By Lee Manchester
Talk to any archaeologist. They’ll tell you that, to study a community’s history, you have to do it in layers. And when you peel those layers away, you see how each was dependent on the ones beneath it, and how each one determined what came after it.
So far in this “History Tour” series, we’ve looked at Wagner College at the time of its Staten Island birth, on its brand-new campus, in 1918. We’ve seen how it evolved from a pre-seminary prep school into a co-ed liberal arts college, from 1918 to 1935.
Now, we’ll look at 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.
Veterans Village (1946–50)
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, from 463 in the fall of 1945, to 833 in 1946, to 1,000 in 1948.
“Veterans, men and women, comprise fifty-five percent of the total,” observed the Wagnerian in 1948. This dramatic increase in older students, many of them married, created a campus housing crisis. At first, at the College’s request, Grymes Hill neighbors opened their homes to 80 Wagner students who couldn’t find rooms on campus. But, even more housing was needed.
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 where the gym was later built, Veterans Village didn’t last long. A near-hurricane-force gale that struck Staten Island on November 25, 1950 — Thanksgiving weekend — tore across the top of Grymes Hill, ripping the roof off one V.V. building and dumping it on another.
Guild Hall and Sutter Gym (1951)
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; a 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 resembles a large vernacular country house in the French Eclectic style.
Matz also designed the new Frederic Sutter Gymnasium, constructed at the same time as Guild on the former site of the Veterans Village. It represented 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.
Music Building (1949) and Fischer Field (1956)
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 the purchase of 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 field 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.
Men’s Residence Hall (1957)
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 the new 206-bed Men’s Residence Hall — 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 Residence Hall 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.
Horrmann Library (1961)
Next on the construction 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, New York. 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. (Read more about the library's development in Wagner Magazine's story about its 50th anniversary.)
The Horrmann Library has continued to develop since opening 66 years ago, today offering access to an incredibly deep list of digital and print books and scholarly journals curated by a small but expert staff of 21st-century librarians.
Towers Dormitories (1964)
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 Dormitories. 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 Anna H. Parker Towers 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 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.
Science Complex (1968)
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.
“In designing the Wagner College Science Center,” a fundraising brochure explained, “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 laboratory building was renamed the Megerle Science Building to honor two of our most faithful supporters, Eugen and Martha Megerle.
And in 1992, the communications center was refurbished through the generosity of then-board chairman Donald W. Spiro ’49 and his wife, Evelyn Lindfors Spiro ’49. In gratitude, we renamed the building Spiro Hall.
Harbor View Hall (1968)
Sherwood, Mills & Smith of Stamford, Connecticut, 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.
Wagner Union (1970)
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.”
Did You Miss Parts I and II?
Take a tour of the campus in 1918 in Wagner History Tour Part I: The College's New Home on Grymes Hill; take a tour of the campus as it developed until 1930 in Wagner History Tour Part II: Birth of an American College.