ALMA MATER: Design and Experience in the Women Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz
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ALMA MATER: Design and Experience in the Women Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s

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An intriguing topic beautifully executed. Scripps historian Horowitz considers the design of the seven sisters colleges, and their descendents (Sarah Lawrence, Bennington, Scripps), in relation to attitudes toward women's education. She convincingly demonstrates that the separate college histories form one subject, as architectural experiments at one influenced developments at another. Further, she shows how students and faculty found their own purposes for the campus landscape--often counter to those of architects and administrators. The evolutionary process started with Mt. Holyoke (1837), modeled after the orderly, hierarchical asylum. Thus, Mary Lyons' female seminary ""broke into a woman's life, previously governed by natural rhythms, and imposed on it the new order of her father and brother."" By contrast with Mt. Holyoke's modest aims and economical structures, Matthew Vassar insisted on a grander architecture, pouring money into a central hall with ""the form of a Charity Hospital and the facade of a French palace,"" ill-fitted to the existing college curriculum and protective governance of students. Smith College, learning from Vassar's mistakes, adopted the cottage system (a domestic model also integrating students into town life), which soon became the vogue--except for Radcliffe, then an annex and content to stay that way. (""In the liberal, urbane world of Cambridge, the women's colleges carried the taint of sectarian provinciality."") Only when Bryn Mawr, under M. Carey Thomas, adopted the British-university model in its Jacobean architecture and unabashedly Ivy League curriculum, did Barnard and Radcliffe embark on ambitious buildings programs. Subsequently, quadrangles proliferated. The old, supposedly protective models of seminary and cottage had never fully managed to protect the students' femininity; in this single-sex community, students replicated the hierarchical relationships of the outside world, with older students taking ""the manly part."" While ""smashes"" or ""crushes"" among female students aroused concern in the 19th century, their interests and activities in the post-WWI years turned ""outward toward men."" The colleges' dominant response to new social trends has been in academic and extra-curricular programs, not in changing the architectural landscape. In attempting to ""make the material forms remaining . . .intelligible to this age,"" Horowitz achieves a complex intermesh of physical structure and women's personal aims.

Pub Date: Sept. 25th, 1984
Publisher: Knopf