Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2008


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The Stories Behind the Stones

The Stories Behind the Stones
Blake McDonald ´10 and Abigail Van Slyck, Dayton Professor of Art History, at the entrance to Windham House on campus.

Architectural studies students and their professor are reconstructing campus history.

View From Parlor to Classroom, an online presentation created by Blake McDonald ´10 for ARCH 494 “The Architecture of Connecticut College"

See more archival campus photos

by Lisa Brownell

When some mid-20th-century Danish modern furniture was hauled out of the “Plex” and Lazrus during a recent renovation of a common room, architectural studies student Blake McDonald ´10 saw history going out the door. Guided by his insights and his recent project on the evolution of common rooms in the residence halls, he obtained permission to “rescue” several pieces for a future exhibit on campus.

Saving a few chairs may seem a small victory, but it is a significant one when viewed in light of saving the history of an entire campus. Behind every stone, brick or shingle in an architectural work is a story of the intangible: how its creators imagined the built environment should look at a particular time and the reasons why. In the case of a college campus, the master plans reveal both the institution´s mission and changing priorities and perceptions over the decades.
For McDonald, a 400-level architectural studies course, “The Architecture of Connecticut College,” didn´t simply end with turning in his final project last May. Instead the course with Abigail Van Slyck, Dayton Professor of Art History and director of the architectural studies program, has opened doors that led him to two more multi-faceted projects, a funded summer research position, a goal for the College´s centennial, plans to attend an annual meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians, and ultimately, a life´s work in architectural history and historic preservation.

“This is a very user-based approach to architectural history,” says Van Slyck. “It´s not just a history of the architects. You can read the built environment to find out the priorities of the institution, student life and gender attitudes.” The architectural studies professor, who is offering the course again this fall, is mindful of the College´s approaching centennial in 2011. She wants to leverage some of the research emerging from the class to secure a place for the College on the National Register for Historic Places. There may also be a future guidebook in the works.

Last spring, students in “The Architecture of Connecticut College” wrote three entries each on campus buildings as the preliminary work on the guidebook. They also completed projects and made presentations, open to the campus community, on a range of topics including the history of campus planning, the evolution of the athletics center, an overview of dances and social events on campus through the decades, an art project based on architectural details, a 3-D tour and videos of the campus on Google Earth, and even an educational board game (below), based on the architectural development of the campus.

McDonald´s interpretive project, titled “From Parlor to Classroom,” is an online exhibit that analyzes the evolution of five of the common rooms on campus. His exhibit documents the changing character of dormitory social spaces, starting with the lavish carved paneling in the Branford House living room. “Based on medieval Gothic motifs, the look reflects the domestic ideals of the early 20th century but also the living room of millionaire and College benefactor Morton Plant,” says McDonald, who notes that the individual aesthetics of the original donors often shaped the look of the early residence halls.
“The dorm common spaces are also significant in that their design and furnishings reveal much about the College administration´s ideals of how students should act and interact with others,” McDonald writes in his interpretive notes.

Other common rooms, such as the one in Mary Harkness House, served as mainly reception rooms: formal, large in scale and not particularly homey. Even the furniture was arranged in a way that was more for appearances and not conducive to conversations. Social interactions were relegated to small, informally arranged student lounges on upper floors (which were, of course, off-limits to male guests) or to what McDonald describes as “Spartan-looking” game rooms, such as one in the basement of Windham with Shaker-inspired chairs, bare walls and a Ping-Pong table. In the 1960s, however, a stronger sense of a social center emerged for the role of the common rooms, possibly anticipating the move to coeducation.

The College awarded McDonald a grant from the Connecticut College Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts Research Program (ConnSharp) to continue research with Van Slyck this summer. These stipends are offered on a competitive basis, and the summer research projects typically are followed by research during the academic year. McDonald´s first objective was to conduct archival research on buildings that were already in existence when campus site construction began in 1913. These include the former Bolles farmhouse, Woodworth, 360 House and Earth House, Nichols, Strickland, Unity House and Holmes Hall. Since most are entirely undocumented in the College Archives, “Blake has a real challenge,” notes Van Slyck. His second independent project is to develop an architectural tour that can become part of orientation for first-year students.
There have also been discussions about creating panels with a historical timeline about the campus architecture that would be displayed in Blaustein Humanities Center. Among other things, the panels would highlight the notable architectural firms whose work shaped the hillside campus, including Ewing and Chappell (buildings at Vassar College and Georgetown University), the landscaping firm of Olmsted Brothers (the Seattle Park system), James Gamble Rogers (Yale University), Shreve, Lamb and Harmon (the Empire State Building), and Graham Gund Architects.

Research by students and professors is a two-way street, and faculty benefit as well as their students. “Everything that I know about architecture I learned as a teacher,” says Van Slyck. A widely published author and expert on American architecture who focuses on vernacular architecture, the cultural landscape and gender issues in architecture, Van Slyck earned an award of merit from the Connecticut League of History Organizations for an exhibit she created with students, “Commerce and Culture: Architecture and Society on New London´s State Street.” Her book, A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890-1960, recently won the Abbott Lowell Cummings Award from the Vernacular Architecture Forum. If her paper on the architecture of the Connecticut College campus is accepted for the annual meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians in April 2009, she will work on bringing McDonald to the conference, to give him the opportunity to experience the professional workings of architectural history.

“All buildings — the bland as well as the beautiful — can speak to us about the people who made and used them, if we learn to ask them the right questions,” notes Van Slyck in her faculty profile. And the buildings of Connecticut College, in particular, speak volumes of their past and the people who lived and learned there.

Wanted: Alumni scrapbooks and memorabilia of your College days

Do you have a photographic record of life at Connecticut College that you would like to preserve in the College Archives? There is a particular need for material documenting the residence halls in the 1970s and 1980s.


Nova M. Seals
Librarian for Special
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