If you had to pick a Bowdoin president under whom the biggest, most noteworthy changes took place on the campus, said John Cross ’76, then William De Witt Hyde would be a good candidate. Cross is secretary of development and college relations, as well as being Bowdoin’s unofficial historian. On a recent walking tour of the campus, he spoke to members of the public and answered questions about how the place was transformed under Hyde’s 32-year presidency.
“There were not many buildings here when Hyde arrived in 1885,” he said. “Bowdoin was basically an L-shaped campus, featuring just three brick dorms, the chapel and Memorial Hall—now also home to the Pickard Theater.” But when Hyde died in office in 1917, said Cross, the College looked a lot more like it does today. “And,” he continued, “there are three buildings in particular that are emblematic of Hyde’s efforts to rethink the value of a liberal arts education.” Those buildings, which were the focus of the walking tour, are the Walker Art Building, Hubbard Hall, and the Mary Frances Searles Science Building.
Another important part of the equation here, said Cross, is “The Offer of the College,” which Hyde wrote in 1906. “The Offer” has since become a mission statement for Bowdoin students past and present, exhorting them to display intellectual curiosity, open-mindedness, and empathy. It encourages them “to count Nature a familiar acquaintance, and Art an intimate friend,” and also “to carry the keys of the world’s library in your pocket.”
On the walking tour, Cross talked about how those three buildings transformed Bowdoin in ways that fit perfectly with the message of “The Offer.” “When “The Offer of the College“ came out in 1906,” he said, “it was no coincidence that it referred to ‘art’ and ‘nature’—meaning science—as intimate friends or familiar acquaintances. Consider the fact that the Walker Art Building and the Searles Science Building had both been been constructed a few years earlier, in 1894.” Meanwhile the part about having “the keys of the world’s library in your pocket” is likely a reference to Hubbard Hall, said Cross, which was constructed as the college library in 1903 and remained so until 1965.
Walker Art Building
This explosion of classical revivalism was the first stop on the tour. The building housing the Bowdoin College Museum of Art is among the most striking on campus, said Cross, with its brick, limestone and granite façade, which is based on Renaissance prototypes. The grand stone steps facing the quad lead to a dramatically shadowed loggia flanked by lion sculptures modeled on statues in Florence, Italy. And it’s all capped by a copper dome.
The Walker Art Building was funded by the Walker sisters—Harriet and Mary—a pair of philanthropists from Boston who wanted it built in honor of their uncle, Theophilus Wheeler Walker, an earlier donor to the College. “When the Walkers made their offer in 1891,” said Cross, “Hyde initially tried to persuade them to fund a science building instead, but the sisters were not to be trifled with.” They insisted on an art museum, he said, which duly opened in 1894. It was designed by architects McKim, Mead and White, designers of Penn Station in New York City, the main campus at Columbia University, and the Brooklyn Museum. “Not that there wasn’t also a pressing need at Bowdoin for an art museum at that time,” said Cross. “The College’s existing collection was housed in the chapel, where it was either crammed into a small room behind the organ, or hung in the library there, where some 32,000 books also had to be accommodated.”
Mary Frances Searles Science Building
Hyde did not have to wait very long for his science building. In fact the Mary Frances Searles Science Building was completed the same year as the Walker Art Building, said Cross, and it has a “spectacular” history behind it. “It all started with a grocer called Mark Hopkins who went west with the California gold rush in 1849 and ended up becoming a railroad baron and one of the founders of the Central Pacific Railroad.”
When he died in 1878, Hopkins left a widow Mary Frances. She went on to marry a young designer called Edward Searles, who was more than 20 years her junior. Searles later admitted being attracted to widow Hopkins partly because of her considerable wealth. When she died in 1891, leaving her fortune to Searles, the will was contested by Mary’s adopted son Timothy, who had been written out of the will.
In the ensuing legal struggle, Searles’ claim was successfully defended by Thomas Hamlin Hubbard, Bowdoin class of 1857, a Civil War general, attorney, financier and philanthropist. “Hubbard was already wealthy,” said Cross, “so as his fee for winning the settlement, he suggested that Searles fund the construction of a science building at his old college, which was in desperate need of one. And also what better way was there for Searles to show the world that he really had loved his late wife, a former schoolteacher, than to construct an educational building in her honor? Especially,” Cross added, “given the suspicion with which many viewed his motives following the legal battle over the will, which was widely covered in the press.”
The Searles building was designed by English architect Henry Vaughan, who also built Hubbard Hall. “Vaughan was known for designing castle-like structures,” said Cross, “and the Searles building is sometimes described as ‘Jacobethan’ due its mixture of Elizabethan and Jacobean styles.” It was built, said Cross, using Perth Amboy brick, which absorbed water, so it was often patched with red brick when freezing and thawing caused the original bricks to spall off. “In the end, it was decided to paint the whole building the orange-pink color that it remains today.” Whether you like or loathe the color scheme, said Cross, there’s no doubt that the construction of the Searles Science Building was sorely needed, and it brought Bowdoin’s science facilities into the modern era.
After having urged the creation of the science building, the aforementioned Thomas Hubbard decided it was time to fund a building himself for his alma mater, this time a library. “There was a pressing need for a library at that time,” said Cross. “The books were all kept in the chapel, the same building where the art collection had been stored.” Built in the gothic revival style, Hubbard Hall features the first—and maybe the only—gargoyle in Maine, said Cross.
“Hubbard spared no expense: the floor featured marble imported from Tennessee for example, and he even had an apartment for himself built inside.” The office of history professor Patrick Rael is in what used to be Hubbard’s bedroom, said Cross, and the department coordinator for the Arctic museum occupies Hubbard’s former bathroom. Meanwhile the office of Director of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Professor of Anthropology Susan Kaplan occupies Hubbard’s sitting room. “There’s a wonderful photograph of Hyde and the governing board at a meeting on the second floor of Hubbard Hall,” said Cross. “Everyone apart from Hubbard looks a little tired and uncomfortable, probably because most of them had probably traveled some distance to get there, whereas all Hubbard needed to do was roll out of bed.”
A Flawed Visionary?
William De Witt Hyde had grand plans for the future of Bowdoin College, said Cross. “His annual reports talk about the need to raise an endowment to guarantee professors’ salaries, which at that point were funded by tuition fees. And as we have seen, under his leadership Bowdoin became quite a special place architecturally.” But, Cross pointed out, despite his achievements Hyde also had shortcomings, certainly by today’s standards. “He was involved, as many prominent American educators were at that time, in the eugenics and anti-immigration movements, which sought to limit the immigration of European Catholics and Jews around the turn of the 20th century.” Also in Hyde’s view, only black people who could prove that they understood what they were voting for should be given the right to vote. Nor was he a progressive thinker when it came to women’s rights, said Cross: “He felt that higher education for women should not lead to their entry into the world of business, but could contribute to improving the quality of life within the home.”
Unpalatable though these viewpoints are today, Cross said Hyde still had some valuable things to say about the significance of a liberal arts education, as is clear in The Offer of the College. “It’s important that we try and view his words in a more generalized context that goes beyond the view of the world in 1906.”
John Cross’s walking tour was organized in conjunction with the Bowdoin Museum of Art, whose exhibit To Count Art An Intimate Friend features works of art that span the life of the College and takes its cue, of course, from “The Offer of the College.”
Listen to museum curator Joachim Homann talking about the exhibit, which runs until June 5 (audio may take a few seconds to load):