Around the Hill

Getting to Know Hamilton

The Getting to Know Hamilton series will offer guided tours of Hamilton's buildings and grounds by employees, past and present, who will present their personal historical knowledge of Hamilton College. We are hoping to make the Getting to Know Hamilton series a regular semi-annual event that will be filled with fun and intriguing facts about the place we think we know so well.

Christian A. Johnson Building (F.K.A. James Library)


The history of the Christian A. Johnson building is directly tied to that of libraries at Hamilton, and also to my career.  When I was interviewed in the spring of 1972 for a position in the mathematics department I toured the building (which was then the James Library). I remember entering the heavy stained glass outside doors and then two large swinging leather doors that provided entrance to the a reading room, adorned with a 35 foot high cathedral ceiling and a decorative fireplace on the west wall.  I remember that the doors squeaked and this led to heads rising to see who had entered.  By fall, the James Library had closed and the Burke Library was in operation. 

The first library on the Hamilton campus was Perry Hiram Smith Hall (now Minor Theater). Mr. Smith was a Hamilton alumnus ‘1849.  When it opened, it contained about 20,000 volumes that were collected from the numerous literary societies on campus.  The collection ultimately grew to 60,000 volumes.

In the early part of the twentieth century it became clear that the Smith Library was inadequate and constructing a new library became a priority.  Ellen Curtis James, who had no connection with Hamilton, had a secretary who knew Hamilton alumnus Daniel Burke ‘1893.  It was through Mr. Burke that Mrs. James learned about Hamilton’s need and this led to an anonymous donation of $100,000.  The Library opened in 1914 and was later named for Mrs. James when she passed away in 1917.

The James Library was designed in the tudor gothic style by the architectural firm of Coolidge and Carlson of Boston.  The original design of the building contained a gargoyle-laden tower, which was never constructed. Most of the book collection was stored on the north side of the building on three levels of shelving with translucent glass floors between them. The main reading room on the first floor featured large tables, wooden chairs and small table lamps.  There was no public restroom for women. The collections continued to grow and in the 1960s, with the planning for Kirkland College underway, Hamilton realized a new library was necessary.  Fundraising was begun and a new library opened in 1972 and was named after Daniel Burke.

When the James Library closed there was no plan for how it might be used or what it might become. I recall attempts at holding faculty meetings there but the acoustics were terrible.  I recall student registration for classes being held there once, but ultimately the building had been designed as a library and didn’t lend itself to other uses. It remained closed for a decade, with increasing concerns that the interior would deteriorate with only minimal climate control.

Hamilton’s 175th Anniversary capital campaign came to the rescue and the James Library was reborn as an academic building in 1982. Substantial funding came from the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation. The primary resident of the first floor was the Fred L. Emerson Art Gallery and part of the cathedral ceiling and architecture from the James Library was preserved in the center of the gallery. The original library browsing room on the second floor with its beautiful woodwork was preserved as a meeting room, with the decorative colophons that graced the room being moved to the area above the all night reading room in the new library (see picture).  The departments of mathematics and modern languages were the new residents of the building along with a language center, media library and the offices for audio-visual services. The architects were challenged with creating three floors, while preserving the beautiful shell with its stain-glassed windows.  The most visible evidence of the challenges are in the sloping corridors and ceilings in classrooms on the third floor and the addition on the back of the building to add restrooms on each floor (the addition gaining the nickname of Christian Johnson’s Johnnie).  With the opening of The Wellin Museum, the substantial growth in the number of mathematics majors, and other changing institutional needs, another renovation during 2012-2013 resulted in a redesign of the former Emerson Gallery into new workspace and offices for mathematics, a center for digital humanities and a consolidated home for Hamilton’s off-campus programs. Other facilities in the building were upgraded and the move of the media library to the Burke Library, provided a new home for the Quantitative and Symbolic Reasoning Center.  As with all buildings at Hamilton, changing needs breathe new life into facilities that are built to last.

[I owe a great debt of gratitude to the writings of Frank Lorenz, whose wealth of knowledge about this campus is truly inspiring.  Any errors of fact are clearly mine. His writings as well as others dealing with the history of Hamilton’s buildings may be found in the College Archives (http://www.hamilton.edu/library/collections/collegearchives)]