An ode to Dudley Coe
October 22, 2021
After just over a century, Dudley Coe is on its way out. Perhaps it seems odd to elegize an administrative building many students can’t even identify, but Dudley Coe has played an important role in the history of the College. Dudley Coe isn’t getting torn down this week—it seems we have over a year remaining. If you’re going to make a pilgrimage to see its hallowed halls, you have some time. But, when Dudley Coe does go, this campus will lose a unique building.
The Dudley Coe Building opened in 1917 as an infirmary for communicable diseases and was immediately pressed into service protecting Bowdoin students from the Spanish Influenza in 1918. The second floor, initially meant for the treatment of scarlet fever and diphtheria—now vanquished by antibiotics and vaccines—hosts faculty offices. These offices seem very normal, which makes the bathtubs seem even more out of place. The tubs, which were apparently important for medical treatment, sit in disrepair on their clawed feet. One can only wonder when they were last used. For the safety of potential bathers, I hope it was a long time ago.
The conference room on the first floor has a visible layer of lead to protect against radiation from X-rays. Presumably that now helps with soundproofing? The old X-ray room is now a storage closet. A defunct dumbwaiter runs through the building, connecting the old medical cabinets, which are now used by housekeeping, to other floors.
But Dudley Coe’s history goes beyond its role as an infirmary. Once used as a kitchen, the basement now houses WBOR, our campus radio station. There are few spaces on campus more “college.” Decades of amateur DJs have left their mark on the studio, usually by graffitiing the walls with signatures and jokes, often only intelligible to the artists. Stickers and posters of college radio bands line the walls. CDs pile up in all corners, in theory organized by genre—it doesn’t matter what genre, you haven’t heard of them anyway. Years ago, a bored DJ affixed a screwdriver to the wall to serve as a coat hook. A functioning traffic light has provided unflattering lighting for countless photoshoots. For the last twenty years, a copy of the Rolling Stone Magazine from September 13th, 2001, has been on the management desk. The cover article is about the media treatment of Britney Spears, a theme that remains depressingly relevant two decades later. No single person, no matter what degree of mad-genius they possess, could have planned the interior decor. It’s an organic, constantly evolving space.
It’s unclear where WBOR will end up when Dudley Coe is torn down. In some ways, a move might be a good thing, allowing the station to modernize. The new studio might even have more than one window. Eventually, WBOR will settle into a new space and a new identity. But in the short term, tearing down Dudley Coe will destroy an incredible space.
I don’t mean to argue against tearing Dudley Coe down. Its destruction will open up the quad, connecting Roux and the new Arctic Studies Center and Mills Hall to the rest of campus. And Dudley Coe’s oddities, while charming, don’t necessarily make it a better place to work. I can only imagine the state of the wiring, insulation and plumbing. Dudley Coe has shuffled its offices freely since the Health Center moved to the Buck Center for Health and Fitness in 2009. It has hosted any number of programs including Off-Campus Study, Upward Bound, the Office of Gender Violence Prevention, Residential Life, Title IX and the Copy Center. Many of these programs might find better homes elsewhere. In hindsight, the College’s decision to tear down Dudley Coe seems inevitable ever since the Health Center was relocated. It is a reasonable decision. But we are still losing a piece of Bowdoin history.
I will not be leading protests to protect Dudley Coe. You will not find me locking myself in the dumbwaiter or lying in the path of an oncoming bulldozer to save these offices. But I will make sure I don’t take the WBOR Studio or Dudley Coe’s bathtubs, medicine cabinets, dumbwaiters and leaded doors for granted. For sheer originality, no other building on campus holds a candle to Dudley Coe (not that I would encourage holding a candle anywhere on campus). I will miss Dudley Coe.
Luke Porter is a member of the Class of 2023.
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