A Tale of Two Unions
JAMES L. BROWN, COLUMNIST
The touted architectural connection between Bowdoin
and Harvard is frequently limited to the nascent years of our institution.
Massachusetts Hall and the Quad bear a striking resemblance
to similar features of the Yard upon which our campus was modeled. The
extent of our connection is often limited to this Georgian period in our
history, but at the turn of the century, a similarity with our sister
For many years, the predominant social structure of
the campus was oriented toward the fraternal houses. A place where students
of different backgrounds and affiliations could socialize was desperately
needed, both at Bowdoin and at Harvard.
This need resulted in the construction of some of the
first collegiate "union" buildings in America. As with Massachusetts Hall
and the Yard, Harvard provided the example.
In 1901, the beaux-arts architect Charles McKim was
commissioned to design a "great house…a meeting-house of all Harvard men-alumni,
It was indeed a great house, inspiring the words of
such figures as Henry James and George Santayana.
Twenty-seven years later, Bowdoin commissioned the same
firm to design a union building. Although on the exterior the buildings
bear little resemblance, their internal resemblance is noteworthy.
For the great hall in both the Harvard and Moulton (Bowdoin)
Unions, McKim's firm designed a tall stone chamber, the bottom story of
which is finished in ornamental wood. The classical organization is punctuated
by clerestory windows in each and constructed with similar proportions.
Differences are apparent, however; Bowdoin's building
features a second-story balcony and Harvard's a prominent over-door finished
with wrought-iron gates.
The most striking similarity of the two buildings is
not part of the interior detailing; it is the original functioning of
the two buildings. Both served as places of quiet repose and conversation
apart from academic or fraternal structures on the campuses. One might
characterize them as gentleman's clubs for students.
Today, the original unions of both campuses do not function
as they once did. The Harvard Union has been transformed in a controversial
renovation which divided the great hall into two smaller humanities halls.
Moulton, although not used for academic purposes, functions
as an administrative center of campus.
Both buildings are remnants of a different time and
no longer suit the needs of the institutions which built them as unions.
The time when students socialized in armchairs by fireside is gone, but
the value of the spaces as gathering rooms has not been diminished.
Moulton Union is the best example of neo-classic and
modern synthesis on the campus. The integrity of the exterior facade and
historic interior spaces is intact. The modern additions to the building
are sympathetic and engage in meaningful discussion with the classical
Such architectural dialogue has been woefully absent
in more recent stylistic syntheses on campus, such as the renovations
of Searles and Memorial Halls.
Moulton Union embodies the best of both styles, yet
manages to make them work together to achieve the comfortable domestic/academic
feeling particular to Bowdoin.
Today, Moulton Union has been severed from its original
function, yet serves our campus nobly for other purposes. It would nonetheless
be wonderful to capitalize on the kind of spaces it offers to students.
One way to re-integrate the old union into a new student body would be
to use the Maine Lounge for formal dining on a regular basis.
Universities in England have long benefited from more
formal dining settings where academic discussions penetrate into mealtime.
This would be a welcomed addition to the already renowned dining services
Bowdoin has to offer and would help students and faculty alike to refamiliarize
themselves with our history and a wonderful building.
Union is one of several buildings on the Bowdoin campus that have been
compared to buildings on the Harvard campus.
(Jane Hummer/Bowdoin Orient)