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SAMUEL D. BACKUS; WILLIAM G. PRESTON
McKIM, MEAD AND WHITE
The construction of Memorial Hall generated more meetings, minutes, votes, and printed material than that of any of Bowdoin's other nineteenth-century buildings. It was a project plagued with difficulties. During the seventeen years from its conception to its dedication, it was the only building project on the campus, and with good reason, for the post-Civil War decades were financially difficult.
Despite fiscal stress, there was a widespread urge in New England to build Civil War memorials. For colleges the task was to invent suitable buildings, while towns simply raised statues or mounted cannons. Yale held a competition in 1866 for a needed chapel. The result was Russell Sturgis's Battell Chapel, which still stands on the corner of Elm and the Green. Wesleyan also built a memorial chapel, and Colby College's Memorial Hall, dedicated in 1869 but no longer standing, was the first college war memorial to be finished.
Harvard's Memorial Hall had a history similar in one respect to that of Bowdoin's Memorial Hall. At both Harvard and Bowdoin the alumni undertook, for the first time, major fund raising and a major building project. At Harvard as at Yale, an architectural competition was held.
William Smyth, class of 1822, was professor of mathematics at the College and an active citizen of Brunswick, where he concerned himself with the public schools and the First Parish Church. His home on College Street was a stop on the underground railroad. This man of conviction dedicated himself to the building of Memorial Hall. Between 1865 and 1867 he raised twenty thousand dollars toward its construction.
The choice of the site was considered carefully during 1866.1 It was to be west of Massachusetts Hall and on a line with the north end of Winthrop Hall. This decision meant the abandonment of the row concept and the beginning of the quadrangle.
During 1867, a three-way correspondence among Nehemiah Cleaveland, class of 1813, Samuel D. Backus, a New York architect, and Smyth reveals a persistent problem encountered in this extended building campaign.2 Smyth wanted an architect to design an impressive exterior, while he himself would act as contractor, clerk of the works, and designer of the interior. Smyth maintained control by disposing of the architect chosen by Dexter Hawkins, class of 1848, the first president of the alumni, and eliminating Leopold Eidlitz, another architect, who had submitted preliminary sketches. Smyth's own choice was Samuel Backus, an associate of Cleaveland's son.
The correspondence for this planning period deals with the delicate problem with Hawkins and reveals a growing tension with Backus. On February 17, 1867, in a letter to Cleaveland, Backus wrote:
I think the Professor's ideas of proportion are a little heterodox . . . one and a half widths is little enough for the length it seems to me-and more length in proportion I have always supposed to be considered by all critics as desirable. ... I believe our American ideas of fronts came in part from shallow town lots and in part from a characteristic spirit of ostentation-The white house with red brick style of building. I mean that our habits of thinking come in this way. . . . 3
Smyth wished "to combine in Memorial Hall the qualities of a picture gallery and an auditorium."4 His plan for the building, which was to contain classroom space as well, prevailed. Although he died in 1868, with only the foundation dug, his original impetus continued to 1870, when the walls and roof were in place. During the next ten years the construction stood still.
General Joshua Chamberlain became president in 1871 and brought to his alma mater a number of new ideas including military drill. Physical training had become an organized part of college life shortly before the Civil War. In 1873 both gymnasium and President Chamberlain's military drill were moved into the unfinished Memorial Hall.
The building still had only walls and a roof and window openings.5 Professor of Engineering George Vose, when asked how to increase the heat in a building with cloth stretched over the openings, replied that they had better remove the fabric and heat the out-of-doors. A disappointed alumnus wrote to the Orient in 1876: "A visitor to Brunswick reports that the windows of Bowdoin Memorial Hall have pine boards for panes and that within all is incompleteness."6
At Bowdoin, the history of Memorial Hall's construction mirrors the early vicissitudes of the newly formed alumni group. Throughout this period the alumni organization was becoming a force in college affairs. The alumni owned the building and rented it to the College for the physical training classes. In 1877 the recently incorporated Bowdoin Alumni Memorial Hall Association voted to give the structure to the College. The Boards refused the offer. In the meantime individuals had undertaken part of the debt. Finally, deliverance came in 1879 when the alumni learned of the generous gift of twenty thousand dollars from Valeria G. Stone of Malden, Massachusetts. Mrs. Stone, a benefactor also of newly founded Wellesley College, specified that the Boards must accept the structure, that part of her gift should finish the building, and that the rest of her gift should go to establish the Stone Professorship of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy.
Finally, serious attention could be given to completing the building. Francis Fassett, architect of Adams Hall, was called in to consult with Professor Vose. In addition to the creation of the necessary interior spaces, there was also remedial work to be done. Several architects in Boston were asked to bid as well: N. J. Bradlee, Carl Fehmer, William G. Preston, and the firm of Peabody and Stearns. It is not clear who was chosen, although interior plans and elevations by Preston dated 1880 have recently emerged.7 Exterior changes were made to Backus's original plan. The Orient reported in 1881, "the great windows of the main story are to be cut down two feet, for the better effect of the interior."8 Interior reinforcing of the stone walls was also necessary, and for this Mrs. Stone added five thousand dollars to her original gift.
The building was dedicated in 1882. It contained two classrooms and a large lecture hall on the first floor. The second floor was a large meeting hall that could hold the entire College. Seven years later, General Thomas H. Hubbard, an alumnus who was a member of the Board of Overseers and was to become a benefactor of great importance to Bowdoin, gave the bronze memorial plaques dedicating the building to those who had served during the Civil War.
Memorial Hall was called, during its construction, "French Gothic," a romantic rather than a specific descriptive phrase. While there are rather general Gothic details and medieval inspiration, the building reflects a variety of nineteenth-century ideas.
Where Harvard had reluctantly substituted brick for stone in its Memorial Hall, Bowdoin stood firm. The visual identification with the Upjohn Chapel and the symbolic attributes of stone were two important reasons for Smyth's choice of granite. The pointed Gothic door and windows echoed Upjohn's First Parish Church only sixty yards away. The Mansard or double-pitched hipped roof sits uneasily on the Gothic details below. Perhaps that roof form was an inexpensive way to get a full third story. The entranceway, with the projecting towerlike area reaching up into the roofline, appears to be derived from Italianate villas of the sort shown in Andrew Jackson Downing's The Architecture of Country Houses, but for Downing's round-arched opening and flat tower roof, Backus substituted pointed forms.9 Originally the entranceway was deep and shadowy, with dark wooden doors recessed behind the plane of the pointed portico. The entranceway was one of the handsome features of the building. As the trees around it grew and Memorial gained its share of ivy, it had, for a while, the romantic air of collegiate Gothic.
The entranceway, window mullions, and roof were darker than they are now, adding a play of light and shade, if not actual color, to a rather simple building.
The Gothic here, however, has never been soaring. A lingering classicism, present also in the Chapel, is responsible. The strongly projecting bracketed stringcourses above the first and second stories emphasize the horizontal and lessen the vertical thrust. Memorial Hall is a reminder that tastes for Gothic, Mansard, and Italianate existed concurrently in the United States.
The handsome stained glass window to the left of the entranceway of Memorial Hall is a testament to a well-known Maine family. Writer Sarah Orne Jewett was given an honorary Doctor of Letters in 1901, the first woman so honored by Bowdoin College. Her father was Dr. Theodore H. Jewett, of the class of 1834, and a former member of the Medical School of Maine faculty. In 1902, Miss Jewett's good friend Sarah Whitman designed, made, and gave the window, which is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Jewett.
The most significant change to Memorial Hall came in the 1950s, when the building was converted into a theater. In the early years of the College plays were forbidden; after the ban was lifted there was still an attempt at censorship. But from 1909, with the founding of the Masque and Gown, the student drama group, there was a need for a proper stage. One notion was to finish Memorial's third story, and another was to take over Commons. In 1934, President Kenneth Sills, recognizing and encouraging theater production, hired George H. Quinby '23 to return to his alma mater as a member of the Department of English in charge of dramatic productions.
The enthusiasm and dedicated work of Quinby and his students resulted in successful productions, wherever they had to be held, and in serious student play writing. By 1952, a generous donor, Frederick W. Pickard, class of 1894, had made possible the complete remodeling of Memorial Hall into a theater with rehearsal rooms and all the spaces necessary for theatrical productions.
McKim, Mead and White, which had provided a drawing for a separate theater building in 1946, became the architects for the remodeling, which was dedicated in 1955. Memorial was rehabilitated chiefly because the College would have been "forced to maintain a [new] building which would be rarely occupied" if a special building had been built.10 There seems never to have been talk of demolition. In any event, the remodeling of Memorial Hall resolved some of the interior problems inherited from its difficult inception. The bronze plaques are now in the lobby, although the foliated borders are inexplicably covered by paneling. The Jewett window continues to reward the careful observer. It is regrettable that the reworking wrought such changes on the entranceway, which had been the most successful element of Backus's design.
Text From: Patricia McGraw Anderson's The Architecture of Bowdoin College (Brunswick, Maine: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 1988). ©Bowdoin College.
5. The Maine Historic Preservation Commission files on Levi Newcomb contain an advertisement inserted by Bowdoin College in the Daily Eastern Argus for Feb. 26, 1869, "to Carpenters . . . for erecting and roofing . . . superstructure." By July 1870 only the walls and the roof were done.