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Poke the Bear: when did Bowdoin really begin?

September 13, 2019

My mom drinks from her Bowdoin coffee mug every morning. And she’s got the whole process down to a science. Grab mug, choose coffee flavor, shove mug into Keurig, wait. Pick mug up, walk over to comfy corner table, do crossword of the day and drink coffee. But if we were to look a little more closely at this routine, there’s one thing that should catch your eye. And that’s the date on the coffee mug.

See, her coffee mug itself doesn’t really stand out—it’s got a black background with ‘Bowdoin’ in big capital white letters, and a cartoon-ish rendering of a polar bear on its opposite side. But the date that’s printed on the mug—the year 1794—is deceiving. Contrary to popular belief, Bowdoin did not, in fact, begin classes in 1794. It was chartered in 1794 but did not open until the fall of 1802.

To backtrack a little, Bowdoin was founded on June 24, 1794. The territory of Brunswick and the surrounding area, now considered Maine, still belonged to Massachusetts. So when founding authorities saw fit to build and name a new college, they honored James Bowdoin—a popular and well-respected political leader from Massachusetts. However, even with powerful visions for a top-notch college, construction at Bowdoin did not begin for four more years.

Three years following the original charter, architectural plans for Bowdoin’s first building remained at a standstill. The spike in land value and a general lack of funding led to a slower start than board members had anticipated and halted the entire college’s process. Original plans stipulated that Bowdoin’s first and only building would be 100 feet long and four stories tall, but these blueprints were ultimately put on hold while architect Samuel Melcher III worked on a simpler and more cost-effective design. These original plans would be preserved and eventually constructed under the name ‘Maine Hall’ in 1808.

Finally, in 1798, Melcher broke ground on Bowdoin’s first building, one which would eventually be recognized under the National Register of Historic Places: Massachusetts Hall.

Let me just pause here to say that everybody at Bowdoin knows Mass Hall. Probably everybody in the state of Maine knows Mass Hall. While it might not be as striking as Hubbard Hall, or touch the sky like Coles Tower, it encapsulates the very history of Bowdoin. Simple brick walls and white detailing aside, Mass Hall has withstood the hardest winters of Maine and shone proudly in the beautiful blistering summers. And it has maintained its original exterior through all these years.

Four years of construction later, Mass Hall was finally inhabitable in 1802. It took one more year to be fully completed, but the first group of students moved in during 1802, around eight years after Bowdoin’s initial founding.

Mass Hall became the designated dormitory for not only students but also for the first President of the College, Joseph McKeen. McKeen and his family resided in the “eastern half of the lower two floors,” according to historical documents from 1962, while students were housed in one of two rooms along the western half of the second floor. In 1803 a few more rooms were constructed on the third floor for student use and the rest of the building was divided into a chapel, one classroom, a kitchen, pantry, parlor and lavatories.

Mass Hall did, in fact, make up the entirety of Bowdoin’s campus for slightly over five years. It housed staff, faculty and students, and existed as Bowdoin’s only indoor space until the construction of Maine Hall in 1808. This building was quickly coined the ‘second college’ of Bowdoin and housed more recently-matriculated students. The current dorm of the same name is an 1837 reconstructed version of the original building, which burned down in March of 1822.

This leads us back to the question of when Bowdoin truly began. Should we consider 1794 as the principal date for our college? Or is this date misleading, once planning processes were slowed to a halt for several years before construction could truly begin?

According to my mom’s coffee mug, 2019 designates Bowdoin’s 225th anniversary. This year will mark two centuries and 25 years since the initial charter was signed, and yet it will only be our 218th academic year. Should we celebrate the beginning of an idea or the concrete beginning of a school opening its doors to young and curious minds? I’m not sure, but I do know the next time my mom grabs her mug out of the cupboard, she’ll be sipping tea and not coffee.

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