Discover Historic Williamstown! Week 4

Posted by on May 20, 2020 in Talks | Comments Off on Discover Historic Williamstown! Week 4

Discover Historic Williamstown!  Week 4

Discover Historic Williamstown!  Week 4

This week’s site is easy to find.  West College was the original building housing the Free School donated to the town in Ephraim Williams’ will, which became Williams College in 1793. You will find it on Main Street, across from the Williams College President’s house.

In this photo, c. 1850, you are looking from the east toward West College, from somewhere between Water Street and Spring Street from the north side of Main Street.

The Free School was conceived by Colonel Ephraim Williams, and described in his will for the direct benefit of the children of the soldiers who had served under him in one or other of the forts of the old French line.

The nine trustees empowered to establish the Free School in Williamstown met for the first time on April 24, 1785, in Pittsfield, and discovered that the $9,157 left by Williams’ was in no way sufficient.

In August, the Building Committee suggested that the “old lime-kilns” where Griffin Hall was eventually sited in 1828, would be a good location for the school, but the protruding rocks were deemed too difficult to level, as indeed they eventually proved to be.

A site directly across Main Street to the south, where the college built their second building in 1797, was also considered. But eventually the Committee decided on the site “south of William Horsford’s house” where General Sloan eventually built the house that has been home to the presidents of Williams College since 1858.

At the second meeting of the trustees, in August 1785 the trustees set out the dimensions of the building, but by May of 1788, when the following plans were announced, nothing had been built. Finances, clearing and leveling rocks, siting a sufficient well, and dealing with a lawsuit brought by the citizens of Adams [now North Adams], claiming that Williams’ had also intended that a Free School be erected in their community, were among the issues causing delay.

“That the house for the use of the Free School in Williamstown be constructed of brick, and be of the following dimensions, namely, seventy-two feet in length and forty feet in breadth, from inside to inside, three stories in height, with four stacks of chimneys and a bevel roof ; that said house be erected on the eminence east of the meeting-house, and south of Mr. William Horsford’s dwelling-house, on the south side of the highway; — provided the sum of five hundred pounds be paid or secured to be paid, to the said Corporation for the use of the said School.”

Finally, on May 26, 1790 the trustees voted: Taking into consideration the importance and necessity of erecting without delay the building intended for the use of said school ; and Colonel [Tompson Joseph] Skinner having this day engaged to sink the well already begun, and partly dug, on the western eminence where the house was ordered…to be placed, and to level the said western eminence sufficient to accommodate the building,— do resolve, that the committee appointed to superintend and direct in the erection of said building shall proceed to set up said building, on said eminence, without delay.”

The trustees, in their 1792 Petition to the General Court of Massachusetts, describe West College as “a large and convenient brick building within the said town of Williamstown, with lodging and study rooms sufficient to accommodate one hundred students, besides a common School-room sufficient for sixty scholars, a Dining room that will accommodate one hundred persons, a Hall for public academical exercises, and a Room for a library, apparatus, &c., the whole being nearly finished.”

David Noble donated a bell, which was rung to signal chapel, study hours, recitations, and evening prayers.

In 1793 the cupola and the top floor were finished, the hall divided by a partition “so as to make two rooms for the Students,” and a lightning rod was added.

Although the interior of West College has been reconstructed due to fire and various renovations, the shell of the building is original.

Where’s the water?

West College never had a well of its own, and never enjoyed a legal right of access to any neighboring well, although the Whitmans (successors to William Horsford) by courtesy allowed its roomers for considerable stretches of time to use the old well. There are two copious natural springs not very far apart from each other on the low ground to the southeast of the West College, from one or other of which the students supplied themselves for the most part till the middle of the nineteenth century.

When [Arthur Latham Perry, Williams class of 1852] as a freshman became a roomer in West College in 1848, there was a well-worn path diagonally across what was then called “Deacon Skinner’s meadow” on which there was not then a building of any kind, leading to what has now long been called the “Walden Spring.” At the same time there was opened a new and narrow street directly down to this spring southerly from Main Street, and consequently named “Spring Street.”

This 1889 Burleigh Lithograph of Williamstown shows West College (red x at far left) and Spring Street (red x near center). Remnants of the “diagonal path” between the two can still be seen here.

About the middle of the [19th] century… the Williamstown Water Company brought water from the “Cold Spring” to the village residences and near to the college buildings.

This wooden water pipe, shaped like a railroad tie with a hole bored through the center, is likely from the first set of pipes carrying water from Cold Spring into town. Wooden pipes were replaced by iron pipes in 1876.

What do we know about the Free School that existed in the West College building from 1790-1793?

Two departments of instruction were established at first : an English free school with students recruited from the higher classes in the town schools, such as these then were ; and a grammar school or academy, to which a yearly tuition of thirty-five shillings was charged.

Only two teachers were provided at first for both schools, a preceptor and his assistant; an usher was afterward added.

Only two Williamstown boys – Daniel Kellogg and Billy J. Clark, a grandson of Colonel Benjamin Simonds – are positively known to have been trained at the Free School, and while both became distinguished men, neither of them graduated from the College.

When the school became a college by an act of the Legislature in 1793, the common department, which was entirely free, fell at once into “innocuous desuetude;” but the tuitioned grammar department continued for a few years as a sort of preparatory school for the College, before it too closed.

Many of the citizens of Williamstown deprecated the action of the General Court in transforming the school into a college to the utter loss of Ephraim Williams’ original intention.

The 19th century saw many changes to the West College building.

In 1829 three students try to burn it down. William O. Parker & Stephen Thayer “concerned in firing the West College” were expelled, and Nathan T. Rosseter was “sent from college in disgrace.” (Records of the Faculty, 1821-1871).

As the College built more buildings to serve specific purposes – chapel, library, dining halls, etc. – more and more space in West College was converted to student living space.

In 1855 a major remodeling of the building saw the East-West hallway replaced by non-communicating entrances at the North and South ends. The annual commencement day march through that hallway had been referred to as going “through college.”

In 1871 the brick exterior of West College was painted yellow in a “renewal of youth and freshness,” according to the Williams Vidette.

The lighter color of the building can be discerned in this 1898 photo by Alexander Davidson (original in the Williams College Archives). The Davidson photo, taken from Lab Campus Drive, shows the stairs in place before the construction of Hopkins Gate.

To West College
…For every one
Who in the past has found a home in thee,
And for the countless students yet to be,
Whom thou shalt shelter from the rain and sun,
We love thee, old West College
– J. B. Pratt (Williams Class of 1898)
Williams Literary Monthly, April 1896

The West College building was gutted right down to its brick shell twice in the 20th century.

North Adams Transcript, June 8, 1904

In 1904 everything except for the exterior walls was demolished and rebuilt with “all the necessities and luxuries of a College dormitory” according to the Williams Record, although one letter-to-the-editor judged the renovation: “as dangerously threaten[ing] the democratic spirit in Williams College.”

North Adams Transcript, July 1, 1904

In December 1904, fire escapes were placed on the building.

In 1928, after 57 years, the yellow paint was finally sand-blasted off the brick exterior.

Then on January 2, 1951 a devastating fire gutted the building. Three students who had returned early from vacation escaped with their lives, and all the residents lost their belongings.

North Adams Transcript, January 2, 1951

The $225,000 renovation wasn’t complete until the 1952-1953 academic year. The architectural firm Perry, Shaw, Hepburn, Kehoe, and Dean assured the North Adams Transcript that from the outside, the building looked “exactly as it was in 1790.” Inside, there were fireproof stairways, rooms for 48 upperclassmen, and a vault in the basement for College records.

A “West College Room” built from salvaged timbers, was added to the Alumni House, now known as The Log.

Can you find the historic site marker for West College and the building? If you find it, please photograph the marker, the building and anything around it and email your photos to [email protected] so we can add your images to our collection of recent photographs of historic sites in our ever changing town.

If you would like to visit other sites in this series, click on the button below.  Please be safe, enjoy yourselves, and have fun!

Historic Marker Scavenger Hunt