Location: Bowdoin / Library / Special Collections & Archives / images / lunagallery / Mary Frances Searles Science Building

Mary Frances Searles Science Building

Mary Frances Searles Science Building

Searles Science Building. Date unknown. Catalog no.:2909.1.

The story of Bowdoin's third medieval revival building could not provide greater contrast with that of its immediate predecessor, Memorial Hall. The Mary Frances Searles Science Building was completed in one building campaign, it was designed by one architect, and it was given by one donor.

The science building's relatively uncomplicated history began in 1892 in the first printed Report of the President to the Trustees and Overseers to be issued by Bowdoin College. In his report covering the academic year 1891-1892, President Hyde not only described specific needs for chemistry, physics, and biology, but further suggested that the three departments be housed in one building. Eighteen days later, on June 21, 1892, President Hyde received a letter outlining the gift of a science building to Bowdoin College.1

General Thomas H. Hubbard, Trustee and donor of the memorial plaques which had recently been installed in Memorial Hall, offered the gift on behalf of his client, Edward F. Searles. Searles married the widow of railroad tycoon Mark Hopkins in 1887, after four years of acquaintance. The building was to be named in honor of Mr. Searles's wife, who had died in 1891. When she left her considerable fortune to Mr. Searles, the will was contested, and General Hubbard successfully defended Searles's right. Surely Hubbard suggested Bowdoin's need; Searles, in any event, was generous with his wealth.

The letter of gift specified three conditions: the construction should begin immediately and proceed without delay; the project was to be done in consultation with Mr. Searles or an architect appointed by him; and the total cost was to be about sixty thousand dollars.

Henry Vaughan, an architect already known to Searles, had plans ready for inclusion in the Report of the President; the building was dedicated in September 1894. Keeping within the budget, however, proved difficult. Woodbury and Leighton of Boston, the successful contractors, reduced their original bid by twenty-three thousand dollars. They urged Vaughan to "omit moulded brick, except on the terret [sic] corners."2 Vaughan submitted new elevations that reduced the stone work around the windows. The agreement finally reached, however, called for almost twice the amount originally stated in the letter of gift.

The correspondence that remains reveals much about the confrontation between the design process and the budget, the negotiating between architect and client and between architect and contractor.3 The documentation is fragmentary, for Vaughan's office records are gone. One thing is clear: Vaughan, whatever changes he had to make from his original plans, produced an unusually interesting building. This design displays the same careful thought-a sort of design patience-as do the best of his works. Although architects, like musicians, are likely to quote their own felicitous phrases, the balance of massing and details is uniquely solved.

Vaughan was born and trained in England. When he left England for America in 1881, he was chief draughtsman for George Frederick Bodley, a leading architect of collegiate structures and Anglican churches. Like Upjohn before him, Vaughan was an Anglican in architecture and religion. He belongs to the later group of Ecclesiologists in England and fits comfortably with the Boston Gothicists in America. Among the church and chapel commissions carried out by Vaughan is the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, the National (Episcopal) Cathedral in Washington, D.C., which he worked on with his former mentor, George Bodley.

Although Vaughan already had completed designs in Maine (St. Andrew's Church and the John Glidden House, Newcastle; the pulpit and chancel rail for the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Portland; and, contemporaneously with Searles Science Building, St. James Church in Old Town), his selection as architect for the Bowdoin College building was the result of his well-established professional friendship with Edward Searles, for whom he continued to design structures of various sorts.

Vaughan was an excellent choice. While the majority of his work was ecclesiastical, his sure grasp of architectural massing and his encyclopedia of appropriate details make Searles, his first science building, an outstanding success. In spite of budgetary constraints, a clear sense of monumentality and a controlled taste for textural richness distinguish Vaughan's work on Searles.

Although each department-biology, chemistry, and physics-had its own entrance and interior rooms, the tripartite division is not the main design motif. It did provide the inspiration for a building of picturesque complexity with a ground plan that requires the observer to circle the building to appreciate its intricacy. The dominant horizontal extension on the quadrangle side gives way on the street side to a service courtyard enclosed by the building on three sides. Vaughan evolved this plan in order to provide the two laboratory-lecture hall rear wings with maximum daylight.

Vaughan composed the principal facade, on the quadrangle, in several interlocking sections. The central portion incorporates two narrow octagonal towers that extend the full height into the projecting gable. To either side is a recessed area four bays wide, each terminating in a straight-sided gable lower than that of the central position. On either side beyond is a projecting four-bay mass, narrower than its neighbor but capped by a generous curved Dutch gable. In turn, these sections are flanked by octagonal crenellated turrets.

These substantial and picturesque elements also create a handsome transition to the north and south facades, which contained, respectively, entrances to the Departments of Physics and Chemistry. (The Department of Chemistry is now in Cleaveland Hall. The Departments of Physics and Biology are in Searles.) The end pieces terminate in the broadest of the gables. The observant visitor will see that the north and south facades are not mirror images, nor did Vaughan choose to put the entranceway in the center, as he had on the principal facade. A close look at the cupola from the west, or rear, facade will show that the wings are not centered. The cupola, with its forthright classical forms and white paint, may look out of place, crowning a neo-Gothic structure.

The rear gables and windows are as neoclassic as the front gables are Gothic. When he was forced to eliminate much of the proposed stone window "trimmings" (his word) from the principal facade, Vaughan commented that this would make less contrast between the front and the rear.4 He meant, of course, decorative, not stylistic difference. Jacobethan is Henry-Russell Hitchcock's term for this totally successful hybrid, a transitional phase of English architecture which includes lingering Gothic and nascent Renaissance elements.5 As this style influenced late nineteenth-century design, particularly in college buildings and country houses, it was gradually transformed into the picturesque asymmetry of the Queen Anne style.

The significance of Vaughan's work here is in the ease and grace of his combinations. He chose Amherst sandstone to outline the gables, turrets, principal entrances, and adjacent windows, to mark the stringcourses, and to make decorative reliefs and finials. The original brick was painted red in the 1950s, the better to harmonize with both the oldest and the newest Bowdoin buildings. The contractors had suggested to Vaughan that he change his specification for brick, but he kept to a yellow or buff brick with stone trim, a combination he had used elsewhere. One thing he surely did not want was a bland surface. All of his work shows a lively interest in texture and color, and Searles is no exception, as is convincingly demonstrated by the staccato rhythms of the roofline.

The donor and the College were content with the finished building. It put Bowdoin in the forefront of the construction of new science facilities for expanded curricula, and it was a thoroughly collegiate building, as that word was understood on campuses in much of the country in the 1890s. Henry Vaughan was given an honorary degree in 1894, as was Charles Follen McKim, whose Walker Art Building had been under construction during the work on Searles. President Hyde could, indeed, celebrate the beginning of the College's second hundred years.

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

1. T. H. Hubbard to Wm. D. Hyde, June 21, 1892, Sp. Coll., Bowdoin College Archives, Governing Boards Votes. Also quoted in Report of the President, 1893.

2. Woodbury and Leighton to H. Vaughan, Mar. 29, 1893, and Apr. 15, 1893. Sp. Coll., Bldgs.: Searles.

3. Sp. Coll., Bldgs.: Searles.

4. H. Vaughan to S. J. Young, Apr. 15, 1893, Sp. Coll., Bldgs.: Searles.

5. Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Early Victorian Architecture in Britain, vol. 1 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), p. 15.

George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives · Staff · Hours
Bowdoin College Library, 3000 College Station, Brunswick, Maine 04011-8421 · scaref@bowdoin.edu · (207) 725-3288