Skip to main content

A History of Connecticut College: Opening Day, 1915

Official opening of Connecticut College, Oct. 9, 1915.
Official opening of Connecticut College, Oct. 9, 1915.

The following is an excerpt from Gertrude E. Noyes' 1982 book, "A History of Connecticut College," copyright Connecticut College.

On September 27, 1915 in a lecture room in New London Hall, Connecticut College became a living entity. Its pioneer students and faculty gathered there to hear the inspiring charge of President Frederick H. Sykes before dispersing for registration. Though it was a quiet occasion, all felt its historic importance. The students were "the new women," the faculty had cast their lots with an institution in whose promise they believed, and spirits ran high. That night President Sykes wrote to a friend, "We are off, and the real adventure has begun!"

On September 29 classes started, and on October 9 the College made its formal bow to the academic world with the inauguration of its first president. Brother and sister institutions of New England sent representatives, and friends who had worked hard to make the College a reality came from all over the state. The windy, treeless expanse of 340 acres, broken only by three stark stone buildings, a make-shift frame refectory, and a temporary boiler house, contrasted strikingly with the daring goals proclaimed that day. So revolutionary were those goals that some representatives of older colleges were skeptical, while others hailed them as a turning point in the higher education of women.

From the beginning it had been assumed that this college would be "of a different kind." By this time Vassar, which was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, Elmira, Oberlin, and other early colleges had shown that women had the intellectual and physical stamina to carry college programs as demanding as those of men's colleges. Even Argus, Wesleyan's student paper, had conceded that "Women's record for scholarship has convinced the most skeptical that woman is able to compete with man in intellectual strife." Now the second step was to prove that women could qualify for the professions on a par with men. The new college invited women with such ambitions and promised them advice, preparation, and support.

It was a time of challenge and turmoil. In 1915 war was raging in Europe and on the Atlantic. In May the great Cunard liner, the Lusitania, had been sunk with the loss of 1,100 including 128 Americans. In the resulting furor some citizens called for joining the Allies immediately, while others still hoped that "armed preparedness" would keep the nation out of war. Incidents were multiplying, however, and eventual involvement seemed inescapable. Against the grim background young woman saw that they would be needed to serve their country in roles at home and overseas. They were also watching closely the ratification of the women's suffrage amendment in the last few critical states and were eager to take on their hard-won political and social responsibilities. A new era for women was at hand, and the privileged few who were beginning their college education knew they would be the logical leaders. For them higher education was to be not just an individual privilege bringing cultural benefits and richer lives but a matter of national consequence.

On that fine October day visitors found a wide campus of rolling farmland divided here and there by neat stone walls, with the Thames River and Long Island Sound to the east and south and woodland on the north and west. The parent city with its steeples nestled below, and beyond the harbor and the lighthouse the sea glistened out to the horizon. Connecticut was indeed "a college on the hill by the sea." Amid the builders' clutter stood New London Hall, ready to house the academic departments, laboratories, music and art studios, the library, offices for faculty and administration, the bookstore, and a lounge for nonresident students.

Two nearby dormitories, Plant and Blackstone, had rooms for seventy-eight students and suites for faculty fellows as well as offices, maids' quarters, and in the basement of Blackstone music practice rooms. The boiler house with its tall chimney stood ready to combat the hard winters, and somewhat to the north Thames Hall would serve as a dining hall and assembly with apartments for faculty at the north end and a temporary home for the president's family at the south. Architecturally, Thames was an oddity, composed of two houses joined by a long wide gallery, where a huge fireplace of native boulders gave a touch of homelike atmosphere. This anomalous building was the first social center of the campus and, with the extension to the west, would meet varied needs of college generations down to the present.

The faculty of twenty men and women who opened their class registers that fall were highly qualified in their fields and united in a spirit of adventure and idealism. They were a faculty of distinction; ten held doctorates and all were well proven in the classroom. As they took their places in caps, gowns, and hoods for that first academic procession, it was obvious that many leading universities in the country and abroad had prepared them for superior teaching. The student body that day comprised of 151, including 99 freshmen and 52 special students. Almost half were day students, some of whom had been waiting for as long as four years, teaching or taking temporary jobs in the meantime. Many, commuting from a distance - Norwich, Fishers Island, Baltic, Stonington, Deep River - would have long days and experience considerable hardship in winter travel.

Of the original students, 85 came from Connecticut, including 21 from New London and 11 from Norwich, with scattered representatives from other states. Ruth Morris from El Paso, who soon acquired the nickname "Texas Tommy," was the first to arrive; and Lillian Shadd made the long trip from Mineral, Washington. On that memorable day the procession made its way from the west door of New London Hall to the rise that was to be the site of Palmer Library. There a silk flag, presented by the local Women's Relief Corps, was raised on a sailyard and given by Graham Hislop, owner of one the town's two department stores. After luncheon in Thames Halls for trustees, faculty, students, and invited guest, a crowd estimated at 5,000 assembled for the program. Governor Marcus H. Holocomb gave the welcome and read a letter from the White House conveying President Woodrow Wilson's best wishes. Frank V. Chappell, President of the Board, gave his greeting; and students sang "The Invocation Ode" with orchestral accompaniment. With verse by President Sykes and music by Professor Louis A. Coerne, internationally known composer, the "Ode" had the appropriate themes of wooded hills, river and sea, and the promise of youth.

Presidents Arthur T. Hadley of Yale and Ellen F. Pendleton of Wellesley, and Dean Virginia C. Gildersleeve of Barnard gave the main addresses, while the presidents or their representatives from Trinity, Wesleyan, Vassar, Wells, Smith, Bryn Mawr, and "the Women's College in Brown University" added their good wishes. Undoubtedly the high point of the day was President Sykes' response, showing the scope and ardor of his vision for the College. He promised the union of old education with the new; ideals of culture and character united with technical training, social direction, and human sympathy. Beyond this immediate goal of the College lies another - when around the women's college arises the professional and technical schools which will equip women as such institutions did men, and we find ourselves in the possession of a women's university. I see its lofty towers already on the horizon.

Inspection of the buildings followed. Visitors showed a lively interest in the latest scientific equipment; the dietetics, photography, and ceramics departments; and the greenhouse with its pool for aquatic plants. In the dormitories, the students showed off their rooms (mostly singles with a few suites), complete with running water, comfortable wicker furniture, and bright bedspreads and draperies. Meanwhile the faculty and trustees had adjourned to the president's office in New London Hall for a brief but impressive ceremony. In appreciation of his crucial role in launching the College, the trustees conferred the honorary degree of LL.D. to Morton F. Plant, who made it possible to "develop an ideal into a reality." President Sykes' citation concluded: Few have the means, fewer the appreciation of opportunity, still fewer the will to do ... such a great public act without ostentation and with simplicity of heart.

That day was alive with promise. As the years passed, campus, student body, and faculty would grow; and goals would be redefined by the inscrutable turns of history - political, economic, and social. In wartimes the higher education of women would suffer as did that of their brothers, but through challenging conditions the College would continue to provide what it considered "the best education of women, meeting the demands of the times." That "the best education of women" would eventually be construed as education with men is ironic but perhaps no more surprising than other evolutions in academic concepts and social mores that the future would bring. Paralleling national trends, Connecticut College for Women would add Connecticut College for Men (for graduate study only) in 1959 and would become Connecticut College, a coeducational institution, in 1969. It would, however, maintain education of high quality, focus on the individual, and sensitivity to educational and social change.

February 11, 2011