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Moulton Union

Moulton Union

Moulton Union, before 1964. Catalog no. 2717.1.

The new union building was in its first year when the donor, Augustus Freedom Moulton, class of 1873, wrote to Donovan D. Lancaster '27, new director of the Moulton Union:

I have been since my Freshman days impressed with the need of a place for assemblage of all the students to promote general acquaintance and  association.1

Bowdoin was not alone in lacking spaces for undergraduate gatherings; the movement to build student unions began only in this century, with Harvard and Dartmouth among the first. At Bowdoin the dormitories provided no common rooms, and the eleven fraternity houses provided no spaces for common college use. It was, in addition, of concern to President Sills to provide for the 10 percent of college men who did not join fraternities. Although Bowdoin was not nearly as large as Yale or Harvard, the Moulton Union was created at the same time those two universities were building their college and house systems for similar reasons.

While the Moulton Union was not primarily a commons, it did have a large kitchen, a cafeteria, and a smaller dining room. For the first time in its history, Bowdoin had a place where visitors, faculty members, staff members, students, and Governing Boards members could meet and eat informally. Dining arrangements for students had been a matter of concern almost from the beginning. Certainly by 1828 it was clear that board in Brunswick was uneven in quality and price. When Commons was built on Bath Street in 1828, it was run by students. This arrangement continued more or less successfully until the Civil War.

In his Report of 1893-1894, President Hyde explained the advantages of a common dining hall and added:

in connection with the dining hall there should be a reading room where the daily papers and popular weeklies and magazines could be kept on file and suitably cared for . . . The proper time for such reading is in the odd minutes before and after meals; and the proper place is in immediate proximity to the dining hall . . . The site of the old commons affords an admirable location for such a hall.

Twenty years later the Orient urged the College to transform the "old gym" into a union.2 By 1916 the first Sargent Gymnasium (now the Heating Plant) had become the Bowdoin Union, designed by Felix Arnold Burton '07, and converted with the help of a generous contribution from William J. Curtis in the name of the Class of 1875. The new union was an attractive and well-used space, although without dining facilities, but a fire in February 1920 destroyed it.

For the next seven years, a union figures prominently on President Sills's annual list of needs. Augustus F. Moulton, class of 1873, h '28 made his gift of a new union building in 1928, the same year that the Tall-man Lectureship was given; the Bowdoin Prize was instituted by Mrs. William J. Curtis; Pickard Field was given by Frederick William Pickard, class of 1894; and the Class of 1903 Gateway to Whittier Field was presented.

Space was wanted for undergraduate activities: the Orient, the YMCA, and the student government; there was need of places to read, listen to the radio, play pool, dance, have meetings, buy textbooks, listen to lectures and music, and eat. The building committee was chaired by Trustee Franklin C. Payson, class of 1876, h '11, who had seen to successful completion the building of Hyde Hall in 1917 and the flowering of the back campus in Sargent Gymnasium and Thomas Hyde Athletic Building (1912), Dudley Coe Memorial Infirmary (1916), and Curtis Swimming Pool (1927). The project of designing the union was given to the college architect, McKim, Mead and White. Ground was broken before the Curtis Swimming Pool was finished.

A description of the building, furnished by the architect, explains that it was: "inspired by the traditions of Colonial and early Republican work which to such an unusual extent constitute the architectural heritage of Bowdoin College."3

Since the completion of Hubbard Hall in 1903, all college buildings had subscribed to the Classical Revival canon, which became, in the first half of the twentieth century, an effective planning tool for college and university campuses. The position of the new building is as revealing as the style. The Moulton Union is on line with the athletic buildings to the north, and it faces squarely into the quadrangle between Appleton and Hyde Halls, a reminder that Bowdoin's campus is more formal than informal, more rational than romantic.

Of all the the twentieth-century Classical Revival buildings at Bowdoin, this is the most successful. It is not unusual or innovative in style or material, but it is well and handsomely designed. The scale, appropriately, is domestic. The two-story building is set on a small rise on a moderately high basement. Although the facade is 121 feet across, the tripartite organization of masses mitigates the expanse and creates a sculptural ensemble. The forecourt provides a leisurely entrance, and its balustrade makes a visual link with the wings and echoes the roofiine balustrade.

This upper crowning, as much as any other feature, assures the domestic scale while suggesting a certain luxury of design. The arch motif of the entranceway is repeated in the central lower window of each wing; its central prominence is echoed in the white marble panel incised Moulton Union and the Bowdoin sun that crowns the balustrade above. The inspiration for the entranceway proper comes, not from "Colonial and early Republican" architecture, but from fifteenth-century Florentine sculpture, specifically from quasi-architectural tombs designed for niches in churches and cathedrals. The sculptural quality is quite effective here, worked out in painted wood and played off against red brick.

At the time of the great building campaign under President Coles, which included the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library, Coles Tower (then the Senior Center) and Morrell Gymnasium, it was decided to expand the Moulton Union. The faculty and boards committees met for two years to redefine the purpose of the union. They reaffirmed the original intent, which specifically excluded use for academic classes, and added the functions of reception, information, and switchboard, so that today the Moulton Union offers hospitality to visitors. Although there were changes in the interior- the cafeteria moved downstairs into expanded quarters and the bookstore moved from what is now the cloakroom on the lower level to the rear addition on the first floor-the exterior is little changed, and the principal facade not at all. The McKim, Mead and White successor firm, Steinman and Cain, did the conversion in 1965 at the same time as they were working on the new library.

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

1. A. F. Moulton to D. D. Lancaster, April 12, 1929. Sp. Coll., Bldgs.: M.U., Correspondence.

2. June 17, 1913.

3. Sp. Coll., Bldgs.: M.U. 1930, descriptive brochure.

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