James Renwick Jr.’s Main Building at Vassar College Turns 150 James Renwick Jr.’s Main Building at Vassar College Turns 150
This year Vassar College celebrates the sesquicentennial of its founding in 1861. It would be Poughkeepsie brewer Matthew Vassar’s (1792-1868) grandest enterprise. Vassar devoted his remarkable energies and considerable fortune to found a college where women could obtain an education equal to that of the men’s colleges such as Harvard and Yale.
Although Vassar had little formal education, his thirst for knowledge was insatiable. Books on history, literature, religion, and travel filled his library; he had traveled with his wife throughout Europe. Born in England, his family immigrated to the Hudson Valley when he was four years old. He became a lifelong resident of Poughkeepsie, and in 1851 purchased his summer estate, Springside, along Academy Street. (Initially planned as a rural cemetery, the landscape had been designed by renowned landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing.) Among his intimates were Hudson River historian Benson Lossing and artist inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, Vassar’s neighbor on the Hudson. Both served on the college’s first Board of Trustees. College presidents, Baptist ministers, editors, publishers, and important residents of Poughkeepsie completed the board. Oddly enough, there Engraving of Main Building with Carriage, c.1865 were no women. Also notable is the fact that Vassar, a Baptist, wished his board, and his college, to be nonsectarian.
Shrewd, energetic, and successful, Matthew Vassar was president of The Hudson Valley Railroad by 1860. He was undeterred by skeptics who were uncertain about education for women, as he was by challenges to his investments caused by the onset of the Civil War. By April 1861 he had contracts with New York architect James Renwick, Jr. (1818-1895), and Poughkeepsie builder William Harloe to design and build the grand and imposing Main Building at the college. He chose the site of the former Mill Cove Farm, known from his childhood, in Arlington, two miles east of the Hudson River.
From the start, Matthew Vassar was in close contact with his architect, insisting that Renwick be at the site at least once a fortnight, and that the building be completed in four years. Having decided to house all campus activities—classrooms, dormitories, faculty apartments, dining hall, chapel, and laboratories— under one roof, the size of the building would necessarily be grand. Earlier plans by Providence architect Thomas Tefft show one exceedingly long building, using the Italianate round-arched style. However, when Tefft died in 1859 on a European trip, Renwick was quickly chosen as his replacement.
An admirable eclectic, Renwick was celebrated for his 1846 Gothic-revival Grace Church on Broadway in New York, his 1847 Lombard-style Smithsonian Institution on the Mall in Washington, for the plans of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral (then beginning to rise on Fifth Avenue), a small church in Albany, banks, hotels, hospitals, and a courthouse in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Renwick had traveled to Paris in 1854 and 1855, where he was impressed by the Palace of the Tuileries and emperor Napoléon Bonaparte’s building schemes for the New Louvre. The architect modeled his new building on these many-pavilioned, elaborately ornamented, and mansarded royal French monuments.
Renderings now in the archive of the Loeb Art Center at Vassar show a U-shaped plan, projecting pavilions at either end of a central axis dominated by a larger, more important central pavilion. This central pavilion, whose main entrance was reached by an elegant divided stair anticipating the interior divided staircase, contained reception rooms on the principal floor, the library on the second floor (third story), and the art gallery on the third floor under the central mansard. Faculty apartments occupied the north and south projecting pavilions, while suites for students filled the connecting ranges. A rear projection housed a two-story chapel, dining room, and kitchens below.
The exterior of the building is composed entirely of brick save the blue freestone accents of the capstones. Paired pilasters emphasize the pavilion corners and a variety of dormers enliven the steep pitched roof. Renwick’s use of French Renaissance/Second Empire forms well served his intention to make the mass of the building, 500 feet in width, intelligible and commanding. He did this through recessing and projecting the wall planes, and by relieving them at the angle of the main horizontal core with matching towers that are nearly as tall as the central mansard.
The war, however, dictated changes and substitutions, including pine instead of walnut for the chapel pews. (Walnut was needed for gun stocks.) Other changes created even greater expense, such the use of galvanized iron, which was new on the market, and enthusiastically encouraged by Vassar. Glass for windows was imported from France throughout.
In June 1865 Matthew Vassar wrote to his trustees that the erection of the college edifice was about to be completed and its interior life as a great educational establishment to begin. In Charles Loring’s portrait, Matthew Vassar points with justifiable pride to Renwick’s Main Building. It stands today as a tribute to the college’s founder.
-Bannon McHenry, Fordham University
Edward R. Linner. The Remarkable Growth of a Man and his College, 1855-1865. Ed. Elizabeth A. Daniels (Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York) 1984.