William Morgan: Touring the treasures of a cold campus

Spring in northern New England is a sometime thing. It does not usually come until May, if at all, and it doesn’t stay very long. (There's a bit of Yankee humor: "Spring around here is short. Last year, we played baseball that afternoon''.) A recent visit to Maine reminded me that we were still very much in what  the late Noel Perrin, my favorite Dartmouth professor, called one of New England's six seasons: "Unlocking''. Except for a few brave daffodils, there were no flowers to be seen and few leaves on the trees.



Waiting for spring: House neat Wiscasset, Maine.

My wife and I walked around Bowdoin College during this period of grayness. Where, we wondered, were the crowds of prospective Polar Bears touring the campus on their spring break? Our own son had seen the Brunswick school in the flush of summer. Would an introduction in November or March have chilled his ardor for Bowdoin? What about students from Virginia or California showing up expecting Maine to look as it appears in online college promotional material?



Main Green at Bowdoin College, looking north.

Yet, we found something strangely appealing about Bowdoin at this time of year–a kind of astringency, a stark honesty defined by barebones trees. There was a sense of what it means to live in Maine year round, or to have attended Bowdoin, say, back in the 1820s, along with Longfellow and Hawthorne, when Brunswick was far away and pretty isolated from the world.



View of the green from Massachusetts Hall (1802),Bowdoin's oldest building.

Minus the leafed-out of shrubbery and flowering trees, it is a lot easier to appreciate the astounding collection of notable 19th Century and early 20th Century architecture that forms the center of the Bowdoin campus.


Charles McKim, of McKim, Mead & White, was the most famous American architect to build at Bowdoin. The Walker Art Museum (1894) is a perfect Renaissance revival jewel. The Western canon of painters, sculptors  and architects whose names are carved on the façade might now be seen as a group of dead white men, but it was a typical homage found on Beaux-Arts civic buildings



Richard Upjohn was another giant of American architecture, best known for his Gothic revival churches, such as Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York. Upjohn, however, employed his beloved English Gothic only for Episcopalians. So the Bowdoin Chapel, 1844-55, was built in a severe German Romanesque for the Maine Congregationalists–a commanding if stern house of worship.



The tall and narrow chapel, with its large murals and painted ceiling, is an unexpected change from the starkness of unadorned white interiors of the typical New England meetinghouse.



Although not as famous as either Upjohn or McKim, Boston architect Henry Vaughan was a major designer of churches and colleges. Like Upjohn, he championed English Gothic. Here, Searles Science Hall of 1894 is an early example of a Jacobean-inspired collegiate building in America.



Echoes of Oxford and Cambridge, where Vaughan worked before emigrating to America, inform his Hubbard Library (1903). Soon, the lawn would be home to Frisbee games.


Above the entrance to Hubbard Library is this flowing banner carved with the admonition: Here Seek Converse With The Wise Of All Ages. Would such a motto be welcome in today's politically correct academy?


William Morgan is a longtime architectural historian and essayist. His books include Monadnock Summer: The Architectural Legacy of Dublin, New Hampshire and A Simpler Way of Life: Old Farmhouses of New York and New England