In this month’s column, John Cross ’76 examines the tumultuous history of a campus landmark.
Following the end of World War I, the College sought to create an appropriate memorial to honor the 29 Bowdoin alumni who lost their lives in the “war to end all wars.” In April of 1920 the Committee on the War Memorial was formed, and the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White was selected to design the monument, with William Kendall, Charles McKim’s gifted protégé, in charge. Kendall had designed the New York general post office building on Eighth Avenue (1908-13) – and also the Municipal Building in Manhattan (1914). It was Kendall who had a quote from Herodotus inscribed over the entrance to the post office building that has since become the unofficial motto of the postal service: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
Early versions of the Bowdoin war memorial took the form of a speaking platform or rostrum, sited between Appleton Hall and the Walker Art Building. The final design was for a flagpole rising from a granite pedestal and a bronze base, to be located at the intersection of lines extending from Hubbard Hall and the Walker Art Building. The Governing Boards voted in 1928 to raise funds for the project and to prepare plans; no work was to be done until subscriptions were in hand to cover the costs of construction, contingencies, and maintenance. Kendall secured an estimate of $15,000 from the Ecclesiastical Department at Tiffany Studios, which covered Somes Sound granite from Maine, a 75-foot wooden pole, a bronze base, a gilt eagle and ball finial, and a flag measuring 20 by 30 feet.
In November of 1929, War Memorial committee member Felix Arnold Burton , brought a 1/4”=1 foot model of the flagpole memorial to a Bowdoin club meeting, reporting to President Kenneth C. M. Sills that “the stonework was carved out of Ivory soap almost as pure as Bowdoin athletics.” Sills later wrote to committee chair and Trustee Henry Pierce , “Last Saturday Arnold Burton brought the saporean model of the flagstaff and I am now keeping it at the office for awhile and shall later send it over to the Art Museum.”
By 1929 sufficient funds had been secured, and plans moved ahead for a dedication ceremony at Commencement in June of 1930, although there was trouble brewing on campus. Faculty and students alike expressed concern about the proposed location, which would require the removal of two elm trees and subdivide an open area of the campus quadrangle. Philip Meserve of the Chemistry Department wrote to Sills that an alternative location in front of Adams Hall received “practically unanimous favor” at a faculty meeting. Mindful of the growing opposition, Sills wrote to McKim, Mead, and White, but Kendall replied curtly that there was no other acceptable option. The area for the flagpole was staked out in March in preparation for the construction, and the component parts of the memorial began to arrive in Brunswick.
In the evening of April 15, 1930, the students took matters into their own hands, quite literally. Wooden staging at the construction site was set ablaze and the flagpole was transported to the broad aisle of the Chapel, where it extended out the front doors. Morning Chapel services were canceled, as President Sills and an undermanned grounds crew devised a plan to remove the pole. Any further construction activity stopped, as telegrams and letters flew back and forth from the President’s office to the members of the Committee on the War Memorial.
The most helpful thing about undergraduates is that they are growing up – sometimes the process is very slow.
For President Sills the time that separated the “flagpole incident” of April 15th from the convening of the committee on April 26th was filled with Orient articles and editorials, faculty meetings, consultations with an unhappy architectural firm, and letters from students, faculty, alumni, and others. The Student Council expressed a “unanimous vote of confidence” in the decision by “the committee of acknowledged experts,” asserting that “whatever student opinion is in opposition to this proposed site is sporadic and quite negligible in its influence.” In responding to an outraged alumnus, President Sills quoted Professor Henry Johnson: “The most helpful thing about undergraduates is that they are growing up – sometimes the process is very slow.” At a special meeting of the faculty, the vote was 31-6 against the site chosen by the architects, with the majority favoring placement near the Moulton Union. Other votes were cast for a location near Memorial Hall and for the Adams Hall site. The Committee on the War Memorial was presented with five locations: (1) the architect’s original site; (2) between Hubbard Hall and the Walker Art Building; (3) between Searles Hall and Maine Hall; (4) between Moulton Union and Curtis Pool; or (5) between Hyde Hall and Appleton Hall. The committee’s vote for option 4 prompted another round of vigorous debate with the architect. The current location was finally selected by the committee and approved by the governing boards on June 18. Construction proceeded smoothly, and the delayed dedication ceremonies were held without incident in November.
A little piece of this history remains today. Just inside the Chapel, to the left, is a heavy door that leads to a small bathroom (once a bellringer’s nook). The inside surface of the door and the rounded archway of the door frame are covered with graffiti that have been inscribed by pocket-knife, pencil, pen, or felt-tipped marker over the course of the past 130 years. “Flagpole Ike” left his mark on the “Night of the Great Revolution” in 1930. I have no idea of Ike’s identity, but a number of alumni from the classes of 1930 to 1933 retained fond memories – and photographs – of their handiwork.
I have always heard the story of the flagpole incident told as a parable about the power of students. While the dramatic actions of the students brought a temporary halt to the project, after looking at the trail of documents I would now assign a greater role to the faculty for the final outcome. Their opposition to the architect’s chosen site for the monument was strong and unwavering. After all, while students are here on a four-year hitch, faculty are (practically) forever. Who would have thought that a campus landmark that inspires quiet contemplation today was once the object of such turmoil?
With Best Wishes,
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations