By Lee Manchester
This fall, Wagner College marked the centennial of an occasion that utterly changed the institution: the purchase of the Staten Island campus.
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.
“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,” Pastor Sutter said in a 1968 memoir. “We had pretty much decided on the plot of land next to what is now the football field” — 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.
“Early the next morning,” Sutter recalled, “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.”
Oberlin College owned this property, which included the 1852 Italianate villa of the Edward Cunard family, because a man named Amzi Lorenzo Barber, an Oberlin College graduate (and trustee) had bought it in 1889 and left it to his alma mater upon his death in 1909. Barber had leased it out as a summer resort colony known as the Bellevue Club or the Hotel Belleview.
There was still some work to be done on the property before Wagner could move in. The resort’s summer cottages had to be winterized, and a new house had to be built for the college president and his family — but the work proceeded swiftly and, by September 1918, Wagner Memorial Lutheran College (as it was known until 1952) was holding its first classes on the new campus.