When Wagner College purchased its new Grymes Hill campus, in 1917, the area between what is now Pape House and Howard Avenue was mostly wooded.
Classes began in September 1918. By 10 years later, when the College began offering bachelor’s degrees, the enrollment had nearly tripled. Wagner had to construct two new buildings to accommodate all of these students: a dormitory (Parker Hall, 1923) and a “recitation and science hall,” as the trustees called Main Hall when they approved the project, in February 1928.
The Oval came into being almost as an afterthought, as the open space inside Main Hall’s semicircular driveway.
The first step toward beautifying the Oval came about through a student initiative.
“On April 13th, [1932,] the senior class of the college presented the institution with thirty-eight oriental plane trees,” reported the June 1932 issue of the Wagner College Bulletin. “The first tree was planted by the use of the shovel used to break ground for the new building [Main Hall].” (Read more about this in “The Real Tree Story.”)
Eighty-five years later, all but one of those plane trees still line the walk around the Oval.
We do not know when, or why, the decision was made to name the Oval for Pastor Frederic Sutter. We do know from a Wagnerian article, however, that by December 1969, the central open campus space was already known as the Sutter Oval.
Frederic Sutter’s family emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1882, when he was six years old. At the age of 12, Frederic was enrolled in Wagner Memorial Lutheran College, a seminary prep school in Rochester, New York, from which he graduated in 1894. Following his seminary graduation, Sutter pastored two upstate New York congregations before coming to Staten Island in 1907 to lead Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church. In 1917, Sutter was tapped for a position on the board of his alma mater, where he was assigned to a committee responsible for moving Wagner College from Rochester to the New York City area. Sutter secured the former Cunard estate on Grymes Hill as the core of the College’s modern campus. He served as chairman of the Wagner Board of Trustees for 41 years, and twice as interim president of the College. Pastor Sutter died in 1971 at the age of 95.
During the 1980s, the Sutter Oval — like much of the rest of the campus — had become somewhat bedraggled from misuse and neglect.
“The prettiest part of the campus was a massive, tree-lined oval the size of a football field that fronted the classic Main Hall,” former President Norman Smith recalled of his introduction to the campus in 1988. “Unfortunately, Wagner’s oval was almost without grass because the football team used it as a practice field. … Faculty and staff parked their cars around the oval and on the grass, many even parking their cars nose-in to the front entrance of Main Hall. … The only way in which the centerpiece of the campus could look its best was to stop the football team from practicing on it. And cars had to stop parking there.”
By replacing the driveway in front of Main Hall with a brick-paved walkway, and removing football practice from the Sutter Oval, Wagner College’s “village green” was restored to its early, verdant beauty — and “Oval Days” became synonymous in Wagner culture with the peaceful, carefree days preceding spring finals.