The presence of the past

Landscapes of history and tradition at Brown University

Steven Lubar
May 22, 2014 · 13 min read

There are many bears on campus: bear statues, taxidermy bears, bear mascots, even, in the not-so-distant past, live bears.

There are many historic buildings, an eclectic set of buildings built over almost 250 years.

Universities have a great deal of history and tradition, and they like to show it off. The ubiquitous presence of the past suggests a paradox at the heart of the university. Universities are places where students go to learn the accumulated knowledge of the world, to get up to speed with what seems worth learning from the past few thousand years of history. But they are also places devoted to finding out where that accumulated knowledge is wrong, to creating new knowledge that will make that old knowledge obsolete. Universities are places where past and future intersect.

One of the ways that universities deal with this paradox is by having a very strong sense of tradition, of history, many opportunities for students to connect to their forbears. Universities have historic buildings, spaces, mascots, costumes, parades, songs, alumni associations, strange rituals for faculty and students.

Past and present overlap at universities: things change, but in so many ways, they stay the same. Mike Cohea, a Brown photographer, captures this paradox in a series of images he’s made superimposing the past and the present.

1888 students at Hope College. Photograph by Mike Cohea, Brown University.
World War I soldiers on Lincoln Field. Photograph by Mike Cohea, Brown University.
1870 chemistry class at Soloman Hall. Photograph by Mike Cohea, Brown University.
1920s wrestling match at Lincoln Field. Photograph by Mike Cohea, Brown University.

There’s something spooky in the overlap. To live and work on a university campus is to live with not only with the history of human knowledge, but also with the ghosts of the students and staff and faculty who have been there before. Join me on a brief tour of the campus. We’ll focus on the buildings and memorials that provide connections between past and present, between students today and the generations of students who came before — at the memories inscribed in the landscape.

Bust of John Hay by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 1904, in the John Hay Library. Note the nose.

Let’s start with this: the bust of John Hay in the Hay Library. Touching the former Secretary of State’s nose is supposed to bring good luck in exams. How might an anthropologist read this harmless tradition? Bill Simmons, who’s studied the traditions of Brown for his exhibition at the Haffenreffer Museum, suggests that touching the nose provides a physical connection with all those who have touched it in the past. It symbolically ties you to those who have touched John Hay’s nose over the past century or so. By touching his nose, you’re connecting with generations of students who also touched his nose. It makes you part of a community that extends over time.

The bronze doors of the AnnMary Brown Memorial, featuring allegorical representations of Art and Learning.

There’s another piece of sculpture at Brown that’s rubbed in a similar way: these monumental bronze doors of the AnnMary Brown Memorial, featuring allegorical representations of Art and Learning. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the student to determine what kind of luck it’s supposed to bring.

Brown has a remarkable, eclectic, collection of buildings. They tell stories about the past, and how we want to remember it, to connect to it. They may seem constant, the backbone of university memories, but they also tell a story of change over time.

University Hall, 1770

Take one example. The university’s first building was University Hall — copied from a very similar building at Princeton. Plain, austere, brick. That’s what it was originally, and how we think of it today. But for much of its history, it was not a brick building: it was stuccoed, and painted white, to match the neoclassical look of the buildings on either side of it — Manning Hall, built in 1834, and Rhode Island Hall, in 1840.

University Hall and Hope College, about 1840. Courtesy Brown University Archives.

Classical architecture seemed more appropriate for a university than brick. If you’re here to learn Latin and Greek, best to do it in a building that looks like a Greek temple. That changed in the 1900s, when Harvard brick seemed a more important model to follow. In 1938 University Hall was remodeled, and the red brick we know today restored. Colonial revival was in fashion: Brown even hired the architects who redid Colonial Williamsburg to build the new dorms in a Williamsburg style, tearing down blocks of 18th and 19th century buildings in the process.

Rhode Island Hall, built 1840

One more example: Rhode Island Hall. Today it seems like a fairly typical Brown departmental building, with classrooms and offices. But it has a secret history: just a century ago, it was filled with the some of the strangest things that have ever been on the Brown campus.

The Jenks Museum, about 1890. Courtesy Brown University Archives.
The Jenks Museum, about 1890. Courtesy Brown University Archives.

This was the Jenks Museum of Anthropology and Natural History, filled with taxidermied birds and animals, and exotic artifacts from around the world. This is a rare case where the past is still with us: the Jenks Society for Lost Museums has reimagined the museum back into the building, just last week. Go and visit, and see the ghosts of the collection, sitting on shelves in the museum storeroom, and even Prof. Jenks’ office, waiting for him to return from lunch that day in 1894 when he fell down dead on the steps of the building.

The Jenks Museum, re-collected and re-imagined by the Jenks Society for Lost Museums, 2014. Photographs by Jessica Palinski.

Almost every old building on the campus can tell a similar, though perhaps less exotic story, with layers of history and memory superimposed. Sometimes plaques tell these stories — as you wander the campus, keep an eye out for them. University Hall, of course, has many plaques.

University Hall is a National Historical Landmark, a site of Revolutionary War History, and a site of importance for the life of Gen. Nathanael Greene. Plaques from 1963, 1897, and 1927.

The stories that seem important to tell change over time Even the bear on the main green tells a story of change over time.

Bronze Bruno, by Eli Harvey, 1923.
Two of the three inscriptions on the bear on the main green. On the left: A” piece of the slate on which Roger Williams landed” in 1636, to encourage Brown men to emulate his “strength and courage.” On the right: the history of the sculpture. Not shown: an encouragement that Brown men be inspired by the strength, courage, and endurance of the bear.
In recent years the bear has served a variety of purposes that its creators might not have imagined. Photographs courtesy Rob Emlen.

The campus is full of buildings that serve as memorials. Some of these, of course, are simply memorializing those who gave the money to build the buildings. That’s the modern way, what development offices call naming opportunities.

Memorial to Nicholas Brown in Manning Hall.

But there are a few whose names tell a different story. These are buildings that tell the story of Brown’s Brown family history. Brown University is, after all, named after Nicholas Brown, who in 1804 gave $5000 to endow a professorship of oratory and belle lettres, and got to name the university in exchange. (He also got a wonderful memorial, now sadly neglected.) And the family has been involved with the university from the founding.

Consider these buildings, each a memorial to a member of the Brown family.

AnnMary Brown Memorial. Norman Isham, architect, 1907.

The AnnMary Brown Memorial. AnnMary Brown was the granddaughter of Nicholas Brown and the husband of Rush Hawkins, Civil War general and art and book collector. Both Rush and AnnMary are buried in the building; it’s not just a memorial but a mausoleum.

Carrie Tower, Guy Lowell, architect, 1904

Carrie Tower was given by Paul Bajnotti of Turin, Italy, in 1904, a memorial to his wife, Carrie Brown Bajnotti, another granddaughter of Nicholas (Nicholas Brown’s granddaughters attracted romantic husbands. The Carrie Tower is inscribed “Love is strong as death.” AnnMary’s tomb reads: “Like some rare flower entombed in night its beauty shedding everlasting light.”)

John Carter Brown Library. Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, architects, 1904.

The John Carter Brown Library — the best library anywhere for the study of the history of the Americas before 1800.

Nightingale-Brown House, 1792. Home to five generations of the Brown family.

And the Nightingale-Brown House, ancestral home of the Brown family, and now home of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage.

Each of these buildings has a complex, fraught, relationship with the rest of Brown University — at times, their connections to the founding family have seemed stronger than their connections to the university. They’ve added a level of family tradition to the university, a bit of strangeness to the campus and to the university traditions. The Brown family has added in its own memorials around the campus, independent of the university’s decision-making. This strong family tradition at Brown — a literal family tradition, in addition to the “we are one big family” of other schools — might help to explain something of Brown’s oddness, its uniqueness; it provides us with campus highlights and research centers that no university committee would ever dream up. And it’s made us comfortable, perhaps, with an connectedness toward the past, toward tradition, even as we look beyond it.

There’s another kind of family that’s widely recognized in the Brown landscape. That’s the class: Brown has many things named for a class.

Consider the elegant wrought-iron fence that surrounds the main green, built in early 1900s. The fence was part of a larger movement of setting the campus apart from the city. But “the real object” of the fence, President Faunce wrote in 1902, was memory:

“It is by these distinctive memorials of classes and individuals to preserve and nourish those memories and associations which are our richest endowment, and those fervent loyalties out of which all our future is to spring.”

Look carefully at the Brown landscape, and you will see a lot of these class memorials, designed to nourish memories and associations. Here are a few:

Another group memorialized on the landscape are the military, and veterans.

Let’s go back to University Hall. Here’s what one alumnus, Horatio Rogers, thought when he looked at University Hall in 1898:

“In these warlike days the virtues of patriotism is especially emphasized. Old University hall, standing in its grace and dignity on the crest of College Hill, and used during a portion of the struggle for American Independence…will never cease to remind us of General Varnum, Surgeon Drowne, Chaplain Rogers, and the other patriot sons of this institution”

That’s probably not what University Hall means to most students today. But, indeed, University Hall was twice taken over by troops — though only one time is memorialized by a plaque.

For an earlier generation, it spoke to patriotism. Note the date on the plaque: 1897. It was, as the alumnus wrote, “warlike days.” Plaques and memorials can tell us as much about the time they were installed as the time they commemorate.

There are many military memorials at Brown, though, with changing times, they are little noticed. Perhaps the most beautiful and touching is the tablet in the entry to Manning Chapel that lists Brown men killed in the Civil War.

Civil War Memorial in Manning Chapel, 1866, acknowledging Brown alumni who died fighting for the Union.

This memorial meant a great deal to the students going to compulsory chapel in the late 19th century. Horatio Rogers wrote:

“What higher inspiration to patriotic duty and sacrifice could be exerted on our students, as they gathered to their daily devotions … than beholding the mural tablet, erected by the undergraduates themselves, in memory of the sons of this University who died for freedom and for the integrity of the republic?”

Soldiers Memorial Gate, 1921. Courtesy Brown University Archives.

More prominent is 1921 Soldiers Memorial Gate, Brown’s World War I memorial, dedicated “To the men of Brown who in the World War / Gave their lives that freedom may endure.” You have walked through it many times, I’m sure, but today go and take a closer look. We tend not to notice memorials after a while. They work best when they are accompanied by the memorial activities that keep them alive: memorial day speeches, for example.

Students training to be sailors march through Soldiers Arch. Courtesy Brown University Archives.

Or when, during World War II, students preparing to become soldiers or sailors would march through the memorial to those who had fallen in the last war.

War Memorial, 1997, by Richard Fleischner. Photograph by Jo-Ann Conklin, from Brown’s Public Art website.

Even less noticed is the 1997 memorial to Brown students who died in Korea and Vietnam, on the Ruth Simmons quad near the World War I memorial.

“Brave Men of All Races Fighting the Wars of One Nation in One World,”stained glass designed by Providence artist Robert Barrie. It was accompanied by a memorial plaque, “Erected in tribute to the chaplains in the armed services of the United States.”

Vanished completely from the landscape is the “Little Chapel,” for veterans, in Sayles Hall from 1946 to the 1980s. All that remains is this stained glass that once decorated it, dedicated to chaplains in the Armed Services. Christopher Columbus is the central figure in the story of “Brave Men of All Races Fighting the Wars of One Nation in One World” with scenes of the Revolution, the war with Mexico, and World War I. It’s hidden now, in the Hay Library; a trace of Brown’s military history in with the military history collections.

Courtesy Brown University Archives.

Sports are ephemeral in another way. You play the game and it disappears. All that survives are pictures of once-famous student athletes wearing odd uniforms and yellowing newspaper clippings.

Courtesy Brown University Archives.
Courtesy Brown University Archives.
Courtesy Brown University Archives.

But sports are important to college memories, and so we try hard to make the ephemeral permanent. That’s why we have sports halls of fame, and why Brown preserves, in its athletic facilities, a case of trophies. Here’s what it looked like in 1916.

Courtesy Brown University Archives.

Here’s what it looks like today.

Courtesy Brown University Archives.

There’s another kind of material culture that tries to capture the ephemeral triumph of sports. That’s the game baseball, or football. Brown beat Lowell 23 to 16 in 1868, and this baseball means we’ll never forget it.

Courtesy Brown University Archives.

Brown tied Yale 6-6 in 1895, and we not only have the football to prove it, but also this fine plaque. There’s a story here: this was the first time the Brown team had scored against Yale, and Yale graciously sent the ball to Brown, although the home team was entitled to keep it in case of a tie. It’s preserved today in the university archives.

With sports, we’ve moved beyond the materiality of buildings and landscapes to the realm of mementoes and symbolism. Let me end by looking at commencement — an event, but one with a material culture of its own. Commencement is one of the university’s best traditions, a place where the past is present everywhere — even if a good bit of that past is present as invented tradition.
Courtesy Brown University Archives
The president’s and chancellor’s robes on exhibit at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology

The most obvious piece of history are the medieval robes. But that’s only a small piece of the performance. The faculty and especially the president and chancellor wear even stranger robes, and strange jewelry, full of symbols that signify the ancient heritage of the university — even though most of them were invented in the 1920s. Marshals from the reunion classes dress in top hats and tails. Members of the Brown Corporation wear large, floppy “trencher” hats.

The mace and Manning chair on exhibit at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology

Not just strange clothing but also strange artifacts. There’s a mace, adorned with symbols from Brown’s past and with the names of Brown presidents and of prominent nineteenth-century alumni, given to Brown in 1928. There’s a cane, made from wood taken from University Hall. At the ceremony the president sits in the Manning Chair, which once belonged to Brown’s first chancellor, Stephen Hopkins — and came to Brown in the 1840s.

Commencement, as every bad commencement addresses note, is about a beginning, not an ending. But at Brown especially, it’s about mixing together of beginnings and of endings, of past, present, and future. That’s because — uniquely at Brown, as far as I know — the alumni also get to march in the procession. The faculty and alumni march out first, and clap for the students, and then the students clap for the faculty and alumni. The overlay of past and future I mentioned at the beginning of the talk is made palpable in this inversion, this symbolic display of connection between alumni and students.

Commencement, 1920s and 2012. Photograph by Mike Cohea, Brown University.

And so it seem right to conclude with another of Mike Cohea’s photographs, connecting Brown’s commencements past, present, and future. There have been 247 commencements. Each connects a new class to the history of the university, to all of the alumni that have come before.

But it’s not the only tie: the university campus is full of connections to the past. Look at the present to see the presence of the past.

Steven Lubar

Written by

Professor of American Studies at Brown University. Author of Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present.

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