LAST FALL, Wagner College marked the centennial of an occasion that utterly changed the institution: the purchase of the Staten Island campus. And this year, in September 2018, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the opening of classes on Grymes Hill.
As Wagner history buffs will recall, the college was founded in Rochester, New York, in 1883 as a Lutheran seminary prep school.
The school consisted of a single building on a one-third-acre residential lot. Its maximum enrollment was 49 students, and it had no room to grow.
Since 1901, the statewide church body that ran the college had known that a move would be necessary; they finally made the decision in 1916 and chose semi-rural Staten Island, which had been consolidated into the City of New York in 1898, as the college’s new home.
The man charged with finding a specific site was Staten Island pastor and Wagner alumnus Frederic Sutter, class of 1894, recently elected for the second time to Wagner’s Board of Trustees.
In a 1968 memoir, Pastor Sutter said, “I had no idea where to put a college, and neither did most of the clergy and laymen who drove all over Staten Island to find a suitable location.”
“We had pretty much decided on the plot of land next to what is now the football field,” he said, referring to a seven-acre plot with a three-story house known as Fair Acres.
At the last minute, however, Sutter’s attention shifted. The night before the papers for the sale of Fair Acres were to be signed, he attended a golden wedding anniversary party. At that celebration, he said, “My attention was called to another tract of land on Howard Avenue, known as the Belview property” — also known as the Cunard estate.
Sutter said, “Early the next morning, I inspected it. … The property consisted of about 38 acres and had on it several cottages and what is now known as Cunard and North [today’s Reynolds] halls. Thus, in September 1917, the college purchased the Belview property … which at that time was owned by Oberlin College.”
The original owners of the property were Edward and Mary Cunard, who married in 1849. Edward, then 33, was heir to a Canadian shipping company; Mary, 20, was a native New Yorker. A year after their wedding, they bought property on Staten Island, where they had a three-story, Italianate villa built around 1852. The Cunards called it Westwood — and at Westwood they would live for the rest of their relatively short lives.
Mary died delivering their eighth child in 1866, and Edward passed away just 3 years later. Mary’s mother cared for the Cunard children at Westwood until 1873, when the family moved to England, putting the property up for sale.
Westwood remained on the market for 16 years until it was finally purchased by Amzi Lorenzo Barber, an Oberlin College graduate and trustee and former Howard University professor who had made his fortune paving the streets of Washington, D.C. Barber used the villa as his summer residence for just 4 years. From 1893 until Barber’s death in 1909, the property was leased out to various parties as a hotel or boarding house, known as the Bellevue Club or the Hotel Belleview.
In addition to the former Cunard estate, the Bellevue resort made use of the adjoining Jacob Vanderbilt estate, also owned by Barber’s Statena Company, upon which sat Captain Vanderbilt’s former home, Clove Hill.
Various accounts give different locations for the Vanderbilt house; some say it was located across Campus Road on what later became the Augustinian Academy campus, while others place it on the site where the Sutter Gymnasium was built in 1949.
The fire that destroyed Clove Hill in 1904 led to the construction of a new annex next to the Cunard villa the following year, along with two summer guest cottages. Today, that annex is known as Reynolds House, and those cottages survive as the endpieces of Pape House, the home of our Admissions Office.
Reynolds House was an attractive, architecturally eclectic building. It had the hipped dormers, second-story shingling and first-floor clapboard siding typical of the Shingle style — but its most prominent architectural feature was a two-tiered, full-height entry porch with two-story columns that was emblematic of the Folk Victorian style. That distinctive feature, along with the second-story shingling, was removed when the building was renovated in 1977.
The two-story guest cottages, very simple in design, were examples of the earliest form of Prairie style architecture, called Prairie Box or American Foursquare, considered one of the few indigenous American styles of architecture. The two cottages were joined together into Pape House by a bridge building constructed in 2002.
When Barber died in 1909, he left the entire Bellevue property, which included a two-story gatehouse, to Oberlin College — and it was from Oberlin that, in September 1917, Frederic Sutter purchased the property on behalf of Wagner College.
Over the next year, Pastor Sutter was busy overseeing the renovation of the existing campus, readying it for the students and faculty who would make it their home come September 1918. The summer cottages were hastily winterized with an exterior stucco treatment, and a completely new cottage was built to house the new college president …
Pastor Adolf Holthusen, and his family.
Today, the Holthusens’ cottage is known as Kairos House, which hosts our Campus Ministry program and all three student publications: the newspaper (Wagnerian), literary magazine (Nimbus) and yearbook (Kallista).
When Wagner Memorial Lutheran College re-opened in September 1918, following the move that summer from Rochester, it was a tiny school — just 42 students and fewer than 10 professors. Why so small? Because our only purpose was to prepare young German-speaking Lutheran men to enter the seminary and become ministers, and our curriculum was based on the 19th century German gymnasium model — a classics curriculum for the high school and junior college years.
But the world was changing in 1918. English was rapidly replacing German among the immigrant families served by Wagner College, and American expectations of higher education were evolving; the gymnasium curriculum was outdated and the 4-year model of the liberal arts college was becoming standard.
The move to Staten Island was part of Frederic Sutter’s master plan to bring Wagner College into the 20th century and transform it into a new kind of school.
Surveyed before the move to Staten Island, most of the Rochester faculty thought the college should stay just like it was. The only professor to make the move to Staten Island was William Ludwig, a faculty member since 1909. A Swiss-born Lutheran minister who taught languages, philosophy and psychology, Ludwig became the dean of the college, helping the new president, a Lutheran pastor, run the school. From 1918 until Ludwig’s retirement in 1936, the cottage in which he lived — now the southern end of Pape House — was known as the Ludwig Cottage.
Musing upon the successful evolution of two sister colleges, the University of Rochester and Muhlenberg College, Ludwig saw lessons that Wagner could profit by.
Ludwig wrote, “Both these institutions prospered so wonderfully because they endeavored to satisfy not only the needs of their respective churches, but also of the communities in which and with which they grew up. If they had not done so, these communities would have established colleges of their own and the former would have remained what they were, small institutions with a precarious existence and a very limited influence. Now, why should Wagner not do the same?”
Pastor Sutter, Dean Ludwig and the college’s new president, Adolf Holthusen, had an incredibly difficult task: to keep the college alive and grow its enrollment as they worked toward state recognition as a college, giving Wagner the right to award bachelor’s degrees.
In his 1968 memoir, Sutter said, “Not many had hopes that Wagner on Staten Island would survive more than a few years. Our only real collateral was our faith in God. Our problems were at first simple ones: We needed money; we had nothing.”
To accommodate even the earliest growth of the college — in its first 2 years, enrollment rose from 42 to 71 — it had to have new housing for both its students and its faculty. An initial building program, approved in 1921, led to the construction of three new faculty cottages and, a short while later, a new dormitory.
Two of the faculty members who moved into the new cottages, George Haas and Clarence Stoughton, had been living with their wives in tiny, two-room apartments on the third floor of Cunard Hall.
Haas, the husband of President Holthusen’s sister — the tiny college, was after all, very much like a family — had suffered an incredible loss in 1904 as the pastor of St. Mark’s German Lutheran Church on Manhattan’s lower east side.
More than 900 members of his congregation — including his first wife and daughter — had perished when a massive, fast-moving fire destroyed the S.S. General Slocum, a pleasure boat carrying them up the East River. The Slocum Disaster, as it was known, is still considered the worst maritime tragedy in New York City history.
Professor Haas and his second wife lived in the cottage closest to Serpentine Road, now called Howard Avenue, until his death in 1927.
Next to the Haas cottage was the home of Herbert Weiskotten, a third-generation Lutheran minister before joining the Wagner faculty in 1921. He returned to the ministry in 1924, assuming his father’s Brooklyn pulpit upon the death of Pastor Weiskotten Sr.
Of the early college buildings, the Weiskotten cottage is the only one to have been demolished in the intervening years. It was removed to make way for the construction of the Horrmann Library, around 1960.
The third new faculty cottage was built for an unusual character on Wagner College’s young Staten Island campus: a layman.
While most of the other professors were ordained Lutheran clergymen, “Prof” Stoughton (as he came to be known affectionately by his students) had put himself through college at the University of Rochester by working as a newspaper reporter. Starting in 1919, he taught English and history at Wagner while enrolled in graduate school at Columbia, earning his master’s degree in 1922.
Stoughton played a major role in the life of Wagner College on Staten Island as its first lay president, serving from 1935 until the final days of World War II.
In his memoir, Sutter said, “While we seemed to be drawing some very fine professors, our greatest problem throughout the early years was to find a president who was a professional. We had no money to hire a business administrator, so the board merely took a successful pastor and reclothed him to look like a college president.”
The first president, Holthusen, served for 8 years, seeing us through the construction of a desperately needed new dormitory — allowing us to house our ever-growing student body in comfort — as well as the college’s first major endowment campaign.
The New Dormitory, as it was first called — later known as South Hall, but rechristened Parker Hall in 1961 — was finished in time for the opening of classes in September 1923, but only after a lengthy struggle to secure the necessary construction funds that had been pledged by the Lutheran congregations supporting the college. To keep the project going, several friends of the college took out personal loans — something that would be considered highly unusual today, but fairly typical of the way in which Wagner College was kept alive in its early years by its faithful supporters. Other instances:
- The college did not actually have anything like the $63,000 needed to purchase the Staten Island campus in 1917 and, without collateral, no prospects for getting a bank loan. Sutter asked Justus Holstein, a wealthy Brooklyn pastor who had taught at Wagner in Rochester for a few years, if he would make a personal loan to the college — and he did.
- Noting that “the fruit cellar at Wagner College is empty,” the April 1922 issue of the college’s newsletter asked “if some of the mothers in looking over their stock will not have some to spare.”
- In early 1925, “an entire freight car filled with potatoes, vegetables, canned fruits, and apples was received from the congregations in Pittsford and Victor, N.Y.”
- The Klincks of Buffalo, N.Y., provided fixings for the Thanksgiving feast enjoyed by the campus community, year after year, through the 1920s.
- For nearly a decade, Staten Island butcher Christian Bardes, a member of Pastor Sutter’s congregation, provided the college with all its meat at cost.
- Otto Koehler, another of Sutter’s parishioners, maintained the college’s buildings for years without ever presenting a bill.
- The chapel, a room on the ground floor of the Cunard villa that also served as a study hall, was fitted out with used sanctuary furnishings donated by Frederick Melville, the same Wagner alumnus who, in 1918, had written our first alma mater.
- Even the architect who designed our new dormitory and administration building, George Conable, gave back hundreds of dollars from his professional fees for the building program.
That’s the kind of community that kept Wagner College alive through the 1920s — a community that believed in the college so much that it gave, and gave, to sustain the college.
Frederic Sutter wrote about the faith that motivated both himself and the Wagner community he led.
Sutter said, “I had a tremendous faith in the Lord. I always said if the Lord wants this thing to be here and to grow here, by his benediction, it will happen. The bankers always told me I was crazy. ‘You can’t do business that way, by just having faith.’ But I always answered, ‘It’s my biggest asset,’ and it always seemed to pay off.”
The $500,000 endowment campaign, started in mid-1925, was undertaken as the next step in recreating Wagner as a modern American college. New York state law said that, in order to grant bachelor’s degrees, an institution had to have a half-million-dollar endowment — and Wagner had to be able to grant degrees in order to survive. For this fundraising campaign, however, instead of relying on the organizational abilities of Pastor Sutter or the college trustees, a professional fundraising firm was engaged. By the time the February 1926 college newsletter was printed, the campaign was declared a success, though it took another 2 years for Wagner to jump through the additional bureaucratic hoops necessary to grant baccalaureate degrees.
Enrollment, which had flattened for a few years after the initial jump to around 70, started rising again after the endowment campaign concluded; by September 1926, total enrollment had hit 100 — half in the high school, half in the college program. The college program doubled in size, since those enrolling in 1926 could be fairly sure that they would earn a bachelor’s degree by the end of their Wagner College career.
The increasing enrollment put extra pressure on existing facilities, making one more new building essential: what they called a “recitation and science hall,” with multiple classrooms, a combination gym and auditorium, real science labs, a library and offices for faculty members.
The board of trustees decided in February 1928 to build the new recitation hall. Late that summer, ground was broken, and work continued through the winter and the following year. By February 1930, the first basketball games were being played in the gym, and science classes were taught in the laboratories. The Administration Building, as it was known then — we refer to it today as Main Hall — was officially dedicated at the annual College Day gathering on May 30, 1930.
With the opening of Main Hall, Wagner College had taken all of the major steps needed to transform itself into a modern, American liberal arts college. Three smaller steps completed the job:
- ending the high school program, in 1932, so that Wagner would be free to focus exclusively on higher education;
- the trustees’ decision, in the winter of 1933, to admit women for the first time in the college’s half-century history; and
- the election in May 1935 of Wagner’s first lay president, Clarence “Prof” Stoughton.
In his inaugural address, Stoughton said, “It is not our hope to build a great university. We are blessed, in this metropolis, with some of the great universities of the world. But while we do not need more universities, we do need the small liberal arts colleges, where personality remains sacred, where the student is always an individual, where his individuality is developed and emphasized.”
During the Boom Years following World War II, from 1946 to 1970, enrollment exploded.
Our campus expanded with constant construction.
And our curriculum adapted to the needs of post-war America.
Our first lay president, Clarence Stoughton, saw us safely through the war years. Stoughton’s departure in 1945, after a decade of leadership, opened the way for a new president …
Walter Langsam, who was installed that fall — and just in the nick of time.
With the end of the war, servicemen were returning to civilian life, and — for the first time — the new G.I. Bill gave many of them the chance to enroll in college. Enrollment soared:
In the fall of 1945, day-school enrollment was 463.
In 1946, 833 students were enrolled.
By 1948, there were 1,000 students enrolled in the day session.
The Wagnerian of that year observed, “Veterans, men and women, comprise fifty-five percent of the total.”
This dramatic increase in the enrollment of older students, many of them married, created a campus housing crisis. At first, the college had to rely on its Grymes Hill neighbors; they housed 80 Wagner students who couldn’t find rooms on campus. But the college could not impose indefinitely upon its neighbors.
The solution was the Veterans Emergency Housing Project — or Veterans Village, as most folks knew it: six one-story buildings and one with two floors, all built with war-surplus construction materials. Two of the buildings housed single men; the remainder were divvied up into 15 apartments for young families. By Christmas 1946, the project was completed.
Located just to the southwest of Main Hall, Veterans Village didn’t last long. A near-hurricane-force gale that struck Staten Island on Nov. 25, 1950 — Thanksgiving weekend — tore across the top of Grymes Hill, ripping the roof off one V.V. building and dumping it on another.
Fortunately for everyone, Wagner College had already broken ground on a new, more durable residence hall — this one for women, who accounted for more than a third of enrollment by 1951. A new women’s dorm would free up existing housing options for occupation by men.
Ground was broken on Guild Hall in June 1950; an informal dedication ceremony for the 112-bed residence was held just 12 months later.
Designed by noted architect Herbert E. Matz, a member of our board of trustees, Guild was “a big building that’s really trying to be a large vernacular country house” reminiscent of the French Eclectic style, according to architectural historian Stephen Engelhart.
Matz also designed the new Frederic Sutter Gymnasium, which was constructed at the same time as Guild on the former site of the Veterans Village — a major expansion of the college’s indoor sports facilities, which previously had consisted solely of the combination gymnasium/auditorium in Main Hall. The new gym could seat 1,700 people in its retractable bleachers during basketball games, and 2,300 with auditorium seating.
Wagner College was not only growing up, with its new buildings on the main campus — it was also expanding outward.
In June 1949, the college bought the Ward Estate across Howard Avenue from Main Hall, adding 18 acres to the Grymes Hill campus. The property gave us more parking space and a new sports field …
but the crown jewel of the West Campus, as it became known, was a two-story, mansard-roofed mansion, built in 1867 as the home of banker and former Civil War colonel William Greene Ward.
The colonel called his Second Empire-style home, with its wraparound porch and signature pinnacles, “Oneata” — a Seminole word, according to a family friend, meaning “kissed by the dawn” — but Wagner students knew it simply as the Music Building, home of the college’s beloved choir.
Like many older buildings, the Music Building had great beauty and character — but it was also expensive to heat and maintain. Around 1983, Wagner closed it down …
moving the Music Department into North Hall (now called Reynolds House). Petty vandalism steadily ate away at the Ward house, but it was a pair of fires — a smaller one in 1989, and a much larger blaze in 1992 — that really doomed the old Music Building. Sometime in late 1992 or early 1993, Oneata was demolished.
Seven years after purchasing the West Campus, a gift from Charlotta Fischer Palmer, wife of trustee Bissell B. Palmer, made possible the construction of a varsity track and combination soccer and practice football field, named Fischer Memorial Field in her parents’ honor. The field was expanded in 1967 with another gift from Mrs. Palmer, making it the Seahawk football team’s primary field. A few years ago, the field was renamed Hameline Field to honor longtime football coach Walter Hameline, our athletic director.
Meanwhile, enrollment continued to climb, more than doubling in a dozen years — from 1,052 in 1958 to 2,689 in 1970. Clearly, we had more building to do if we were to accommodate all the new students, professors, classes and dorm residents coming to Grymes Hill.
Housing was still an urgent need, and with a new women’s dorm already built, the next priority was a new 206-bed Men’s Dormitory — the actual name of the building, though most people just called it the New Dorm — designed by Herbert Matz and completed in 1957. Along with its new student quarters, the building held a modern dining hall capable of feeding 578 students at a time — a vast improvement over the old dining room on the first floor of Cunard Hall, which had served us since our move to Staten Island in 1918.
A very simple example of the Brutalist style of architecture, the Men’s Dormitory has been repurposed several times, like most Wagner buildings. For one year, it was the freshman dorm; then, a women’s dorm; then, a men’s dorm again. Beginning with the fall of 1973, it became known as the New Administration Building — and, today, it’s called Campus Hall. It houses three of our professional programs — nursing, business and education — as well as the Music Department, which moved out of North Hall in 1995.
Next on the builders’ agenda was the August Horrmann Library, the first Wagner College building designed by an architectural firm previously unconnected to the school: Perkins & Will of White Plains, N.Y. The old library, shoehorned into the attic of Main Hall, had seating for only 100 students at a time — fine, perhaps, for pre-war Wagner, but wholly inadequate for the modern college.
A major donation in 1958 from the Horrmann Foundation, a Staten Island charity that had long supported the college, got the fundraising ball rolling, and by 1960 we were able to break ground on a modern-looking building with large, plate-glass windows running vertically up its main floors. When the new library opened in 1961, it quadrupled the study space available for students and more than doubled the number of volumes available on its shelves.
The Horrmann Library has continued to develop since opening 67 years ago, today offering electronic access to an incredibly deep list of books and scholarly journals curated by a small but expert staff of 21st century librarians.
Even with the construction of the New Dorm, Wagner students still needed more on-campus housing — for which Perkins & Will provided us a design as modern as the library’s for a connected series of five dormitory towers able to house 604 students. Construction, begun in 1963, was completed in time for the Fall 1964 semester.
Initially known simply as the Dormitory Complex, it soon was called the Towers Dorm. It wasn’t until some time later, after a series of trusts left by Anna “Rita” Halbert Parker totaling nearly $10 million had been given to the college, that the residence complex was renamed in her honor. Mrs. Parker died in 1966.
Her earlier generosity to the college, in 1961, had resulted in the refurbishment and renaming of South Hall, then a women’s dorm, in memory of her late husband, George Benedict Parker. Ten years later, after the opening of a new, high-rise dormitory, Parker Hall was converted for faculty office use.
Neither of the Parkers, by the way, had attended Wagner College; they first came into contact with Wagner by attending our football games. Though George Parker hadn’t been able to go to college himself, he wanted to help young people who would not otherwise be able to attend.
Wagner College leadership had been considering the need for a modern science building for a long time; in fact, in the early 1940s, President Clarence Stoughton had enticed Dr. Adolf Stern to join our Chemistry Department by promising a new science building, according to President Arthur Ole Davidson.
“We admire this man for his patience,” Davidson quipped …
at the 1968 dedication of our new science and communications complex, attended by Stern himself — as well as astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.
As a fundraising brochure explained, “In designing the Wagner College Science Center, a departure has been made from the conventional planning in which classrooms, offices and laboratories are interspersed.
“Instead, a different type of organization was selected in which all large group spaces are assembled in a single hexagonal pavilion to form the communications center. The adjoining laboratory building thus becomes a relatively quiet place without circulation of large groups of people at a time.”
In 1979, the science building was renamed the Megerle Science Building to honor two of our most faithful supporters, Eugen and Martha Megerle.
And in 1992, the communications building was refurbished through the generosity of board chairman Don Spiro and his wife, Evelyn. In gratitude, we renamed the building Spiro Hall.
Sherwood, Mills & Smith of Stamford, Conn., the architectural firm that designed the science and communications complex, also designed Harbor View Hall, opened for the Fall 1968 semester.
This 616-bed, 15-story dormitory looking out over the new Verrazano Narrows Bridge and New York harbor was the last new residence hall built on Grymes Hill until Foundation Hall was opened more than four decades later, in 2010.
Harbor View was one of six Wagner College campus buildings that have won the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce annual prize for architecture. The others are the Horrmann Library, the science complex, the 1999 Spiro Sports Center expansion of the Sutter Gymnasium building, Foundation Hall, and the last of the buildings from our primary, 20-year-long building campaign: the Wagner Union.
Designed by Perkins & Will and constructed by Starret Brothers and Eken, builders of the Empire State Building, the Union was dedicated in February 1970.
It is a daring structure, its successive floors reaching farther and farther out toward the open sea in an architectural gesture of aspiration.
In awarding the Albert S. Bard Award of Merit in Architecture and Urban Design to the Union that August, the City Club of New York said, “The Wagner Union solves an architectural problem that is more characteristic of the suburbs than it is in most of the high density areas in our city.
“But it is a design of great brilliance, wit, and skill. And we can hope it might set a pattern for the remaining open areas of the city where a truly freestanding building is still possible.”
For more sources on Wagner College history, visit our online, print-on-demand bookstore at lulu.com/wagnercollegehistory.