A beautifully renovated and expanded ELS becomes fully operational this autumn as the Sadove Student Center at Emerson Hall. With the airy plaza to its east, the building gives the visitor to Hamilton a new sense of arrival at the top of the Hill. Its planning, shape and purposes speak to the student-centeredness and diversity of the Hamilton campus and tell a story (indeed, multiple stories) about things that change and traditions that continue.
The origins of the Emerson Literary Society date to 1882, the year of the death of Ralph Waldo Emerson — a leader of the American intellectual enlightenment and exemplar of critical thinking and graceful writing — in whose honor a new society at Hamilton was named. The stone and brick society house that forms the front of our 2010 renovation, and which was acquired by the College 10 years ago, opened in 1929. From its beginnings four decades earlier, the Emerson Literary Society was non-secret and non-selective, and so it continues today, with a coeducational membership. This history suggests its appropriateness to the building’s new function as a center for all Hamilton students.
Seven years ago, when I came to the College, an effort already was under way to define and organize student social and extracurricular needs. Successive generations of Hamilton students indicated the same desiderata: clubs and other groups, including radio and press, needed dedicated space to meet, to work collaboratively and to store their materials and equipment; students at large needed social space — central, comfortable and unpretentious. But the path was neither straight nor short. One architect recom-mended tearing down the ELS building, a proposal that went nowhere. An early believer in the project was the Fred L. Emerson Foundation (the echo is nice but accidental), which committed funding in 2005. Then the generosity of Steve Sadove ’73, Hamilton trustee and the father of three Hamiltonians, made the hope a reality.
When I was an undergraduate, most colleges boasted more or less the same limited number of student clubs and activities. After arriving on campus, you looked around and decided whether you were most interested in, say, choir, cheerleading, the student newspaper or the French Club. Things are different now: Students arrive, look around and ask how they can make the place their own and make their own mark in the doing. The Sadove Center thus becomes home not only to Student Assembly and the Campus Activities Board, but also to some 125 student clubs and organizations — from The Spectator, one of the oldest, to Knit Happens, People Who Like to Do Fun Things, and Hogwarts at Hamilton, created by more recent student cohorts. The Student Activities staff also has moved into the Sadove Center and is now better situated to advise and help coordinate the various organizations whose programs are supported by about $800,000 annually, which comes mostly from student activities fees and which students themselves decide how to apportion and spend.
Such a rich and evolving array of clubs expresses the range of backgrounds and experience that characterize our 21st-century students, and the administrative support and funding that enable them to flourish testify to the College’s determination to encourage initiative and enable a vibrant social and cultural life. The new building will serve an increasingly diverse student body, much larger than the one that saw the birth and growth of ELS. And with the Bookstore occupying prominent space, we anticipate that the Center will be a hub for students and visitors alike, a place to gather, browse, read, have a coffee or a smoothie, and shop for dorm necessities, birthdays and holidays.
Some of my readers will wonder what became of the basement graffiti, testimony to lively parties and robust imagination (if the walls could talk…). They are no longer visible in the bright new space. But the face of the fine old edifice is there, with the original ELS crest over the door, fronting College Hill Road and forming a graceful and balanced contrast with the modern addition. Students and their various interests fill and spill out of the building. Emerson, who believed in the individual and in books as inspiration, would have approved.