Physical Plant: A Review of Architecture and Academe: College Buildings in New England Before 1860

Architecture and Academe: College Buildings in New England Before 1860; Bryant F. Tolles Jr.; University Press of New England, 2011
It’s not the topic that New England’s higher education institutions generally boast about, but for many it is their most obvious attribute—the brick, stone, mullioned, porticoed and columned facades that helped set the standard for what much of collegiate America now resembles … New England institutions have this architecture in abundance and, in this volume, it is both analyzed and celebrated.

Author Bryant F. Tolles Jr. is the retired director of the Museum Studies Program at the University of Delaware, and professor emeritus of History and Art History. He has written several books on architecture, including The Grand Resort Hotels and Summer Cottages of the White Mountains. In Architecture and Academe, Tolles, traces the influences that created the region’s first colleges, particularly Harvard and Yale, namely the English institutions which they sought to emulate—chiefly Oxford and Cambridge—as well as their local circumstances. Thus, builders often favored local materials—stone, wood and brick—and realized their interpretations of college architecture with the frugality necessary in a region still often in a pioneering stage of development.

The very earliest structures, for instance the Old College (Harvard Hall) and Indian College at Harvard were particularly shaped by local conditions, the latter constructed of brick but built along the simplest lines.

Yet it was these constraints, Tolles demonstrates, which yielded many buildings of interest that have in many cases literally stood the test of time (though there are many that were sacrificed to progress or lost to fire or neglect over the years).

None of these first-generation buildings survives and few are well-documented. So, Tolles spends much of the book taking us on a tour of buildings that were mostly built in the century up until 1860 (a few, such as Harvard’s Massachusetts Hall are even older).

Harvard and Yale share an introductory chapter, not only because of their age and stature but because, according to Tolles, they modeled two different campus visions. Harvard, with its famous Yard, copied to an extent, the quadrangle campus form of English institutions. Yale, broke new ground, setting its structures in a row, without a trace of the quadrangle. This form, notes Tolles, became the predominant form for most later New England colleges, at least within the period covered in this volume.

The second chapter pairs Brown and Dartmouth for analysis, since their early campuses date to a similar period, and saw the application of late Georgian, Federal and Greek Revival architectural styles. In this and other chapters, illustrations range from drawings and photographs contemporary with the construction of the buildings to interim restorations and remodeling efforts and, of course, present-day views. There are also some fascinating glimpses of yesteryear, in particular, photographs of student dormitory rooms in the 19th century.

Other chapters cover, respectively: Williams and Bowdoin colleges; the University of Vermont, Middlebury College and Norwich University; some later Massachusetts campuses, namely Amherst, Holy Cross, and Tufts; Trinity and Wesleyan in Connecticut; and Colby and Bates in Maine. These combinations are arranged both geographically and thematically. For instance, the Connecticut chapter also traces the specific influence of the Yale-style row plan on Trinity and Wesleyan, while the chapter on Williams and Bowdoin examines the contrasting responses of planners of the two schools to rural landscapes—the former having buildings scattered across a large area and the latter having a more compact and traditional campus near the village of Brunswick.

This is not, of course, simply a technical history. Tolles discusses the broad development of college building design and campus planning across the region, noting similarities and discussing shared evolutionary forces as well as the exceptions and variations.

Of particular interest is the way the sturdy construction and adaptable designs of earlier times have permitted successive adaptation to new purposes over a period of hundreds of years. In some instances lecture halls have become dormitories or vice versa, for example. Tolles writes: “In the majority of buildings discussed and illustrated in this book, stability, utility and aesthetic virtue have been combined to create bona fide works of architecture, as distinguished from certain more recent, sterile products of the college/university building trade.”

For the non-specialist, Tolles thorough analysis of the dozens of structures built in this period, including many that still exist, is accessible though occasionally taxing. However, thanks to excellent illustrations, many in color, as well as vigorous writing, the subject matter is kept lively. More importantly, anyone involved in New England’s academic enterprise will certainly find interest in learning more about so many familiar landmark structures, which Tolles calls, “surviving expressions of the fertile relationship between architecture and academe.”

Reviewed by Alan R. Earls, a Boston-area writer.


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