Whispering Pines: Room with a (Changing) View

 

In his latest column, John Cross ’76 looks across campus through the window of time — Longfellow’s window in Winthrop Hall.

A marble tablet below a window on the third floor of Winthrop Hall identifies the room that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow shared with his older brother, Stephen, in their junior and senior years at the College. In October of 1823 Henry wrote a letter to his sister, Elizabeth, describing the view: “The room we occupy at present, is situated in the North eastern corner of the North College—but I forget myself! From such a description, you, who has never seen the college, can form no idea of its situation…—the bed-room window looks toward the village and Professor Cleaveland’s,—the other two windows afford a delightful prospect, no less so than the charm of an extensive woodland scenery of – pine trees, – groves, beautified by a great quantity of bushes cut during the Summer, and left, dry, withered, sere, to beauty and vary the Autumnal landscape—a fine view of the road to Harpswell and the College Wood Yard.”

In 1823 the College consisted of the president’s house (about where Searles Science Building now stands) and four buildings that defined three sides of a rectangle: Massachusetts Hall, Maine Hall, Winthrop Hall, and a small wooden chapel. Three ancient roads converged near the campus—the Twelve-Rod Road (Maine Street), Bath Road, and the Harpswell Road—overland freight and passenger routes that linked wharves on the Androscoggin, Maquoit Bay, New Meadows, and Harpswell to the growing town. It is not surprising, then, that the second meetinghouse of the First Parish Church and a stagecoach tavern were built on opposite corners of the Maine Street/Bath Road intersection in 1802, the same year that the College opened.

Students living in Henry’s room  in 1870 would have looked out the bedroom window at a row of buildings on Bath Road, including Ham House, Commons Hall (now the carpenter shop), and Rhodes Hall (an elementary school), and at Adams Hall, which housed the Medical School of Maine. Lined on either side by a white rail fence, Harpswell Road ran between Adams and the rest of the campus, creating a triangular, 8-acre parcel known as “the Delta” that was used as the College’s athletic field before there was a Whittier Field, a Pickard Field, or a Dayton Arena. In the general direction of the wood yard, our 1870 students would have seen a version of “the Temple,” a small building that served as the college’s privy or outhouse.  It was often targeted for destruction as a prank, as reported in a diary entry by Nicholas Emery Boyd for September 6, 1857: “Last night the stale and senseless ‘grind’ of ‘Burning the Temple’ was perpetrated by some person or persons unknown, and it was a smoking ruin when we went to prayers this morning.”

By 1900 the view from the third floor of Winthrop would have included the first Sargent Gymnasium (now the heating plant), the College Observatory (since moved to Pickard Field, where it has been re-purposed as a pumping station), and another short-lived “Temple.” Beginning in 1896 trolleys ran along Bath Road and Harpswell Road, adding new sights and sounds to life in the dorm. In 1917 the Delta was the home of Camp Chamberlain, the summer encampment of the First Maine Heavy Artillery.

By the 1940s it had become apparent that the College needed to expand its facilities, and the area of the Delta was considered for a site for one or more new buildings. It had been more than 55 years since the construction of Searles Science Building and the creation of any new classroom space. A $6.25-million sesquicentennial capital campaign was planned to celebrate the 150th anniversaries of the signing of the College’s charter in 1794. The “wish list” for the campaign included a new classroom building, a chemistry building, a covered skating rink, squash courts, a library addition, a music building, an Arctic museum, a theater building, and endowment for faculty positions. World War II intervened, however, and the decision was made to focus on the 1952 sesquicentennial of the opening of the College instead. As it turned out, some of the campaign goals were not realized until the completion of a 1960s capital campaign. However, the top priorities of the Sesquicentennial Fund were the construction of a new classroom building (later named Sills Hall) and a new chemistry building, to be named for Bowdoin’s first science professor, Parker Cleaveland.

And that is why the stretch of road along the eastern edge of the campus between College Street and Bath Road goes by the name of “Sills Drive.”

To make the greatest use of the available land and to keep the campus from being divided by a busy street, Professor Morgan Cushing suggested that Harpswell Road might be reconfigured to connect with Federal Street at the Bath Road intersection.  The College petitioned the town of Brunswick to re-route Harpswell Road. In exchange, the College offered to build a new road through the pines, which it would transfer by deed to the town.

According to Professor Herbert Ross Brown, President Kenneth Sills sat nervously through the March 6, 1948, Brunswick town meeting as the moderator read the warrants. In a forum where contrarian views often take center stage, there was not a single dissenting vote, nor was there a “nay” vote when the suggestion was made to name the new segment of road in honor of President Sills. And that is why the stretch of road along the eastern edge of the campus between College Street and Bath Road goes by the name of “Sills Drive.” Over the years it has caused no small measure of confusion for drivers of delivery vehicles and for visitors who follow a gentle “s-curve” past the entrance to Whittier Field, only to find that within a distance of a quarter of a mile they have driven on Harpswell Road, Sills Drive, and Federal Street without having made a single turn.

Adams Hall is no longer on an island, the third-base line of the old baseball diamond runs through Sills Hall to Smith Auditorium, and the brick and glass solidity of Cleaveland and Druckenmiller Halls have replaced the tents and mess shacks of Camp Chamberlain.  For all the changes in this corner of the campus, it doesn’t take a great stretch of imagination these days to see from the third floor of Winthrop what Longfellow saw: “the other two windows afford a delightful prospect, no less so than the charm of an extensive woodland scenery of – pine trees, – groves, beautified by a great quantity of bushes cut during the Summer, and left, dry, withered, sere, to beauty and vary the Autumnal landscape…”

 

With best wishes,

John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations

Comments

  1. Peter Small '64 says:

    Another good one John. Thanks, Peter

  2. Robert Owens says:

    Wonderful article, John. I continue to marvel that a former hockey goalie can produce such fine literature.

  3. Alan Butchman (1960) says:

    Thank you John for this piece of history. I have very much enjoyed your stories/comments over the years. Please continue.

  4. P F Healey '73 says:

    John,
    Great story…. I lived in that room Freshman year. My initials should be on the plaque.
    PFH ’73

  5. Robert C Foster III says:

    Dear John,
    What a charming bit of history. It brought back great memories to me as I lived for a brief time in Professor Gustofsons (sp?) home next to the president’s house at the time. Class of 1958. As a social lion I found myself in the US Navy in the middle of my sophomore year, returning six years later to take up my studies. Through as series of miscalculations, I FInaly passed my last two electives and graduated in 1994. It was a thrill marching among all of those youngsters!
    I was the fourth in my line of Fosters to graduate from Bowdoin. The first, Enoch, left school to form the Maine 13th and fight in the Civil War.
    The third, my dad, was an avid jazz enthusiast and collected a vast quantity of 78 records while at Bowdoin and beyond. The collection now amounts to about 3,000 records, many dating from the 20s and 30s. For the most part they are big band and very early pressings. There are about thirty albums. We are about to move from Boothbay, Maine to Florida and it is impossible to bring this collection with us as we downsize our lives. Would the college (where he collected many of these records) or its radio station be interested in this collection as a gift?
    Sincerely,
    Robert C Foster III

  6. bill hinckley says:

    Thank you, John. Enjoyed it..

  7. Byron Whitney '63 says:

    Another winner! I lived in Winthrop freshman year. We were not favored with a corner room so our view was west over the Quad.

  8. Contrarian views indeed! None but the most rarified of debates take place at Brunswick town meetings.

  9. Conrad Spens '77 says:

    Thanks, John, for another great piece! It’s always a bit of a jolt to my sense of history when reminded that Winthrop and its resemblant dorms were among the original structures. When first built they must have seemed outsized and at odds with the general presentation of the campus. Now, of course, they fit in perfectly and could easily be mistaken for some 1960’s expansion project. What a kick it would be to go back to the beginning and take a walk through the campus every ten years or so up to the present. Your writing makes a bit of that possible.

  10. Nancy Bellhouse May '78 says:

    I too lived on the fourth floor of North Winthrop when I arrived at Bowdoin. I didn’t fully appreciate then, as of course I do now, how lucky Bowdoin students are to have a campus of such beauty outside their dorm-room windows.

    As always, John, I appreciate your giving us this chance to pause and remember.

  11. Tom Kaplan '80 says:

    During the first months of my freshman year I would occasionally glance out the window in front of my desk. I often saw prospective high school students looking up in my direction following the pointed arm of a student guide. One mid-Fall day I finally had to see what everyone was looking at so I opened my window and hung my head out, looking high and low. Much to my surprise I saw the a marble plaque. It was only after the heavy ivy had succumbed to the cold weather, withered and fell to the ground did the markings on the plague materialize. I did not know how fortunate I was to be in this sacred room until I magically wrestled a H from a trending P in the final weeks of my grueling first semester English class. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the spirits of the Longfellow brothers influenced my results. I am forever indebted to them.

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