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Winter 1999-2000
Vol. 62, No. 2

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Features

Planting a College at Rochester

Beside the Genesee


Beside the Genesee, early years: Long before the "beloved college home" was situated here, the River Campus site was prosperous farmland.


One hundred and fifty years ago--in rented rooms, with a faculty and students largely pinched from a neighboring college--a new "university" put down fragile roots in the young city of Rochester, New York. Here's how it all started, adapted from a forthcoming pictorial history tracing from that less than auspicious beginning the evolution of today's world-class University of Rochester.

By Jan LaMartina Waxman

Full many fair and famous streams
Beneath the sun there be,
Yet more to us than any seems
Our own dear Genesee.


So begins the first verse of the alma mater of the University of Rochester, written by Thomas Thackeray Swinburne, Class of 1892. Odd that Swinburne should write lyrics about a "beloved college home beside the Genesee," when that home was situated far from the river's banks at the time he wrote the song.

The River Campus, dedicated in 1930, was actually the University of Rochester's third college home, the infant school having occupied rented space in a downtown hotel when it first began life 80 years before. But this college's story doesn't begin with rented rooms in the United States Hotel either. It doesn't even begin in Rochester.

Although there had been some earlier attempts to establish a local college in that thriving young city, there was little result until, in the late 1840s, a group of dissidents at Madison University in Hamilton, New York, began advocating its transplantation to Rochester, some 100 miles to the west.

A farm town in the Chenango Valley of Upstate New York, Hamilton was isolated, both geographically and culturally, and not as--well--cosmopolitan as Rochester. The "Flour City" was a boom town back then, enjoying steady economic growth thanks to its power-giving river and busy canal. You might say the city was rising like the nutrient-rich dough produced from its cardinal commodity.

According to Frederick W. Holland, minister of the Rochester Unitarian Church during the 1840s, this "emporium of the flour business" had blossomed as "one of the handsomest flowers in the land." Rochester was the perfect place for a college: a refined, fertile, and ready field.

A leader in promoting Madison's relocation was one of its own trustees, John Wilder, an Albany businessman who has been described as possessing "natural effervescence, cultural interests . . . and a comfortable inheritance." Enthusiastically plugging the move, Wilder declared in an 1847 pronouncement:

"We are advocating [Madison's] removal on the ground of its location, its dilapidated buildings, the badness of the roads leading to it, the smallness of its own library, its distance from other large libraries, . . . the incompetence of its local board, the ability of its faculty some of whom we fear cannot be retained unless something is done immediately, etc., etc. Rochester we advocate as the center of a large, wealthy, intelligent population."

A group of Rochester Baptists joined Wilder in raising funds for the proposed relocation, but Hamilton residents fought back. Dispute led to suit, and in the end, the determination of those in favor of leaving the hometown college in situ prevailed. Dilapidated buildings or not, Madison would not be moved. (Disproving Wilder's gloomy assessment, it remained to prosper under the new name of Colgate University.)

The breakaway faction did not acquiesce quietly. Instead, they re-energized to build a college of their own by filching some of Madison's finest faculty and financial resources. Since Madison would not be transplanted, the Rochester adherents gathered and scattered fresh seeds--creating hybrids, you might say--by interplanting rudiments of old Madison with the ideals of a progressive city university. Many of the University of Rochester's first trustees, professors, and students had Madison roots, but they ultimately grew to see light in Rochester, New York.

Although the founding of the University cannot be wholly attributed to one person, it was Wilder who again took the lead. In 1849, he packed his bags and moved to Rochester the better to proselytize the locals--and sold his idea to the city and its generous Baptists.

Elected president of the seedling university's board of trustees, Wilder proposed to raise $130,000, three-quarters of this amount to form a permanent endowment. On January 31, 1850, the Regents of the University of the State of New York issued a conditional charter, with the stipulation that it would expire if the money wasn't realized in two years.

This turned out to be an impossible task, although not for want of earnest trying, as described by one of the solicitors: "I myself went with Messrs. Wilder and Sage . . . from store to store and from house to house, in city and country soliciting subscriptions to the University."

Despite the absence of a permanent charter, the trustees took out a three-year lease on the former United States Hotel in downtown Rochester. (Still standing today on West Main Street, the four-story building had by 1850 also seen service as a manual training school, a young ladies' seminary, and a railroad station.)

With an investment of some $1,500 for renovations and simple furnishings, the University quickly converted the structure to suitable quarters for the new school. Large areas were partitioned off to accommodate recitation rooms and a library, and a chapel (fittingly, perhaps, in this Baptist-dominated institution) replaced the tavern dining room. The University--though it took an official position against dormitories--reserved space on the upper floors to lodge out-of-town students. The janitor and his family resided in the building and provided meal service to resident students for 75 cents a week--delivered.

A faculty of eight was gathered--Asahel C. Kendrick (Greek), John F. Richardson (Latin), John H. Raymond (history and literature), Chester Dewey (natural sciences), John S. Maginnis (intellectual and moral philosophy), Thomas J. Conant (Hebrew), E. Peshine Smith (mathematics and natural philosophy), and Albert H. Mixer (history and modern languages).

Admission requirements were few but firm, writes University historian Arthur May, to wit, "demonstrated intellectual talent; unimpeachable morals and a reputation for piety; and a minimum age of fourteen." Sixty-five undergraduates (many of them transplants from Madison) were on the roster the first day of classes--all of them required to come up with a strapping $30 a year for tuition.

With a convocation ceremony on Tuesday, November 5, 1850, the University of Rochester officially opened its doors for the business of educating young men. According to meteorological observations kept by Professor Dewey, the wind that day was southwest; the temperature was 59 at 7 a.m., 74 at 2 p.m., 62 at 9 p.m., "a beautiful summer's day."

This new university--like so many others at the time--was founded in a sectarian tradition. But, although sponsored by some of the Baptist church's most loyal traditionalists, it was never strictly denominational: The provisional charter specified "an independent, non-sectarian institution of higher learning . . . for scientific and classical betterment." From the earliest years, Rochester opened her maternal arms to conservative and liberal Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.

Sectarian or not, demeanor and moral character were woven into the web of University life. For many years, students and faculty (Roman Catholics and Jews the only exceptions) were required to attend daily chapel. A College Day of Prayer was observed annually.

The professors, among them the ablest members of Madison's faculty, took a fatherly interest in getting their new students off to a strong start. Several supplied books to the library from their personal collections, and by the end of its first year the book room had more than a thousand volumes on hand. (The first purchased volume, unsurprisingly, was a Bible.)

This early faculty spent considerable time reviewing curriculum and concluded that a comprehensive examination at the close of each term would best document student performance. Seniors, after a rigorous four years at the school, would submit to the grandfather of comprehensive exams at the end of their college careers--proof positive that they had met the challenges of a balanced and broad Rochester education. Further, in a notably progressive move for a denominational school, the curriculum allowed for an unusual number of elective courses during the last two years.

On Wednesday, July 9, 1851, led in procession by James Noble, the popular school janitor, the first class of 10 was ceremoniously graduated in the city's grand Corinthian Hall. While an audience of 1,600 awaited the graduates at the civic auditorium, thousands lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the academic entourage marching through the city to the beat of Scott's Brass Band. Henry Ward Beecher, celebrated orator and abolitionist, was Rochester's first Commencement speaker. He spoke on the subject of "Character."

After this most public exhibition of pomp, it was clear the University of Rochester had at last settled and favorably delivered. And it would continue to grow full and well in a city that had awaited its arrival like a proud, expectant parent.

For his constancy and dedication, John Wilder had been offered the first presidency of the University. He declined, claiming business and family responsibilities, and Rochester operated without a president for its first three years.

A trustee by the name of Ira Harris assumed the role of chancellor, which he held until his death in 1875. In Harris's later years largely a ceremonial position, it consisted mostly of showing up at Commencement.

The search for a president ended on July 1, 1853, when Martin Brewer Anderson agreed to take on the job. He was then 38 years old and would serve loyally into his mid-70s, having staunchly greeted and overcome the challenges that go along with raising a young school.

Co-editor of a popular Baptist periodical, the New York Recorder, Anderson had at first hesitated to accept the Rochester offer. It has been said that despite his promise as a fine teacher (he had earlier taught at Newton Theological Institute), Anderson knew his limitations and felt intellectually inferior to the University's faculty. Furthermore, a few trustees, among them Wilder, had their own doubts about Anderson at the helm. Despite these reservations, the board, which had been trying for three years to attract a chief executive, unanimously elected him to the presidency at an annual salary of $1,800.

Once in place, the new chief was in fact well received by students and faculty alike. A Maine Stater whose demeanor reflected the rockbound character of his native turf, Anderson has been portrayed as "a man of commanding presence and sometimes thundering voice." (His twice-weekly chapel talks were said to have spellbound the students. "The boys look on with awe," one of them reported. "I feel as I did on viewing Niagara Falls.")

Two years before Anderson's arrival the University, in 1851, had received its formal charter--with the condition that it secure the still-unrealized $100,000 endowment in the next five years. When that didn't happen, a five-year extension followed, and only in January of 1861 was a permanent charter granted.

By that time, despite continuing shaky finances (fundraising was never Anderson's strong suit), enrollment had soared to around 140 students. There it would remain throughout the Anderson presidency in consonance with his basic philosophy that "the proper work of an American college cannot be accomplished where there are in attendance over two hundred students." Specific numbers aside, it was a sentiment that would find resonance with later generations of University administrators.

The year of the permanent charter was the same year that the University of Rochester would vacate its improvised quarters at the United States Hotel and move into a proper college home. It found it in a "salubrious district" at the eastern edge of the city.

The original acreage that was to make up the picturesque Prince Street campus was, according to legend, trustee Azariah Boody's dandelion-strewn cow pasture. Other accounts describe it as a wooded area. In any case, in 1853, Boody donated eight acres of land to the University and later sold 17 more to make up the original parcel--a spacious and scenic property for a growing school.

With a $25,000 legislative appropriation for its construction, Rochester's first academic building was completed in 1861. On November 23, the stately sandstone structure with mansard roof was dedicated and with gratitude named Anderson Hall.

In time, more buildings followed. In 1877, a library, made possible by the gift of Hiram Sibley--a founder of Western Union--was completed. A hands-on donor who personally hired contractors and made daily visits to the construction site, Sibley gave the building conditionally--insistent that the library be open to all Rochester citizens, whether or not they had a University affiliation.

The building was Rochester's first "fireproof structure," but overheating didn't seem to be a problem there. One student from the Class of 1877 later gave a chilling account of the heating mechanism: "I found it necessary to wear such heavy underwear and suits of clothing that I needed no overcoat outdoors, except in the severest weather."

Despite continued financial worries and the setback of the Civil War, which had taken away many students and faculty (some never to return), the young college continued to progress in consonance with its motto, Meliora, which urged the pursuit of "better things."

The curriculum expanded, with broadened course offerings in modern languages, mathematics, and the natural sciences, and, as well, hygiene, political science, and the history of art (at the time a novelty in collegiate circles). By 1879, the library had grown to 19,000 volumes. A new faculty, among them stalwarts with names like Dewey, Morey, Lattimore, and Burton, had taken the place of the original eight.

Adding flavor to undergraduate life, a student yearbook, Interpres, was introduced in 1859, and in 1873 the student-run University Record (now the Campus Times) appeared. The Coquette Boat Club was launched at the beginning of the '60s, followed, informally (Anderson didn't approve of organized "muscular sports"), by baseball in the 1870s and football in the '80s. It was noted, gratefully, that inter-class baseball games diminished the rowdy fights between rival classes that had plagued University disciplinarians for years.

Unlike sports, fraternities were present at the University's creation: Thirteen Alpha Delta Phi initiates had transferred from Madison and in 1851 met for the first time as a corporate body in the janitor's quarters in the converted United States Hotel. Delta Psi, Delta Kappa Epsilon, Psi Upsilon, and Delta Upsilon followed within a few years.

Madison transfers also were responsible for another early Rochester society: In 1853, even before the first freshman class graduated, transfer students from the Classes of '51 and '52 met to organize an alumni association, one of the earliest in the country.

By 1878, Anderson's 25th year in the presidency, an accounting showed that the ranks of those early alumni had grown to include 746 men--among them 181 ministers, 119 lawyers, 19 physicians, 90 teachers and professors, 155 businessmen, and 2 professional scientists.

Notable among those who achieved prominence were Henry Strong '54, president of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad; Rear Admiral William Harkness '58, head of the national Naval Observatory; General Elwell Otis '58, military governor of the Philippines; William Stoddard '58, private secretary to President Lincoln; George Selden '65, credited as the inventor of the "horseless carriage"; college presidents Galusha Anderson '54 (Chicago), James Taylor '68 (Vassar), and Merrill Gates '70 and George Olds '73 (Amherst); U.S. Congressman J. Sloan Fassett '75; pediatrician Luther Holt '75, celebrated as the Dr. Spock of his era; and Francis Bellamy '76, author of the Pledge of Allegiance.

In 1888, aging and in ill health, Martin B. Anderson submitted his resignation as president.

Notwithstanding the development of substantial new facilities and sturdy academic offerings (and a lustrous alumni roster), Anderson expressed some disappointment that his tenure had not accomplished all he had hoped for on his arrival 36 years earlier.

But at his retirement he took with him a quiet satisfaction--that his vision and the foundation he established at Rochester would be the springboard for what would one day become a great university. In his words:

"Our university is new. It is untrammeled by precedents. It holds itself ready to adopt every improvement which the activity of the future shall unfold."


Jan LaMartina Waxman '81N, associate editor/writer in the Office of University Public Relations, is the author of a forthcoming pictorial history of the University from which this article has been adapted.
Unless otherwise credited, the pictures reproduced here are courtesy of Rare Books and Special Collections, Rush Rhees Library.
For information on how you may obtain your copy of the book, see the Alumni Association Announcement.

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