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The Dartmouth
May 22, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Classical models inspire many Dartmouth architects

Although cozy, snowy Hanover may seem the polar opposite of the sunny Greek isles and the thriving metropolis of ancient Rome, many Dartmouth buildings were inspired by these great civilizations. From the intimidating, powerful ambiance of Parkhurst Hall to Webster Hall's inspiring dome, little visions of Greece and Rome cover the campus.

A classical building, according to classics professor Roger Ulrich is "one that in some ways evokes the ideas of Greece and/or Rome."

A classical influence can most easily be seen in buildings that, according to art history Professor Marlene Heck appear "temple-like."

Heck pointed out features such as porticos, which are porch-type structures consisting of a roof supported by regularly placed columns, as examples of classical elements present in Dartmouth buildings.

She also mentioned balusters, pillars with curved edges that create bulging effects and pilasters, rectangular columns that make a building appear to be classically influenced, as examples of classical influence on Dartmouth buildings.

Ulrich added that a building can feel classical even if it simply has a balance or proportions similar to Greek or Roman buildings, or if it is made from certain materials, such as cut stone.

The College on The Hill

As Dartmouth struggled to establish itself as a preeminent academic institution, the College often relied heavily on the magnificence of Greek and Roman designs to let the world know that it had arrived.

Though all of the buildings surrounding the Green have some degree of influence from classical architecture, Webster Hall, the home of Rauner Special Collections Library, is the most striking example.

Ulrich said that Reed Hall was another excellent example of Greek Revival architecture from the 1840s "even though it may not look Greek at first."

However, Reed's proportions, and the pilasters partially-embedded in the facade make it fit Heck's definition of "temple-like."

Though the vast majority of buildings at Dartmouth have some form of classical influence, several built between the Second World War and the beginning of coeducation depart from the traditional Dartmouth design.

Though much of Dartmouth is classically influenced, Ulrich said that, "In some ways we are rather restrained at Dartmouth in terms of classical monuments."

Ulrich noted that Dartmouth does not have a "great domed building" such as the "Pantheon" at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Columbia University's library.

Webster Hall was supposed to be the home of Dartmouth's "great dome" but after Dartmouth Hall burned down in the early 20th century, the money for the dome had to be diverted to rebuilding Dartmouth Hall.

"Another important architectural revival virtually missing from our campus is Gothic," Ulrich said.

Ulrich said that the Gothic style -- a style of architecture from Western Europe in the 12th through the 16th centuries characterized by pointed arches -- was very important for many of Dartmouth's peer universities, such as Yale University.

However, Dartmouth has tried to maintain the feel of a small college and thus has not invested in imposing Gothic architecture.

Heck also said that different types of classical architecture evoke different feelings from buildings.

Webster Hall "really stands out" in part because it is designed in the Corinthian style, the most ornate and the most expensive of the four Greek orders and therefore a style only used for the most important classical buildings.

Parkhurst Hall, home to offices of many of the top administrators including College President James Wright, is in the Doric style -- the oldest of the Greek orders -- which according to Heck is the "most sober, the most formal. This in many ways symbolizes the formality of the kinds of business conducted inside this building."

Mistakes We Knew We Were Making

After World War II, many of the newer buildings around campus abandoned the classical influence and reflected a more modernist esthetic.

The Hopkins Center, the Choates, the River Cluster, the Gerry/Bradley Complex and Berry Library all depart from the traditional classical designs of the College.

The influence of classical designs on architecture runs so deep, however, that many of these buildings even have touches of classicism in them.

Ulrich noted that the Hop has "its own references to the classical past," most notably the faade, which is a "reminder of great Roman engineering feats" such as the great aqueducts.

"The modernist buildings of campus have been a failure. The very fact that they make no reference to the past alienates them from a campus that is steeped in history and tradition."

"So what happens? Gerry is being pulled down. Kiewit is gone. The River Cluster dorms are in the cross-hairs," Ulrich said.

Heck also felt that the buildings without a classical influence tended to "hit a false note" and feel out of place on campus.

The Social Significance of Classicism

According to both Ulrich and Heck, classical architecture is a technique used to signify the most important or the most influential buildings in a given area.

Both pointed out the classical style of many of the buildings on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., as examples of places where classical architecture was used to show power and importance.

"We can imagine a bank building or the Supreme Court as classical 'temples' that safeguard our laws," said Ulrich.

Ulrich and Heck also both mentioned Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia as one that was very heavily influenced by Greek and Roman styles.

"Greek architectural themes evoke the cradle of democracy: classical Athens. What better style for the early years of the new United States?" Ulrich said of the popularity of classical revivals in the early years of the United States.

Heck said that classical architecture has come to stand for "permanence and importance," and it was important to the builders of the United States Capitol that the new nation have a feeling of permanence in its headquarters.