Architecture Echoes University’s Mission

Any Boston College student, even if he or she has never had any classes at these buildings before, can appreciate the grandeur of the buildings in the “Quad:” Fulton, Devlin, Lyons, and Gasson halls. In addition to the sheer size of the buildings, their distinct architectural styles, and the air of elegance and classiness with which they imbue the campus captivate the eyes of those who pass them every day, they create a virtual reality that students are living in the medieval era during which Gothic castles and churches towered over numerous villages and cities in Europe. In particular, the absolute splendor of Gasson Hall is marked with its own unique belfry and the dynamic, golden statue of the eagle heroically spreading out its wings on the verge of a powerful leap from the ground.

The birth of the historic buildings on the Heights can be traced back to the early 1900s when the College moved its ground from the urban setting in Boston’s South End to the former Lawrence Farm in then-rural Chestnut Hill, where then-President Rev. Thomas I. Gasson, S.J. initiated the construction of the central building, which later opened as Gasson Hall in March of 1913, according to BC’s website. A design competition for the arrangement of the campus buildings was held, and Maginnis & Walsh won. The architecture firm  boldly undertook the task of combining Gothic Revival architecture with a cruciform plan upon which the interior designs of the vast complex of academic buildings would be based. Dissimilar to the traditional Oxbridge models that characterized many American campuses then, the ambitious Gothic project never saw full completion, however. The central portion of middle campus that stayed true to Maginnis’ original plan included three buildings which still form the heart of BC’s campus-St. Mary’s Hall (under reconstruction at the moment), Devlin Hall, and Bapst Library-and was completed by 1928, and modernism began to have a tremendous influence on its development after the 1940s. Despite the rapid sweep of triumphant international modernism during the second half of the 20th century, however, through several renovations, BC had successfully adhered to its distinct architectural design.

The University’s architectural style can be described simply as collegiate gothic architecture. The central appeal, which enabled this particular design to gain favor over others, is that it bears certain meanings and associations which align well with the mission of BC and reflect the academic zeal of its first members. In addition to traditional implications of religious faith and moral probity, the Gothic Revival style connotes the idea of high-mindedness and scholarship, properly echoing the motto “Ever to Excel” and the exclusively liberal arts education for which the original educators strived to aim. The initial educational emphasis on Greek and Latin classics, English and modern languages, and religion and philosophy over physical or social sciences was tangibly projected to the architectural design of each building.

While modernity almost put a temporary end to the pursuit of medieval Gothic architecture, as shown by the distinctly contrasting design of O’Neill Library-constructed in 1984-from other older buildings, BC made another stubborn effort to bring back remnants of the past. It is evident that Stokes Hall, which was completed in December of 2012 and officially opened for use in January of 2013, tries to imitate the existing buildings on campus, said Katherine Nahum, a retired professor within the art history department. Even disregarding the fact that it was the first academic building to be constructed on the Middle Campus since 2001, however, it seems more accurate to describe it as a simplified rendering of older style rather than an exact duplication of other architectures in the Quad. Although the fulfillment of its purpose and function of providing more high-tech classrooms on campus deserves to be recognized, at the same time it leaves some regret due to its overly large size and lack of open space, said Nahum.

Some may agree that compared to Gasson or Devlin Hall, Stokes Hall possesses a subtle individuality, which makes it stand out instead of completing the sense of unity with other buildings on the quad. Although it made an effort to keep the identifying mark of Catholic architecture as safe and sound as possible, it seems appropriate to relate its overall architectural spirit to modernity more so than medieval Gothic style. It also occupies a previously open space where students enjoyed the sun or organized different extracurricular activities, leaving the area enclosed by buildings of the Quad the only remaining room for the creativity and diversity of the student body. On the other hand, by filling in an open field which revealed the inner activities happening on campus to the outside world, students are able to “feel protected and shielded” thanks to the presence of the new building, according to Nahum. Furthermore, its addition to the campus can be seen as the University’s symbolic gesture to match its pace with the quickly changing current world by pursuing academic expansion and progress toward modernity and innovation, she said.
BC’s architecture has come a long way to reach where it is today since its foundation 150 years ago. From construction of the oldest and most prestigious Gasson Hall to completion of the youngest and most modern Stokes Hall, it faced moments of decision between adherence to tradition and advancement toward change. While it is undoubtedly important for the University to preserve and inscribe its proud heritage in its visual representations, further observations suggest that it may be more meaningful to seek ways to achieve architectural harmony among all the buildings, regardless of whether they are past-oriented or future-oriented.