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.
A Short, Personal History, contributed by Dave Smallen
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)]
Hamilton College began with one man’s dream to create a school where children of the Oneida Indians and children of white settlers could learn together. That vision of Samuel Kirkland, a Presbyterian missionary to the Oneidas, led to a plan presented in 1793 to President George Washington, who “expressed approbation,” and to Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who agreed to be a trustee of the new school, to which he also lent his name.
A 17-by-24-foot clapboard cottage, consisting of a large family room with an ample fireplace and three sleeping rooms above, was erected at the foot of College Hill in the spring of 1792 and served as the Kirkland family home. On July 1, 1794, Baron Friedrich von Steuben, inspector general of the Continental Army, accompanied Kirkland from the house up the hill to lay the cornerstone of the Hamilton-Oneida Academy. Among the delegation of Oneidas to attend the colorful ceremony was Kirkland’s friend Chief Skenandoa.
The school operated for two decades. Never fully realizing Kirkland’s original purpose, it instead served primarily children of white settlers streaming into central New York from New England. The academy was transformed into Hamilton College a few years after Kirkland’s death.
The cottage, which today bears his name, was relocated several times throughout the years and served various purposes, including that of a carpenter’s shop. In 1875 Edward “Old Greek” North, who taught classics at Hamilton for half a century, spearheaded an effort to acquire the house for the College and raised the $140 for its purchase.
The building was moved to a spot near the College Cemetery where it fell into further disrepair until 1925 when the former statesman Elihu Root, Class of 1864 and a longtime College trustee, saw to another relocation — this time to the heart of campus. It was repaired, furnished and occasionally opened to the public. Four years later, the Pentagon student honor society began holding its initiations and other meetings in the building, and, since 1975, members of each entering class have been invited to the cottage to sign the College Register as a symbol of matriculation at Hamilton.
The first event for the Getting to Know Hamilton series was on Tuesday, August 6, with Frank Lorenz, Hamilton's Alumni Review Editor Emeritus, conducting a well-attended, fascinating tour of the Hamilton College Cemetery.
Frank says the cemetery tour, which he has given for several years on Reunion and Fallcoming weekends, was a first for Hamilton employees. He describes the tour as “kind of an informal ramble through the cemetery in which I point out various resting places” and he “speaks about the historical background and the colorful personalities involved.”
Frank spoke of the stones at the entrance, transplanted from central campus, where earlier Hamilton classes had sought to memorialize themselves, and Samuel Kirkland, the Oneida Chief, Schenando (as spelled on the stone), Alexander Wolcott, the Root family and the pillars.
The Opportunity Programs at Hamilton College is comprised of two (2) programs designed to increase access to higher education for students who present an alternate academic profile and who demonstrate the ability to compete successfully in an academically competitive environment. A history of more than 40 years at Hamilton, demonstrates the college's commitment to a community that is culturally rich.
New York State Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP)
The New York State Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) was established by the State Legislature in 1969 to provide access to independent college and universities for economically and educationally disadvantaged students from New York State. Economic eligibility is based on state-mandated low-income guidelines. Academic criteria are determined by each HEOP institution: a student enrolled in HEOP does not meet the institution's traditional admissions profile, but are the top performers from the high schools and academies they may attend. HEOP students must demonstrate that they are able to successfully compete at this institution. There exist no compromises in the admission process. The Higher Education Opportunity Program is an avenue through which any student meeting both academic and economic guidelines can obtain a post high school degree.
The Hamilton College Scholars Program
The Hamilton College Scholars Program runs parallel to the Higher Education Opportunity Program. Hamilton Scholars are students who are ineligible for HEOP due to economic or residential criteria. The College Scholars Program is entirely funded by Hamilton College. Scholars hail from all over the United States and can include eligible international students.