The history of Wagner begins over one hundred years ago, in 1883, with the founding of the Lutheran Proseminary of Rochester, N.Y. With just six students, housed in the second story of a private home, the school began its mission of preparing future Lutheran ministers for admission to seminary. Wagner received the name it bears today shortly after its founding. When John G. Wagner gave $12,000 to the school so that it could purchase a new campus, the grateful board of trustees renamed the school in memory of their benefactor’s son, George Wagner, who had died before realizing his own ambition to become a minister.
As the school grew in reputation and size, the New York Ministerium, a Lutheran church organization in control of Wagner since 1888, recognized the need to find a new home for the institution and placed the Reverend Frederic Sutter, one of Wagner’s first graduates, in charge of the relocation. Pastor Sutter, a lifelong supporter of Wagner College, had established his own ministry on Staten Island in 1907. Through Sutter’s efforts, Wagner College relocated to Grymes Hill on Staten Island in 1918. Pastor Sutter could not have chosen a more beautiful site for this new beginning. The new campus found a home on the 38-acre former country estate of 19th century shipping magnate Sir Edward Cunard. This breathtaking site overlooks the New York harbor, Manhattan and the Atlantic Ocean, an ideal location for the start of Wagner’s modern history.
With Wagner’s move to Staten Island came a new era in the history of the College. Wagner College became well-known for its liberal arts curriculum and, as a result, grew in enrollment. Construction of a new building began in 1929 to accommodate this growth, providing classroom space for these new students. Main Hall, dedicated in 1930, remains today one of Wagner’s most picturesque buildings. The lawn in front of Main Hall was christened Sutter Oval in gratitude for Pastor Sutter’s important contributions to the College. Sutter Gymnasium (now part of the Spiro Sports Center) was added next to Main Hall in 1951.
The college community grew again in 1933 when women enrolled at Wagner for the first time. By this time, Wagner had become a well-established institution on Staten Island, and deservedly gained a reputation as such. During the 1940s, another of Staten Island’s famous residents distinguished the College with a gift. Well-known poet Edwin Markham (made famous worldwide for his poem, “The Man With the Hoe”) willed his entire library of over 10,000 volumes to Wagner.
Over the next three decades, Wagner embarked on an aggressive building campaign to keep pace with the growth of its academic reputation and enrollment. Wagner’s three residence halls — Guild Hall, Harbor View, and Towers — now house students from over thirty different states and 10 different countries. Megerle Science Hall and Spiro Communications Center house science and computer labs and one of only three planetariums in New York City open to the public. Our nationally recognized theater program showcases the talents of Wagner’s students in our Main Stage theater, the Main Hall auditorium, and our studio performance space, Stage One. Wagner’s Division I athletic programs highlight our students’ achievements in 19 sports. Wagner’s more recent additions — the 90,000-square-foot Spiro Sports Center, a new football stadium, and the Foundation Hall residence facility — continue to attract the community, alumni, and friends of the College to campus.
In the fall of 1998, Wagner instituted a new curriculum, called the Wagner Plan for the Practical Liberal Arts, and the latest piece of Wagner’s history began. This newest addition to the liberal arts core curriculum is designed to enhance our academic program by combining practical experience and classroom learning. We call this program “Learning by Doing”. Our curriculum has brought Wagner much attention and has been cited by the American Association of Colleges and Universities as a national case study exemplar.
Today, over 2,000 students in more than 30 academic programs and four graduate departments make up the Wagner College community, which is ranked by U.S. News and World Report among the Top 25 regional colleges and universities in the northeast, continuing its tradition of academic excellence into the 21st century.
Wagner College is intimately connected to Grymes Hill, the community to which it belongs today, and its history is tied to that of the borough of Staten Island and the city of New York. Staten Island has always played an important role in the history of the New York Harbor. Looking out over the harbor of New York from Grymes Hill today, it is easy to imagine why so many of New York’s wealthiest families chose this location on which to build their estates and country homes. As Sir Edward Cunard sat on the front porch of his country villa (Wagner’s Cunard Hall), looking out over the harbor, he must have recognized the perfect symmetry of this area for his family. Cunard literally “watched his ships come in” every day from his magnificent retreat.
Other prominent families resided on Grymes Hill during its history. Cornelius Vanderbilt started out on Staten Island; in fact, Wagner’s current 110-acre campus encompasses 19 acres of the former Vanderbilt estate. The Horrmann family, owners of a large brewery and one of the brewer baron families on Staten Island, also built an estate on Grymes Hill, which became known as the Horrmann Castle. For many years, this landmark stood as a testament to the wealth and extravagance of these earlier elite residents of Grymes Hill. Grymes Hill derives its name from the first of these residents to settle here, Suzette Grymes, who called her mansion Capo di Monte; she built two great homes for her son and daughter along Howard Avenue.
The Grymes Hill of today retains much of the character of this earlier time. The beauty of the views has not diminished over the decades, and visitors to Wagner College today marvel at the sweeping views of the New York Harbor which greet them as they enter the campus. New York Harbor today is filled with the same multitude of activity that characterized it in the 19th century. Many of the large houses that were built in the early part of the last century remain along Howard Avenue, and many more great homes have been added. Wagner College has helped to maintain the open character of the Hill; its 110 acres provide the neighborhood with open green areas that are sometimes difficult to find in New York City. Wagner’s historic buildings blend seamlessly into this beautiful area. As visitors walk around the campus today, it is easy for them to see that many of Sir Edward Cunard’s reasons for settling here still exist. Grymes Hill remains today one of the most breathtaking neighborhoods of New York City.