The buildings on Vassar’s campus can tell an observer a lot about the college’s history, believes Dean Emeritus of the College and Professor Emeritus of English Colton Johnson.
Free walking tours of the Vassar campus offer the opportunity to learn about the history of the college through its architecture. Held this fall and open for free to the public, the tours depicted the college’s development since its founding.
According to the Vassar Historian website, the College’s tradition of recording and discussing its story traces back to the importance founder Matthew Vassar placed on preserving history. At the end of the college’s second year, Matthew Vassar gave each of his trustees a copy of Vassar College and Its Founder by historian Benson Lossing.
Johnsoncontinues to share the history of the institution in his current capacity as the Vassar College Historian. He is the second official Vassar College historian, following Elizabeth Adams Daniels ’41. Johnson has been leading the walking tours for at least a 12 years.
He lead the tour the past weekend, and will do so again the in the next weeks. Associate Professor of Chemistry and Vassar alumnus Chris Smart ’83 will takeover, leading the walking tours for Nov. 10.
One of Johnson’s favorite parts of leading the tour is “the range of people who come on the walks.” According to Johnson, the participants range from visitors to the area and local residents to alumnae/i, parents, staff and students.Johnson said, “They often offer interesting lore or reactions that enliven the conversation. I also enjoy helping them see how the evolution of the campus buildings really does reflect the life and growth of the college.”
The tour illustrates both the constants and variables in Vassar’s history because of Vassar’s commitment to “adaptive reuse” of buildings.Relatively few buildings in the college’s history have been knocked down.
Swift Hall, formerly Vassar’s first infirmary, now houses the History Department. According to the History Department’s website, students had even nicknamed the building “Swift Recovery” when it functioned as an infirmary in the early 1900s. Even the “coal pocket” for the steam plant transformed into the current ALANA Center and the Shiva Theatre.
According to Johnson, the Kautz Admission House was formerly the Good Fellowship House, and the electric generating station became the Powerhouse Theatre, while the old Buildings and Grounds office became the new home to the Center for Information Services. The Good Fellowship House was actually the club house for the employees of the Vassar housekeeping department.
The Good Fellowship Club, says the Vassar Encyclopedia online, was formed to “help the maids develop skills for self-governance in the club house.”
“A thoughtful tour of the buildings…allows one to understand much about Vassar’s history and its development over the years, and that’s my goal,” Johnson said.
Two of the buildings shown on the tour, Main Building and the Judith Loeb Chiara ’49 Center at the Maria Mitchell Observatory, are National Historic Monuments. Maria Mitchell, an astronomer, was the first faculty member that Vassar hired. Johnson said that the astronomical clock bought for Mitchell “has been restored and is still ticking” upstairs in the observatory.
Several other buildings featured on the walking tour include the Frederick Ferris Thompson Memorial Library, the Vassar Chapel, the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film and Ely Hall. After entering the Thompson Memorial Library, the people on the tours will learn about the story of the Lady Elena Lucretia Cornaro-Piscopia displayed on the library’s great window. The stained glass celebrates the conferring of the first Doctorate to a woman in 1678 from the University of Padua.
While both the library and chapel showcase gothic architecture, Vogelstein captures the modern styles present of the campus. Said Johnson, the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film is actually built ontop an older structure: the former Calisthenium and Riding Academy building.
The walking tour also includes buildings in the science quad. During this section of the tour, the current construction project and new changes to the science quad were explained as well.
Finally, the tour covers President Taylor’s accomplishments during his 29 years. The impact his tenure had on Vassar, and the extent to which the school has commemorated is visible by all the different structures around campus sharing his name. These structures include the President’s House (the first tribute to Taylor in 1895), Taylor Gate, and Taylor Hall.
Johnson tells the visitors on his tours that the Vassar campus includes over a thousand acres. The residential dorms on campus, Kenyon, Blodgett and Wimpfheimer are among the only buildings not shown on the tour.
Founded by the Johnson and Daniels, the current and former Vassar Historians, the walking tours originated as part of Family Weekend, and occasionally for other campus events. Later the Communications Office asked Johnson to hold public walking tours on several Saturdays during the spring and fall.