By Lee Manchester
A walk through the Wagner College campus is not just a stroll through a peaceful, parklike urban oasis — it’s also an expedition through several layers of history.
In this issue, we’re beginning a series to help Wagnerians better appreciate the historic dimensions of their alma mater’s home turf. The series will conclude next year, as we begin the centennial celebration of our move from Rochester, New York, to Staten Island.
To start off, we’ll take a look at the campus as we found it on the first day of classes in September 1918, when Howard Avenue was known as Serpentine Road, and Cunard Hall was Wagner College’s main building.
The man responsible for acquiring the campus was Frederic Sutter, pastor of Staten Island’s Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church and an 1894 graduate of Wagner Memorial Lutheran College. Sutter joined the College’s board just as it began looking for a new campus where it could grow, away from the crowded confines of downtown Rochester.
The property he secured for the College was the Hotel Bellevue, a summer resort colony established in the 1890s on the former Cunard estate. The 38-acre tract not only had a great view overlooking the Verrazano Narrows, New York harbor, and the open sea — it also had several good, usable buildings, and plenty of space for more.
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 three 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 four 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 (spellings varied).
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.
A fire destroyed Clove Hill in 1904, leading 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, to serve as faculty housing. The Cunard villa became the College’s main building, and the annex (today’s Reynolds House) became the dormitory.
An additional 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).
Continue the History Tour: “Part II, The Birth of an American College” will take you on a walk through the early years of Wagner College on Staten Island, including a building program that culminated in the dedication of Main Hall in early 1930.