When fourteen-year-old Henry Wadsworth Longfellow entered Bowdoin College in 1821, he joined fellow future author Nathaniel Hawthorne in the Class of 1825. The student who aspired to a profession in literature honed his skills as a member of the Peucinian Society, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and wrote his commencement oration about America’s native writers.
When Bowdoin’s trustees decided to establish a chair of modern languages in 1825, they offered Longfellow the position, suggesting that he study in Europe first. When his grand tour concluded, he joined Bowdoin’s faculty in 1829, earning an extra $100 to be the college’s librarian for one hour each day. In 1836, Longfellow left Bowdoin for Harvard.
Those are just some of the fascinating facts I discovered about Bowdoin College during an overnight stay in Brunswick, Maine.
Founded in 1794, the college offered Maine families a more accessible place than Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts for their sons to continue their education. Maine legislators selected Brunswick as the site, while the Bowdoins, a family who emigrated from France and later included a governor of Massachusetts, provided the land and money.
Bowdoin College has a lovely campus that’s perfect for an afternoon walk. Acres of pine trees, remnants of Maine’s old-growth forests, shelter walking trails leading to Brunswick’s cemetery and were once coveted by shipbuilders for their long, straight trunks. No wonder the Peucinians’ motto was Pinos loquentes semper habemus (“We always have the whispering pines”).
In 1844, the college’s quadrangle of original dormitories and academic buildings was complemented by a chapel that also housed the college’s library; the art collection that the Bowdoin family had bequeathed to the college, displayed in picture and sculpture galleries; and a meeting room and study for its president. Richard Upjohn designed an imposing, yet simple and affordable stone structure in the Romanesque style, with twin towers and tall arched windows. Its interior recalls an English collegiate chapel, with black walnut woodwork and 14 mural paintings by German artisans that copied great religious paintings from the past, such as those by Michelangelo and Raphael.
The college’s art collection was a tremendous resource, but it was of such quantity that it totally covered the walls and took over the floors of its allotted space in the chapel. When the Walker sisters from Boston approached Bowdoin in 1891 about donating a building in memory of their uncle that would be devoted exclusively to art, they knew exactly where they wanted the building to stand, what it should look like, and which architectural firm should get the job: McKim, Mead and White.
Envisioning that their building would be the place on campus, the sisters chose a rise on the south end of the grounds, then turned it over to Charles Follen McKim, who was juggling concurrent commissions like the Boston Public Library, the Rhode Island State House and the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In keeping with the firm’s signature Classical Revival look, McKim created a balanced, symmetrical building, situating it on a terrace with broad steps to magnify the rise of the site. Inside, lunette murals by John La Farge and other artists represent artistic centers like Rome, Venice, Florence and Athens.
Other noted Bowdoin graduates include United States President Franklin Pierce and Admiral Robert Peary, whose 1912 exploration of the North Pole led the college to choose the polar bear as its mascot. In 1938, the Class of 1912 installed a sculpture of a polar bear on the campus on the occasion of its 25th reunion.
Harriet Beecher Stowe and her family moved to Brunswick when her husband, Calvin, accepted a teaching position at Bowdoin in 1850. While attending a communion service at First Parish Church in Brunswick the following year, she experienced a vision of a slave dying and was inspired to write about racial injustice in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
For more, read The Architecture of Bowdoin College, by Patricia McGraw Anderson; The History, Art, and Architecture of the Bowdoin College Chapel; Under the Bowdoin Pines: A Second Collection of Short Stories of Life at Bowdoin College Written by Bowdoin Men, selected and published by John Clair Minot; and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Portland: The Fireside Poet of Maine, by John William Babin and Allan M. Levinsky.
Watch the “Citizen Soldier” vignette in Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary to learn about Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a member of Bowdoin’s class of 1852, who later taught rhetoric and modern languages at Bowdoin, received the Medal of Honor during battles fought in the Civil War, and was chosen by Ulysses Grant to receive Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Chamberlain eventually became governor of Maine and president of Bowdoin. His unique house still stands at 226 Maine Street in Brunswick.
Feeling a little peckish? Pair apple cider with a glazed twist from Frosty’s Donut Shop from Brunswick, and you’ll have a perfect mid-morning snack.