory; in 1873 the unfinished Memorial Hall began to serve as a gymnasium. In 1875 Sargent, who had just received a Bowdoin degree, left for Yale. Eventually he ran the program at Harvard and established the Sargent School of Physical Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

At Bowdoin, in the meantime, the program suffered from lack of funds. After the completion of Memorial Hall, space in Winthrop Hall was used for physical training under the direction of three short-term instructors. It was clear that a proper building was necessary, but it was only after five years of votes by the boards and largely unsuccessful fund raising that in 1885 progress was discernible.

The appointment of President Hyde in 1885 emboldened the College to push ahead. Additional incentive came from Dudley Sargent, now at Harvard, who promised to furnish the gymnastic apparatus for the new building. In November 1886 the structure was completed at a cost of $11,786.08. The Orient's, note that the building was lighted by electricity is important, for winter's early sunset had always hampered physical training at Bowdoin.1

By 1889, when the building was named for Sargent, the required program had been established by Frank N. Whittier, class of 1885, who was to serve Bowdoin for thirty-eight years as director of physical training and college physician. Each student was examined and given an individual regimen. In addition, each class did group and squad work for one-half hour four afternoons a week from November through April. The program included Indian clubs and fencing as well as boxing, wrestling, weights, and apparatus. This was a regular part of the curriculum, required for the degree, as was the freshman course in hygiene.

The long-awaited building opened up a new area of the campus. The choice of a site was delegated (as had usually happened in the past) to the treasurer of the College, at this time Stephen Jewett Young, class of 1859, who had taught modern languages at the College from 1862 to 1876. Although no documents have been found, it is unlikely that a site on the quadrangle was considered. In the hierarchy of college buildings, a gymnasium does not occupy a position consonant with its importance to undergraduate life. The College did require that the site afford a clear view between Winthrop and Maine Halls. Thus, though the Sargent Gymnasium stood alone behind the college row, it, like the row, faced west.

The architects chosen for the College's eighth permanent building were Rotch and Tilden of Boston. Arthur Rotch and George Tilden were both trained at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (formerly the Lowell Institute) and in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and in the Atelier Vaudremer. Their partnership of almost fifteen years produced a large number of substantial buildings and lasted until Rotch's early death in 1894. Wellesley College, Williams College, and the City of Cambridge have education structures designed by Rotch and Tilden, and there are many large, ingeniously designed summer cottages of theirs in Bar Harbor, Maine, and Lenox, Massachusetts. It is unfortunate that so many of their works on Mt. Desert Island were lost in the 1947 fire; at least photographic documentation remains.

Like many other architecture firms active in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century, Rotch and Tilden were accomplished in more than one style. Richardsonian Romanesque, Queen Anne, Shingle, and Colonial Revival details inform their work. But underlying their domestic structures are the prevailing picturesque ground plan and silhouette common to the best dwellings of the era. Their institutional buildings-done in stone or brick-are appropriately more compact, broad, and earthbound.

Although it is not easy to imagine the original appearance of Bowdoin's first gymnasium, there remain in the present heating plant almost enough clues to make a visual reconstruction. The broad arched upper window areas; the deeply cut, grouped lower windows; the strongly modeled belt course between lower and upper sections; the slit windows at the upper corners; and the molded brick cornice are remnants of the building's original aspect. Imagine a broad hipped roof with boldly projecting eaves supported by brackets and enlivened by a broad, shallow dormer and a projecting wide skylight at the ridgepole.

The original main entrance was in the same place as the present door, which is barely distinguishable from the lower windows. It began in a flight of five exterior steps and was a square cut into the wall and elongated by a deep stone architrave or lintel block above which were eight slit windows like those at the corners. The stairs continued inside this shadowy hollow to reach the main floor. The brick arches surrounding the main floor windows were rounded, not straight-sided, and the strongly-profiled sash consisted of a group of three, the center topped by another small light.

Only ten years, perhaps fewer, after this building was finished, two factors made it obsolete-the need for a central heating plant, and the greatly increased enrollment. Both these pressures resulted from the gifts of the Mary Frances Searles Science Building and the Walker Art Building-to be followed shortly by Hubbard Hall. Although originally Searles and Walker had individual furnaces, the need for central heating and lighting was quite clear by 1900. That year the lower floor and an addition to the back of the Sargent Gymnasium were given over to the new heating plant. The great smokestack rises on the rear building. The rest of the building was used as a gymnasium until the present Sargent Gymnasium and Hyde Athletic Building went up in 1912. The old building was remodeled into a student union in 1915 and then converted to its present use in 1920, after a fire in the upper part necessitated changing the roof windows and entrance. Both redesigns were by Felix Arnold Burton '07. Of the latter, Burton said his design was "along the lines of a modern power and lighting station."2

One of the problems faced by designers of gymnasiums is creating an interesting "container" for large, open interior spaces. Even what remains of the original Sargent Gymnasium proves Rotch and Tilden's ability to mitigate sheer bulk. The proportions of roof to principal floor to lower level, the window groupings, and the strong horizontal divisions articulate the exterior in a way both pleasing and prophetic of the work of the next generation of architects.

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

1. Orient, Nov. 10, 1886, p. 135.

2. John V. Goff, Felix Arnold Burton, draft typescript for Maine Historic Preservation Commission series, A Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Maine, July 1985.

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