Libraries for Gentlemen: Stetson and Chapin Build a Landmark
In the 1860s Williams faced a precipitous loss of enrollment, which continued past the Civil War, so that after an antebellum peak of 240 the student body descended to 119, ending Mark Hopkins’ tenure exactly where it began. The Christian college had run its course, but within its decline resided the revival of Williams as a “gentleman’s college.” You could have seen that rebirth in process if you had visited the Saturday night reading club where earnest students supplemented the meager curriculum by discussing books borrowed from the Adelphic Union libraries, which the College Library did not deign to carry — authors such as Emerson, Carlyle, Wordsworth and Coleridge.
Among those club members were three members of the Class of 1867: G. Stanley Hall would become a distinguished psychologist and president of Clark University; Hamilton Wright Mabie would rise to eminence as a literary critic and editor; and Francis Lynde Stetson would cap a legal career — which saw him go from advisor to President Grover Cleveland to personal counsel to J.P. Morgan — with a series of benefactions that would transform the Williams campus in the first two decades of the 20th century. Later they would admit to their fellowship a member of the Class of 1869, Alfred Clark Chapin, who after a successful career in law and politics, would join Stetson and Mabie on the College’s Board of Trustees, and vie with the former in generosity to their alma mater. Distinguished gentlemen all, they would help Williams find its proximate destiny as a college for gentlemen.
The story is told that Chapin was so overcome with emotion of the day of his graduation from Williams that he vowed to make a success and return to give the college a million dollars, a princely sum in those days but one he eventually surpassed. Stetson was even more generous, opening his wallet for whatever need presented itself, and eventually leaving half his residuary estate to the college, so large a gift that it required a roundabout strategy to comply with a law limiting bequests to schools.
In a series for the Alumni Review that was eventually published in book form, What’s in a Name: The Buildings of Williams College (1999), Philip H. Warren Jr. ’38 describes Francis Lynde Stetson as “an organized and goal-oriented man with an instinct for success.” He was really a prototype for the Wise Old Man of political lore. Within a decade of graduating from Williams, he was a prominent supporter of Samuel J. Tilden in the disputed Presidential election of 1876, and deputized to pursue the controversy over — wait for it! — questionable election returns from Florida. Apparently he could have had any cabinet position he wanted in the two Cleveland administrations, but preferred to be a counselor behind the scenes, as he would become for J. P. Morgan and other major corporations.
Stetson became a Trustee of Williams in 1890 and within a decade had become a vital supporter of College initiatives: subsidizing an increase in faculty salaries and paid sabbaticals, funding completion of Williams Hall, purchasing land and developing Cole Field and various sports facilities. He paid for Griffin Hall to be moved and restored when Thompson Memorial Chapel was built. It’s no accident that Stetson Road leads to Cole Field or crosses over Lynde Lane by the tennis courts, or that Stetson and his wife are buried in the College cemetery just across the lane. All these aspects of the campus were paid for by Stetson, alone or in association with others.
Stetson Library was his ultimate gift, though he did not live to see it completed. The Alumni Review of January 1921 wrote of his death the previous month, and eulogized his conscientious citizenship and churchmanship, as well as his benefactions to the College: “Mr. Stetson loved Williams with the ever-increasing affection that enabled him to see her needs on many sides, and so the measure of what he did for her was always being enlarged.” The article sought to praise “the qualities and service of a fine-grained and thoroughly American gentleman.”
His Williams roommate and longtime friend, Hamilton Wright Mabie, fondly remembered their meeting at the start of college on the steps leading to West College: “Two eager boys dreaming of things to come, we sat on the upper step on a summer day and began a friendship which has ripened with the years into a deep and abiding fellowship of spirit and purpose.” He speaks of Stetson’s “rectitude … directness of moral perception … unswerving integrity” and his “strong instinctive desire in all differences of opinion to bring men together on a common ground.”
In the same issue, the Trustees published a “Memorial Minute” on Francis Lynde Stetson: “His colleagues recognized in him a directing intelligence and a superior executive capacity, yet such was his personal charm, and so liberal and conciliatory was his spirit, that it was a pleasure to sit in counsel with him. He was deeply interested in securing beautiful physical surroundings for Williams students, and no alumnus has equaled him in generous and countless gifts to the college, during his lifetime and in the final disposition of his estate . . . Mr. Stetson represented a significant and noble era in the life of Williams, and with his passing, that era vanishes irrevocably, except in the memory of his friends.” And of course, in the building that bears his name. The cornerstone of Stetson Hall was laid two months before his death and the building would open just two years after. Books were moved into the new library during Christmas vacation 1922, consolidated from their dispersal in Lawrence, Griffin, and Goodrich Halls.
But before entering the new library, let’s look at the need that Trustee Stetson was addressing. In the Alumni Review of April 1910, the venerable John Bascom, Class of 1849 and longtime professor of rhetoric, looked at “The College Library” and made an eloquent plea for the centrality of that institution and the necessity for a new building. He had long been outspoken on topics of college life, urging the end of fraternities and the advent of coeducation in the 1860s, a full century before they came to pass. Here he laid out the deficiencies of Lawrence Hall and the important role that the library ought to fulfill but couldn’t in its present circumstances.
“The library of Williams College has done its work and is lasting overtime. The original plan, well enough for a formative period, was peculiarly inflexible and, like a sphere, repellant to all additions. We are introduced into the crypt of the octagon, corkscrewed to the second floor, and, without the least sense of introduction, are ushered at once into centre and circumference of the whole thing; administration, storage and consultation. . . There is no sense of amplitude, scant opportunity of extension, little space for consultation, a confused commingling of departments with a predominant sense that this is all we have to hope for.”
But he sees a large mission for the library, “the most tangible and verifiable of all the streams that nourish the soil of the world. . . The college library cannot be neglected or carelessly handled, and yet the highest ends of education be reached. . . How to use books as a discipline; how, as a resource, to arrive by means of them at any needed information; how, as a pleasure, to replenish quickly the channels of enjoyment running low; how to regain the sense of upward movement lost amid daily vexations; how to keep step, life with life, in the march of men, in this growth of power the college library is the most available and purely spiritual resource.”
As he did with so many of the college’s deficiencies, Francis Lynde Stetson addressed this lack directly, by funding a new library. Essentially a byproduct of the creation of U.S. Steel and the fees he earned thereby, Stetson’s library was to be designed by the firm of Cram and Ferguson, following in the style of the recently built Chapin Hall, a gift from fellow Trustee Alfred Clark Chapin.
In his Reflections on the Architecture of Williams College, Prof. Whit Stoddard notes that with Chapin Hall (originally Grace Hall, as a memorial to Chapin’s first wife, but renamed when he remarried) “the College moved into quite a different era of building.” The famous Boston architect Ralph Adams Cram was known as the “father of collegiate gothic,” but on the Williams campus his firm consistently deployed a Georgian Revival style, starting with Williams Hall and the Chapin auditorium, and continuing not just with Stetson Hall but also Sage, Lehman, the heating plant, Adams Memorial Theater, and extensions to Stetson in 1956 and 1962.
Cram first made his name in church architecture, but campus designs for West Point and Princeton, as well as multiple commissions at Williams, Phillips Exeter, and across America, established his firm as the preeminent academic architects of the time. Apparently it was a younger member of the firm, Alexander Hoyle, who designed the key Williams buildings in a Georgian vocabulary, incorporating Colonial elements and the influence of the English Arts and Crafts Movement, characteristically in brick trimmed with buff limestone.
In a recent monograph on Cram and his office, Ethan Anthony writes of the abundant detailing of their designs: “The spiritual and physical welfare of the whole person was Cram’s guiding light. Today, the students who use the buildings — some lovingly preserved for over a hundred years — still delight in observing these small signs of the enduring traditions in which they hope to eventually take their own place.”
At the laying of the cornerstone in October 1920, the Alumni Review described the plans for the building and concluded, “The general effect will be dignified but not over ornate; the designers have attempted throughout to express the dignity proper to a college library structure without any sacrifice of usefulness for its specific purpose.” Then in June 1922 it reported on the building nearing completion, “a structure which, for its size and importance, will rank with the finest college libraries in the country.”
Architecture monthly magazine carried an admiring review of the completed building in August 1923, accompanied by the photographs to which I link in these descriptions. “Splendid” is the operative word, as the adaptation to the falling off of the site’s terrain is praised (a feature that will be exploited further in the planned new building, to hide its bulk behind the Stetson facade.) Note is taken of the architectural solution of two main entrances to denote the two separate libraries within.
“Every effort was made to have the college library function properly, and the disposition of the main elements, the stack and work rooms, delivery room and reading rooms, relates according to the modern library idea of efficiency.” We shall see that idea changing over time, and how the library is now forced by technological, curricular, and other changes to work toward a post-modern ideal. (I began this website by describing and illustrating a tour of Stetson Hall with overlaid visions of its past, present, and future incarnations, which may be revisited here.)
Noting the excellent old Colonial work on campus, and the more recent building “quite faithfully English Georgian in spirit,” the review concludes, “In Stetson Hall an effort was made to design quite freely from American and English precedents without slavish adherence to either, in a effort to make it a transition between the old and new work on the campus.” It is a measure of the building’s success that it will serve as exactly that in the 21st century.
A timeline of Stetson Hall’s development is available here, but I want to focus on one room in particular. The Hamilton Wright Mabie Room was named for Francis Stetson’s roommate and friend, who joined him on the Board of Trustees in 1895 and served till his death in 1916. Mabie was a true disciple of Albert Hopkins and became the genial editor of The Outlook magazine and many works of literature for adults and children. Teddy Roosevelt called him “one of the sweetest tempered and most high-minded men I ever met.” Stetson no doubt wanted to memorialize Mabie in the new library building, but I’m not sure how he envisioned the room’s use.
When the Room first opened, it served to display current periodicals, which it would do again during my own era at the College, but by 1925 alumni donations had adapted it to what was probably the original plan, a resolutely non-academic library for gentlemen, perhaps in fond memory of that long-ago Saturday night reading club for good books beyond the prescribed curriculum.
The Alumni Review of November 1926 commented on the re-opening of the Mabie Room: “It is, to be sure, a gentleman’s room. It has the appearance, equipment, and spirit of a gentleman’s library of the time when the library was the first requisite of aristocracy.” The comment praises the comfort and taste of the furnishings, and the subdued and restful atmosphere, “rich . . . reserved . . . dignified” (ellipses sic!).
The College Librarian W.N.C. Carlton was hardly less explicit in his description of the purpose of the “Mabie Memorial Room”: “The general aim has been to make the Room a quiet retreat where reflective and recreational reading may be indulged in amid an atmosphere of culture and refinement . . . In its book-selection, arrangement, shelving, and furnishings, the Room has been made to resemble as nearly as possible the private library of a cultivated gentleman of wide tastes and interests.”
In conversation, emeritus history professor John Hyde ’52 warned me not to fall, with all this talk of gentlemen, into the stereotype of Williams in the Jazz Age and after as a college for dumb rich kids, and I have to admit my first image of that era is of guys in bearskin coats driving Stutz-Bearcat convertibles. He points out that Williams was too rigorous for the idle rich, and mainly appealed to scions of professional families. Nelson Rockefeller, for example, wanted to come to Williams, after visiting his aunt at Mount Hope Farm, but couldn’t meet the Latin requirement, so had to settle for Dartmouth.
Sometime around World War II, the gentleman’s veneer wore off, and the Mabie Room reverted to its initial function as current periodical room. Though it was ever a quiet and comfortable retreat, it remained the periodical room till the Library moved to Sawyer, when it became the reading room of the College Archives, erstwhile Williamsiana. But this is how the 1937 Library Handbook describes its function: “In order to keep this a purely recreational room, no studying (preparation for class assignments) can be allowed here; and no books may be removed from it if the ideal for which it was created is to be fulfilled. Williams men, who appreciate the privilege which this browsing room represents, will cooperate to prevent its abuse. All are invited to use the room freely, and it is hoped that some of the most happily remembered hours of college life may be spent here.” And in truth, some of mine were. So aside from the snob appeal, it was definitely a room that served its purpose.
I sense there might have been a rear-guard attempt to recapture that snob appeal when the Preston Room was built in the 1957 expansion of Stetson Hall. It was explicitly intended as a smoking room, with more of that richly appointed oak paneling. Highly private for most of its existence, the Preston Room will become the opposite when it is dismantled and reconfigured as the current periodical room in the New Sawyer Library. Always look for the past in the future and the future in the past.
It’s important to remember that two separate libraries have been housed in Stetson Hall since it was built, indeed it was built with two main entrances to reflect the two entities within. The south entrance leads up a marble staircase to the Chapin Library of Rare Books, less in daily use by students but certainly one of the ornaments of the College, and a widely-admired asset that contributes to the enriched educational experience that is Williams. Curiously, Stetson’s investment in the building and Chapin’s in his book collection were at the time of opening evaluated at the same amount — $750,000.
I’m not sure how close Stetson and Chapin were until they reunited on the Board of Trustees when Chapin joined in 1917, but their legal and political careers followed parallel tracks. Alfred Clark Chapin was the last mayor of Brooklyn before it was absorbed into New York City, also Speaker of the State Assembly and Comptroller of New York, later Congressional Representative until stepping away from politics in 1892. Thereafter he seems to have been absorbed by two interlocking interests, amassing a rare book collection and serving as Trustee of the College till 1935, just before his death.
The Alumni Review in July 1923 reported on the formal presentation and opening of Alfred Clark Chapin’s collection the prior month, outlining its strengths in incunabula (15th-century printed books), Americana, English literature, and early printed Bibles. The article comments on Mr. Chapin’s words of introduction: “Where a man might justly have been proud, he was modest; where another might have been full of his achievement, he was unassuming.” And concludes: “Many men have made gifts of libraries; but no man has ever more truly given himself to his Alma Mater than has Alfred Clark Chapin, in choosing with wide understanding and infinite care these books, so rare within and so like jewels without, to be for all time an evidence of his love”
Then College President Harry A. Garfield accepted the gift, saying “It will be for centuries the resort of scholars and an inspiration to students,” and asserting that it would be “neither a book mausoleum nor merely a museum of rare editions,” but a library for careful use and for future growth, with Mr. Chapin providing for both, as well as for the Custodian of the collection, Lucy Eugenia Osborne.
Miss Osborne would remain a fierce partisan of Mr. Chapin and protector of his collection for many years. In the Library Journal of 2/15/24, she rhapsodically described the main exhibition room as having “exceptional dignity and charm” and “beautiful proportions”: “It is two stories in height, rising to a vaulted ceiling of Wedgwood blue, crossed by decorations of white plaster relief of fine detail and great delicacy. The floor is of pink Tennessee marble, with a border of the same marble in gray. The upper portion of the walls is tinted pale bisque, with decorative inset panels of white plaster relief. The lower walls are of rich yellow, harmonizing with the low bookcases of Tiffany bronze. The room is lighted by high windows on the south side, the deep casings beautifully ornamented with relief work in the style of the Adam period, which is followed throughout.”
After detailing some of the treasures of the collection, she turns to the collector himself: “Seldom, perhaps never before, has a work of such significance, involving the gathering of some nine thousand rare volumes, been carried on so quietly. The successful achievement of Mr. Chapin’s generous impulse reveals his knowledge and taste . . . To the assembling of the volumes Mr. Chapin brought the same qualities which have always characterized his career as a man of affairs, whether as lawyer, legislator, or executive. To a definite intention and a clear purpose he has added an alertness in obtaining treasures at the right moment and an astuteness in his choice of agents in the rare-book field.”
More on the history of the Chapin Library may be found here, but for my purposes the concluding words are delivered by Mr. Chapin himself. In a letter to the Alumni Review of March 1926, he took umbrage at a student’s prize essay, which deprecated the slogan “Gentleman’s College” as applied to Williams and complained that no such definition could include “that spirit of criticism, that love of truth, and the interest in making the world better which are qualities that a man educated for truth must possess.” In reply, Chapin went on — and on — to quote Cardinal Newman’s Definition of a Gentleman.
To pluck out the salient point: “The true gentleman carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast; — all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make everyone at their ease and at home. . . If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, though less educated minds, which, like blunt instruments, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it. He may be right or wrong in his opinion, but he is too clear-headed to be unjust, he is as simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive.”
Whether or not such an ideal still has any appeal, I think it’s safe to say it’s long past as a model for Williams College. And yet there is still something to be carried forward, into yet another incarnation of the evolving Williams ideal in the tangible reality of bricks and mortar, as the farsighted legacies of the esteemed gentlemen, Francis Lynde Stetson and Alfred Clark Chapin, are brought forward into a new century and a renewed library building.