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'Architecture & Academe'Author discusses new book on the classic buildings of the oldest American campuses.

April 20, 2011

Whether our own college's campus bore a stronger resemblance to Hogwarts or the South Harmon Institute of Technology, most of us probably share a conception of traditional academic architecture: imposing buildings of brick or stone, perhaps in Georgian or Gothic style, possibly arranged around a quad and preferably draped in ivy. But what are the roots of academic architecture -- and how did certain elements become so integral to our notion of what a university looks like, despite the infinite variation among campuses?

In his new book, Architecture & Academe: College Buildings in New England Before 1860 (University Press of New England), Bryant F. Tolles Jr. examines the buildings and planning concepts of some of the country's first colleges and universities, starting with Harvard and Yale Universities (sorry, William & Mary -- Tolles focuses exclusively on the Northeast) and moving through Brown University; Dartmouth, Williams, and Bowdoin Colleges; the University of Vermont; and more. Tolles, professor emeritus of history and art history at the University of Delaware, traces the origins and influences of each campus's individual style, as well as the impact it may have had on others: Harvard's quadrangle plan, for example, was modeled on England's universities, while Yale's row plan set a new precedent that was followed by the first planners of many later institutions, such as the University of Vermont and Amherst, Colby, and Bates Colleges, among numerous others.

Inside Higher Ed interviewed Tolles by telephone to discuss the themes of his book.

Q: How did you become interested in academic architecture?

Photo: Bryant Tolles

Yale University's Connecticut Hall

A: I think it started when I was an undergraduate student at Yale and I lived on the Old Campus, as freshmen do the first year.... I went to graduate school after I got my undergraduate degree, and did the master's program for a year, and then I went back to the Old Campus as a resident proctor in one of the dormitories. As the book indicates, most of Yale's older architecture, pre-1900, on the Old Campus, is gone; there are only a couple of buildings that have survived demolition. But I became interested in learning more about the Old Row at Yale, and that's what really, I think, fueled my initial interest.

Q: The book was adopted from a thesis that you wrote?

A: That is correct.... I did my doctoral program at Boston University -- the American and New England studies program in the history department -- and my Ph.D. dissertation focused on the northern New England region -- that's Maine and New Hampshire and Vermont -- and the higher educational institutions there: Middlebury, University of Vermont, Norwich, Dartmouth College, Bates College, Colby College and Bowdoin. Then in the early 1970s, mid-1970s, I started working on an extended version of that to be eventually developed into a full-length book on the entire New England area, pre-Civil War architecture, which of course is the focus of Architecture & Academe…. I did research over a period of years and shot a lot of photographs. I was involved with other book projects, a number of them, in the late '70s through the 1980s and into the '90s, but then I got back to this again and finished the original project.

Q: Why focus on pre-Civil War architecture? Were there a lot of changes in architectural styles right after that time?

Photo: Bryant Tolles

Middlebury College's Old Chapel

A: There were, starting in the mid-to-late 1860s into the 1870s. I was interested in the earlier styles, the Federal and the Georgian styles, and the Greek revival, Gothic revival. I was interested in the original planning concepts for New England college campuses, the open or closed quadrangle plans, which were derived from England, Europe, particularly Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England, and then the row plan, which was developed at Yale. Yale had an expanded version of the original three-building row plan, perfectly symmetrical, and the row plan was of interest to the administrators and trustees of other New England colleges and universities before the Civil War. After the Civil War, the planning concepts changed somewhat; campuses expanded and there were many new architectural late revival styles and so forth introduced. And so I felt that the pre-Civil War era made a very nice unit for studying college and university architecture, and there are some 50 buildings that have remained from the original group, which is, I think, a very impressive preservation record for New England colleges and universities.

Q: The quadrangle plan and the row plan were the two main planning concepts before the Civil War?

A: Before the Civil War, and these two plans continued to be used, with variations, after the Civil War. There is one exception to that, and that is Tufts.... They adopted a plan where they have two parallel rows facing each other and a green in between them on the hill where the historic buildings of Tufts University are located today.

Q: What campuses or buildings best exemplify the styles and concepts you discuss? Do you have any personal favorites?

A: Oh gosh. That's tough. I think that the buildings that perhaps would be most interesting to focus on would be those at Dartmouth College, at Harvard, the Old Yard, Brown University, and -- just looking at the list here -- Bowdoin and Middlebury.

Q: To take one example, then, describe the buildings at Dartmouth?

A: The Dartmouth buildings are late Federal style and show the influence of the Greek revival, the ones that flank Dartmouth Hall -- the original Dartmouth Hall was wooden, and burned down, and was replaced by the current building. But they saved a lot of the architectural detailing of the original building and that was installed in the new, brick -- so to speak, "fireproof" -- building. But Wentworth and Thornton and Reed Halls that are near Dartmouth Hall are all influenced by the early Greek revival, but do have Federal details.

Photo: Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College

The fire that damaged the original, wooden Dartmouth Hall

Photo: Joseph Mehling/Dartmouth College Photographer

The rebuilt Dartmouth Hall

Q: In the book, you note that academic buildings reflect the educational philosophies of the people who plan them, or the campuses. Can you talk about that a little bit?

A: That's not something I focused on extensively in the book, the book being primarily architectural history. The colleges of the pre-Civil War New England generally built a main building or general building, and in the row that would've been the central one if it was a three-building row. And then they built flanking buildings that in many instances combined classrooms along with student dormitory rooms and rooms serving other functions. And then, of course, there were separate buildings that contained chapels in some instances; in other instances the chapels were contained inside the main building. It varied, of course, from campus to campus, but the idea was to integrate all functions of the institutions as closely as possible, to the benefit of the students and faculty.

Q: How has that changed since then?

A: I think in more recent architecture, functions have become more – I wouldn't say separated, but housed in specific buildings, serving a single function or pair of functions.

Q: You write that the traditional academic buildings that have survived "offer an ordering dignity to the higher educational settings of which they are a vital part." What does that mean?

A: I think they offer inspiration because of their age and their association with the history of the institution, the history of higher education. Many of these older buildings are located at the center or near the center of campuses. So they're still sort of the focal point of the campus, and certainly if you were to look at Harvard, for example, the Harvard Yard is really the central sort of focal point of the entire campus in Cambridge.

Photo: Bryant Tolles

Massachusetts Hall, part of The Yard at Harvard University

Q: If you were going to focus on another time period or part of the country, what might be interesting to explore? And what institutions, for example?

A: A lot of the traditions -- design traditions, building design as well as planning traditions, were passed to other institutions in the midwest and further west in the states. I don't plan to do another book on this topic but if one were to do so I think one could devote attention perhaps to the mid-Atlantic area, and that could be quite interesting.

...The University of Delaware would be one, and it's where I was a professor for 23 years.… I would think one could include in that study the University of Virginia and the Jefferson Plan there, that would be very interesting. There are a whole host of smaller colleges throughout particularly central and eastern Pennsylvania, but also Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York State, the southern part of New York State. It would be a long list.

 

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