Hamilton's rich historic legacy provides much of the 21st-century College's strength and vision. It also comprises a wealth of fascinating stories that illuminate the College's changing place in the region, the nation and world. "The Hill in History" shares some of those stories in a regular column.
“The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.” Ralph Waldo Emerson penned those words in his 1870 essay “Domestic Life,” and for more than 80 years they have stood as an apt and telling description of the Hamilton landmark that bears his name. Now, with the dedication of the Sadove Student Center at Emerson Hall during Fallcoming Weekend, the communal spirit invoked by the philosopher and poet resonates anew.
Once the home of the Emerson Literary Society, Emerson Hall housed about 25 men in its early years, with meals provided for an additional 40 members. ELS had been founded in 1882 as a non- secretive, non-selective society based loosely on Emerson’s philosophy. It was the first such organization in the country and even today remains independent and autonomous. As its home, the hall was the site of family-style dinners, literary readings, heated discussions, debates, banquets, house parties and even a wedding. It was a vibrant fraternity house with a storied history; today, ELS claims a lifetime membership of more than 2,000 Hamilton graduates.
The present-day brick-and-stone house, which opened in 1929, was home to ELS until 1995 but was in fact the second home of the society. The first was a large wooden three-story structure built in 1897 in the old colonial style with a wraparound porch and a central dormer. It was located just east of the present site, across College Hill Road from the Benedict Hall of Languages. That house burned to the ground on Jan. 3, 1927, in a spectacular fire at the end of Christmas recess. Two students had to leap to safety from their second-floor rooms, and there was concern that the fire would spread to the nearby Elihu Root home. The homeless ELS members found housing at several dormitories and private homes for the remainder of the academic year.
After 15 months of fund-raising and with $18,000 in insurance money, the society contracted Utica architects Bagg & Newkirk to design a new building. The central portion would have a stone façade, with the left and right wings made of brick. The main colonial door would open onto a long hallway, with the first floor comprising a large living room, dining room, kitchen, library and cloakroom. The plan for the second and third floors included 11 suites, mostly for two men each, along with baths and servant’s or cook’s quarters. A sun porch would offer a comfortable gathering place in warm weather, and a large first-floor fireplace would provide a central hearth during long winters on the Hill.
Through arrangements with Elihu Root, whose property the Emerson house bordered, an exchange was arranged, and in the spring of 1928 ELS began construction on the new house farther up the Hill, about 100 feet west of the original site. According to a 1929 Clinton Courier, Emerson Hall was officially opened with an alumni dinner and housewarming party on May 18, 1929. The Emerson Hall Co., under the direction of Dr. Edward Fitch, Supreme Court Justice W.F. Dowling and Principal Edward S. Babcock, guided the construction of the new brick home.
The Emerson Literary Society grew out of the Debating Club founded March 11, 1882, by a group of students including Henry Love 1883, Robert Smith 1883, Channing M. Huntington 1884, George A. Knapp 1884 and Irving F. Wood 1885. It was the only non-Greek, non-selective, non-secret organization at Hamilton. In 1887, members of ELS founded The Hamilton Review, a periodical that featured student literary work. The group originally met in the tower room of the Chapel, then moved to the third floor for about 10 years. Later they sold stock certificates in order to build the original house off-campus. After the building was completed, a framed letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson endorsing the organization was hung in the parlor.
From the 1920s through 1995, Emerson Hall provided housing, meals, camaraderie, intellectual conversation, social interaction and fellowship for hundreds of Hamilton students. It was the first social organization on campus to become coed. The ELS goal of promoting forward thinking and a welcoming community continues today. Members are active in presenting diverse speakers, social events and annual parties. A board of trustees manages the group’s finances to endow a student scholarship and several research grants each year. Steve Sislo, president of the ELS board, characterizes the organization’s philosophy as, “You’re important; speak out; we want to work together.”
The new Sadove Student Center at Emerson Hall seamlessly merges the new with the old. The 30,000-square-foot structure — which has been called “the heart of the campus” and “the campus family room” — houses many non-academic functions for students. Former ELS members will recognize some poignant features in the new building. The west or kitchen wing has been removed so that it is now a mirror image of the east wing. The original stone exterior rear wall remains, with demarcations for the old windows. On entering through the front door, one finds two original bent-steel chandeliers that have been renovated and hung in the foyer. The original weathered door has been replaced with a polished mahogany door, but above it is a piece of stained glass from the old kitchen door. The paneled living room has been carefully refinished, and the large fireplace now features an elegant gas unit. The original piano also will grace this room once more. The former sunroom is still a sunroom, but with radiant heating. It can now be used year-round and offers a panoramic view of Martin’s Way.
Throughout the building, one finds comfortable seating, private corners for conversation, and many areas to accommodate both individual interests and a sense of community. Alumni who recall lively dinnertime discussions, shared household tasks and favorite TV shows, and the forging of lifelong friendships will find such memories enriched by the refurbished building. They will also find much new to celebrate. The Sadove Student Center offers inviting gathering places and meeting rooms, a photographic darkroom, a kitchenette, work areas and storage space. The campus Bookstore and radio station can be found there, as can the offices of The Spectator, clubs and Student Activities. These spaces will offer Hamiltonians new ways to meet, debate and grow, even as the echoes of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observations on friendship continue to linger in the College’s “family room.”
It is doubtful that Ralph Waldo Emerson, for whom Emerson Hall and the Emerson Literary Society were named, ever visited Hamilton College. But he does have a curious connection to the history of the Hill. William Emerson, Ralph’s father, was a close friend of John Kirkland, president of Harvard University from 1810 to 1828 and the son of Hamilton’s founder, Samuel Kirkland.
After William’s death, Kirkland arranged for a financially strapped Ralph, just 14 years old, to attend Harvard in 1817. He was appointed the “president’s freshman” or orderly; essentially, it was his job to assist the president in his daily course of business. He lived in the president’s house, in rooms directly below Kirkland’s office. When John Kirkland met with President James Monroe in 1818, Emerson wrote to his brother that he was confident Kirkland “will do himself as much honor as a man of the world as he will as a literary character.”
Beth Tegart, a Clinton native who manages the Class Notes for the Alumni Review and contributes this issue’s coverage of the new Sadove Student Center at Emerson Hall, has developed a deep appreciation for Hamilton’s historic buildings. As a storyteller and former librarian, she employs archival research, personal interviews and old-fashioned sleuthing to meld history and memory and bring the personal side of the past to life.