Colonial Conformity and Historic Roots: Analyzing Rutgers University’s Demarest Hall
In the late 1940’s, Rutgers University was in the midst of a spatial crisis. With the postwar period’s enrollment numbers rising (20,897 students in March 1950) and only five on-campus residence halls to house students, the university was in dire need of a new, large facility for housing. At this time, dormitory housing for men was overcrowded by 40 percent. Section 6 of Chapter 49 of the Laws of 1945 of the University stated that, “The legislature hereby finds and declares that a grave public emergency exists due to the inadequacy of present facilities for higher education… [There exists] the need for additional buildings.” The solution for the problem was to be Demarest Hall. Named after former Rutgers president, Reverend Doctor William Henry Steele Demarest (1863-1956), the residence hall was to be built on “The land acquired from the Martin Estate, now referred to as the Bishop Campus, [which] had been planned for dormitory use since its rejection of faculty housing in 1925… Demarest Hall would provide some small relief for the housing situation at Rutgers in 1950.” This paper will argue that the building’s appearance from both the inside and outside, (a Georgian Revival, Colonial structure) was influenced by the conformist, conservative atmosphere of Rutgers University in the early 1950’s as well as the school’s roots as a Colonial College. The residence hall, completed in 1951, stands as a testament to the ideals that the university gave to York and Sawyer of New York City to build for them.
The exterior of Demarest Hall is red brick covering a reinforced steel and concrete frame (Figure 1). When standing in front of the building, one central wing runs parallel to the street in front of it. Two other wings jut out on each side, creating a U-shaped plan of complete bilateral symmetry (Figure 2). The red brick covering all of the exterior walls harkens back to the buildings of early America. Four massive chimneys shoot upward from the roof and bring together the exterior’s official, academic presence. Many residents who are somewhat knowledgeable in architecture and American history say that the building reminds them of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. This is largely due to the similar color of brick, the similar roof pitch, the spacing of the windows, and the crown jewel of the roof, being the cupola and weather vane. The cupola and weather vane (Figure 3) make the building reminiscent of an early American barn. Atop the weather vane is the original Rutgers mascot, the Chanticleer. However, the bird was not placed on the top of the building for reasons of a connection to school spirit.
John Wyckoff Mettler (Rutgers College Class of 1899), then chairman of the Trustees Committee on Buildings and Grounds explained in 1952 that, “…the weather vane… is copied from one I bought from France two years ago. The copy has been very well done and it is better looking than the original, I can assure you. This is in recognition of Dr. Demarest’s Huguenot background.” Dr. Demarest was a Dutch Reformed minister, and the Huguenots were members of that very church. Mettler chose to make the connection of Dr. Demarest and the French Protestants solely because he happened to have bought the model for the building’s weather vane in France. Mettler also stated that he, “…was reminded that [Dr. Demarest] was very particular to keep out the drafts and usually wanted to know which way the wind was—north, south, east, or west—so [he] put the weather vane into the picture.” The Dutch Reformed Church, which the university was in part founded by in 1766, was built on conservative, Protestant ideals. Therefore, the weather vane and Chanticleer harken back to the “Old Rutgers” that Dr. Demarest served as president of from 1906 to 1924. The architects wished for students to feel a connection the “Old Rutgers” that their namesake man had graduated from and served as president of. Rather than to make the building’s exterior Gothic Revival, like the buildings Princeton University had been erecting for many years, Rutgers chose York and Sawyer of New York City to build a dorm that would exteriorly conform to pervious buildings on campus which were Georgian Revival.
Part of the conservative atmosphere of Rutgers from the turn of the century to the 1950’s was its trueness to aesthetic conformity. At this time, freshmen were required to wear dinks and hazing was still widely practiced and encouraged not only in fraternities, but also among sophomores and freshmen. Life at the university had been this way for many years and until the era of counterculture and Vietnam, student life was far from changing. Conformity and architectural tradition played a significant role in Demarest Hall’s exterior appearance. The last dormitories on campus had been built just a few feet away from Demarest from 1926 to 1931. The connected Hegemen Hall, Wessels Hall, Leupp Hal, and Pell Hall (otherwise known as the Bishop Quads) (Figure 4) had also been built by York and Sawyer and similarly, in the same type of Georgian Revival, Colonial style. Their stately, official presence on campus, shown by their original white wooden arches (Figure 5) and pronounced cornices on the pediment roofs set them well into the Bishop grounds, a previous but shrinking pine forest.
Someone who is unaware of the decadal differences between the Quads and Demarest could easily mistake them for having been built at the same time. Similarly, the College Avenue Gymnasium (also referred to as “The Barn” for its farmhouse appearance) had been built in the same style by the same architectural firm. The gym (Figure 6), like Demarest, has a cupola (in a different, larger style) that makes it easily recognizable. Rutgers chose to continue the style of the old Quads with their new neighbor to promote a then aesthetically-pleasing learning and living environment in keeping with the school’s conservative values. The time had not yet come for the university to truly branch out from their safe academic style for the upper part of their expanding College Avenue campus, yet to come were the “brick monoliths which comprise most of Rutgers housing [as of 2003].”
Historically, Rutgers had mostly been a school for the children of middle class families. The men coming to Rutgers in the 1950’s were for the most part, not coming from large mansions or wealthy homes. Residential houses of the time were not particularly large to begin with. The housing crisis was somewhat solved by the rooms of Demarest (bringing in over 200 students), but the most effective way that the architects sought to fit as many students in as possible, was to make multiple rooms of small sizes. The single rooms were the smallest, the doubles were slightly larger, and the triples (only located at the building’s corners) were exponentially larger (Figure 7). These young men did not expect much more, considering the houses they were coming from most likely had small, cramped rooms as well. The original students most likely saw the rooms as adequate rather than uncomfortable (Figure 8). However, administration members, like Dean C.B. Boocock, found the rooms to be quite small. In a letter to then Provost, Mason Gross in April 1950, the Dean wrote that, “Before any furniture is bought for the new Demarest Hall I hope that this office will have a chance to sit in on a meeting to decide whether we should use beds or double bunks. As you know the dimensions of these rooms are very small and with two beds, together with chests, desks, chairs, etc., space is going to be rather cramped.” Each bedroom was built with a closet or two and no bathrooms. The walls were white painted plaster and the furniture of the rooms was Colonial in style. This furniture reflected the atmosphere of the building’s exterior. The small size of most of the rooms could have been encouragement for the usage of the main lounge, which building residents have continuously prided their dorm on throughout the years.
If the bedrooms of Demarest slightly amplified the building’s exterior atmosphere in their furniture, the main lounge was a full expression of the Georgian Revival structure in every aspect. In contrast to to the rather plain look of the Demarest bedrooms and hallways (full of white), the main lounge was built with a full collegiate atmosphere in mind. The room is large, with high ceilings, towering wood-covered pillars, and wood-furnished walls. “The grand, comfortably furnished lounge len[t] itself to the dances that [were] held by the Demarest Hall Club.” In its first years, “Students [found] it an appropriate place for playing cards and [having] bull-sessions with their fellow students… it provide[d] the ideal atmosphere for entertaining guests.” The shields of the original nine Colonial Colleges of America were displayed in wood on the wall facing the front of the building (Figure 9), creating awareness of the school’s history as a Colonial institution, and creating spirit to old-time college rivalry. These shields no longer exist. Colonial style wooden furniture (tables, chairs, and couches) were initially provided with the lounge to match the Georgian appearance of the exterior and to match the type of furniture provided with each bedroom.
Two pairs of iron football player andirons (Figure 10) were provided with each massive oak-mantled fireplace that the lounge has. They were placed in the lounge to remind students of the school’s significance in the history of collegiate football (having hosted the first intercollegiate football game in 1869). Each of them has a “50” on their chest, most likely because they were cast in 1950, the year construction started. Football was arguably the most popular college sport at the time, so the conscious decision to cast football players rather than baseball players reflected the school’s athletic atmosphere. The lounge was originally “…the setting for many post-football game meetings.” In the 1990’s, two of the andirons were stolen and since have been located in a fireplace at the Rutgers Club, down the block from Demarest.
Originally, a painting hung over each fireplace’s mantle. On one end hung a portrait of Henry Rutgers, one of the original benefactors to the college and the school’s namesake. This was yet another reminder to the students of the early 1950’s as to where their school’s roots were planted. Appropriately across the way hung a portrait of Dr. Demarest, the Dutch Reformed minister who is the building’s namesake. At the dedication of Demarest Hall on April 14, 1950, President Dr. Robert Clarkson Clothier stated that, “…Dr. William H.S. Demarest stands as the personification and symbol of all that is best in the Rutgers tradition. This solid structure which we are erecting here will crumble away into rubble long before his influence will cease to be felt among the men of Rutgers.” The portrait reminded students every day as to whom their building was named for. Both portraits dealt with important namesakes and have long since been removed from the building. Harkening back to another aspect of the school’s Dutch Reformed roots is the lounge’s Dutch door to the kitchenette, which still stands today split halfway up.
Two bays jut out of the back of the lounge facing Records Hall (Figure 11). To this day, residents sit on the C-shaped bench and play games, study, and hang out. Some consider it to be their favorite part of the lounge. Windows were installed here to let light in, but interestingly enough light is often blocked by Records Hall. It is safe to assume that the university thought that by 1951, Records Hall would be on its way out, considering it was a prefabricated temporary structure built in 1947. As fate would have it, the building still stands nearly 65 years later. The architect’s original intentions were most likely for the students to be able to study and converse in a beautifully-lit space within the large room.
Demarest Hall was built as an atmosphere and home for the “Young and the Green” of Rutgers College. Originally only housing freshmen, the building was constructed to satisfy the needs of the housing crisis (which was far from over, hence the soon to come construction of the modernist River Dorms and additional Bishop dorms of the 1960’s) and to promote an academically-focused, collegiate atmosphere for the new students. The university’s president, Dr. Robert Clarkson Clothier stated at the building’s dedication on April 14, 1950 that, “We are not dedicating steel and brick here today; we are dedicating the future of Rutgers and Rutgers men, the social and spiritual values which steel and brick, transmuted into a beautiful dormitory, will make possible.” The society of the early 1950’s found beauty in the dormitory’s Georgian Revival presence on the Bishop Campus which conformed to the previous dormitories and buildings nearby. The lounge’s atmosphere made students feel at home in their first year away from home and promoted late night bull sessions of man-to-man learning. Complete with historic references to the New World in its early American style and to the Old World with its Dutch Reformed roots shown through small interior details, Demarest Hall was a symbol to the last era of American collegiate conformity. A conscious effort was made for Demarest to be beautiful, but not to be jarringly different in exterior appearance from its nearby predecessor dorms. Within less than five years, no more Georgian Revival buildings would be erected on campus, and the modernist European style would take over, leaving no interest in historic references. Today, Demarest Hall stands as a testament to the last time (until relatively recently) that the Colonial roots of Rutgers and symbols of collegiate conformity were amplified and expressed in brick, steel, and concrete.
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