Blodgett Hall (1929)
York and Sawyer
More than most buildings on Vassar’s campus, Blodgett Hall has been a focal point of controversy. Built in 1929 with funds supplied by Minnie Cumnock Blodgett ’84 and her husband, the hall was intended to house Vassar’s new—and already contentious—euthenics program. Broadly defined as the “science of the controllable environment,” euthenics, from its beginnings, was deeply intertwined with the college. A notable early graduate, Ellen Swallow Richards ‘70, coined the word in her book The Cost of Shelter (1905) and set out the concept’s principles in Euthenics: The Science of Controllable Environment (1910). The first woman, in 1870, to attend the recently chartered Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Swallow received her second bachelor’s degree from MIT, in science, in 1873. Continuing her work at MIT, Swallow would have received its first advanced degree, the master’s, had not the trustees balked at the first such institutional honor going to a woman. She was eventually hired by the institute to direct a laboratory—the first of its kind—in “sanitary chemistry,” a position that she held until 1897. During this time she also led a pioneering project that tested and analyzed water for the state of Massachusetts.
Rising through the ranks in Cambridge, Swallow (after 1875, Ellen Swallow Richards, the wife of MIT Professor Robert Richards) never lost contact with Vassar. Elected to the board of trustees in 1894, just as the college, facing a major sewage disposal problem, was obliged by the city of Poughkeepsie to build an expensive six-mile pipeline to the Hudson River, Richards used her MIT expertise to devise a simpler, much more cost-effective plan for the college, a double drain field in an undeveloped area a short distance from campus. Projects like this, bettering the human environment via the application of scientific knowledge, exemplified her concept of “euthenics.”
Richards died in 1911, but another gifted and influential Vassar alumna carried on her work. Julia Lathrop ‘80, originator of the birth certificate, the first woman to be appointed as chief of a federal government bureau (she headed the Children’s Bureau from 1912-1923) and a Vassar trustee from 1912-1918, spoke often about the need for a program in the applied sciences at Vassar. A veteran of the settlement house movement, she knew that poorly-educated mothers’ not knowing how to properly care for their children resulted in thousands of preventable infant deaths each year in the United States. Lathrop saw the practical value of Richards’s vision of the sciences explicitly applied to the betterment of the human condition, and in her definition of euthenics emphasized the application of science to motherhood, governance of the household and effective training for the sort of public work in which she herself was engaged.
The precision and relevance of this idea caught the interest of Minnie Cumnock Blodgett at a talk given by Lathrop at Vassar in June 1913. After the talk Blodgett took Lathrop aside, and over time the two devised the plan for a multidisciplinary program at Vassar in euthenics.
Their idea soon fell on receptive ears. In early October, the college held a joint celebration of its 50th year in existence and of the inauguration of its new president. Henry Noble MacCracken had been raised in a notably progressive family, and he believed positive community involvement should be an integral function of a college or university. In his first year, MacCracken collaborated with Sarah Delano Roosevelt from Hyde Park in founding the Dutchess County Health Association, and with his wife, Marjorie, he founded Lincoln Center, a Poughkeepsie community services center. Lathrop’s call in her address at his inauguration, “The Highest Education for Women,” for more scientific and theoretical inquiry about child-rearing and conducting a household must have instantly appealed to him. The “one great avocation constantly requiring the unsparing service of millions of women,” Lathrop declared, the most “universal and essential of employments…remains the most neglected by science, a neglect long hidden behind tradition and sentimentality.”
MacCracken’s first proposal of a curricular program in euthenics, in 1922, found little faculty support. Many were confused about the nature of the program or were unconvinced that the effort of creating it would be worthwhile; both faculty and trustee deliberations were repeatedly stalled or postponed. Concerns were also raised about the emphasis given to motherhood and domestic matters in this new curriculum; many believed it would reinforce, not challenge, the subservient role of women in society. In 1924 MacCracken gained approval of the new program by a narrow margin and by forcing the faculty’s hand somewhat. In a letter written earlier in the year, he had informed them that he would encourage the board of trustees to accept the Blodgetts’ offer of the building, implying that a new building was coming and that it would be unfortunate if the college weren’t fully prepared to utilize it.
Plans for the new euthenics building began in 1925, as MacCracken and Professor of Chemistry Annie Macleod, who had been promoted the previous year and named director of euthenics, fleshed out the details of the building, deciding that it would be built in the English collegiate style and located on a small hill on the Wing Farm, 117 acres of meadow farm land east and north of the campus acquired by the college in June 1923. Blodgett Hall was the first of several buildings on this site originally associated with the euthenics curriculum, including Wimpfheimer Nursery School (1927), Cushing House (1927) and Kenyon Hall (1933). During this period, MacCracken maintained regular correspondence with Mrs. Blodgett, consulting her on details of the building’s cost and design.
Choosing York and Sawyer, the architects of Rockefeller Hall (1897) and Swift Hall (1900), for Blodgett Hall, they settled on a three-winged structure around a central courtyard looking out toward Sunrise Hill. Plans for a cloister along the edges of the courtyard were eventually abandoned, but the maze of staircases and narrow hallways for which Blodgett is well known today had its origins in the letters between MacCracken and Blodgett and their plan to control foot traffic through the building by having a multitude of entrances and stairways. Their letters also discussed a plan to create a number of engravings on the interior wall of the courtyard illuminating the lives and accomplishments of a number of influential figures in the field of euthenics, including Ellen Swallow Richards and Julia Lathrop. These memorials can be seen today on the walls of the Blodgett arch.
Blodgett Hall was opened and dedicated over the course of a three-day ceremony in January of 1929. Twelve speakers, representing a wide range of disciplines from biochemistry to geo-social studies and home economics, spoke to students and the many invited guests. Visitors were issued pamphlets quoting Ellen Richards and Minnie Blodgett on the nature and importance of euthenics and providing a complete floor plan for their tours of the new building, where they found such rooms as the “Laboratory for the Applications of Physics to Household Technology,” the “Laboratory for the Application of Chemistry to Problems Connected with Food,” the “Laboratory for the Application of Art to Interior Decoration and Design” and “The Social Museum.” The dedication culminated in a presentation of the keys of the building to the new head of the Euthenics program, Professor of Physiology and Nutrition Ruth Wheeler ‘99.
A warm and supportive atmosphere for the study of euthenics never really materialized at Vassar. Despite considerable public attention and the pomp of the dedicatory weekend, euthenics survived for only some dozen years as a regular course of study. Interest among undergraduates was always tentative and enrollments—even considering the range of concentrations the multidisciplinary program endorsed—were slim. A number of women on the faculty—among them the celebrated Professor of Psychology Margaret Floy Washburn ‘91 and the eminent economist Mable Newcomer—remained incensed by the program, which they perceived as an attempt to force women back into the impasse of domesticity that education was supposed to counter. Some refused to ever set foot in Blodgett Hall, and by the early thirties the college had other pressing uses for some of the spaces in Blodgett Hall.
In 1933, to assist students whose families had suffered financial loss during the Depression, Vassar began offering cooperative housing to students, in limited numbers in both Raymond House and Main Building, and in Blodgett, where 28 students lived in the first wholly cooperative unit on campus. In exchange for reduced fees, students in what was known as the Palmer cooperative house—in honor of Jean Culbert Palmer ’93, an advocate of the benefits of cooperative living during her time as warden of the college from 1915 until 1929—shared the responsibility of cooking, cleaning and, in general, organizing and conducting their residential affairs. The students who lived in Blodgett during the thirties rose admirably to this challenge, although they often had to walk through three or four bedrooms in order to get to their own or make a trek down several flights of stairs to the basement to reach the showers, located next to a room filled with biological samples, including what two of the residents called “a particularly gruesome pickled specimen.” One of the first Blodgett residents, Katharine Payne ’36 recalled her experience in The Miscellany News in 1942: “Since the building was originally designed for classrooms, the girls had to cope with blackboards in their boudoirs. The old euthenics laboratory was turned into a kitchen for their use with innumerable sinks and many modern facilities.”
An unexpected outcome of the complex new living arrangements was a special esprit de corps, evidenced early on by the first annual “Blodgett Brawl” in March 1934. The dwellers in Blodgett entertained 25 men from a number of colleges and universities for a weekend that included dancing, in the Rhythm Room of Kenyon Hall, following a dinner in Blodgett. “The menu,” according to The Miscellany News, included “lamb, green peas and ice cream with chocolate sauce. Great amusement was afforded by the guest who covered his meat and potatoes with chocolate sauce, mistaking it for gravy. China was wheeled from other halls in baby buggies for the occasion, and the dishwashing squad carried on as usual aided by escorts appropriately garbed in colorful aprons.” Overseen at the dance by Warden Eleanor Dodge ’25 and Ruth Mallay ’31 of the child study department, the dancers were entertained by Christine Ramsey ’29, professor of English and speech and a frequent producer of satiric entertainments.
One invitee to the “brawl” in 1937 was John Blodgett, the husband of Minnie Cumnock Blodgett and one of the building’s donors, who accepted the invitation, but who failed to appear. “President MacCracken and I,” he wrote to the organizers, “did not venture into Blodgett that Saturday evening because from the laughter and sounds we heard we knew instinctively that something very important was going on, and we suspected dish-washing. We feared that some of the young men might get nervous at the sight of us and break some china, which we knew would be a calamity. Permit me to again say how greatly I enjoyed meeting the Blodgett crowd.”
In 1953, an article in The Miscellany News, “Hostile Environment Made Life Exciting in First Cooperative House: Blodgett Hall,” Assistant Professor of History Ruth Miller Elson ’39 and Instructor in Art Esther Gordon ’39, detailed at length the trials and triumphs of cooperative life in Blodgett—or, as they called it, “this Greenwich Village on Hudson”—and of the “brawls.” “The Cooperative House,” they recalled, “even had a Cooperative man named Steve, a collective date inherited from Blodgett’s First Settlers, who always appeared at the annual houseparty, the Blodgett Brawl.” The “brawls” continued until 1938, when the cooperative residence was moved to a former Wing Farm house, which had been remodeled, expanded and renamed Palmer House.
Other modifications to Blodgett Hall at this time indicated the college’s gradual withdrawal from the euthenics experiment and its use of Blodgett for other purposes. In January 1939, an article in The Miscellany News reviewed “the varied and far-reaching changes within those walls during the past six months. Two new libraries, one for physiology and one for psychology, new labs and more classrooms constitute only part of the alterations…. A still different Blodgett activity is the group of Boy Scout leaders which meets in the hall every Monday evening under Professor [of Sociology Joseph] Folsom’s sponsorship.”
Because of the variety of “majors” possible in Vassar’s pioneering multidisciplinary program, it is difficult to say when the last euthenics majors graduated. In a poll taken by The Miscellany News of the Class of 1942, for example, there were only four euthenics majors, compared to 16 drama majors, 14 French majors, 14 music majors, 27 history majors and 46 English majors. There were, however, 27 graduates majoring in child study, a division within the euthenics program.
The degree work of the Blodgett Hall of Euthenics ended in the early 1940’s, but a very successful offshoot of the euthenics program, the Vassar Summer Institute of Euthenics, drew women, husbands and families to the campus for intensive discussions of and presentations on the role of the arts and sciences in the home and the community every summer between 1926 and 1959. The Social Museum, a remarkable innovation in its time, also continued, offering exhibits, programs and lectures—ranging from housing surveys using federal research data, studies of regional child welfare and public health to studies of the democratic process (in conjunction with the 1940 presidential election), Latin America, propaganda techniques in the Soviet Union and, in 1948, “Reconstruction Work in Europe.” “The Living Language of the Hudson Valley,” an exhibition in 1939 by Jane Daddow ’34, focused on her work in the “new field of dialect geography.” The museum closed its doors in 1953.
Renovation and modest expansion in 1998 improved the building’s academic space while preserving its original footprint and design, and at present Blodgett’s many doors, stairways and halls lead to the departments of anthropology, economics, religion and sociology and to the multidisciplinary programs in neuroscience and behavior and in science, technology and society. With the completion, in 2016, of Vassar’s new Integrated Science Center—itself a 21st century token of Blodgett’s original multidisciplinary impetus—further mutations of the erstwhile hall of euthenics will doubtless take place.
Daniels, Elizabeth, Main to Mudd and More. Poughkeepsie: Vassar College, 1996.
Daniels, Elizabeth, “The Disappointing First Thrust of Euthenics”, Bridges to the World: Henry Noble MacCracken and Vassar College. Clinton Corners, New York: College Avenue Press, 1994.
Van Lengen, Karen and Lisa Reilly, The Campus Guide: Vassar College. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004.
“Home for Euthenics,“ The Vassar Miscellany News, vol. XIII, no. 24, January 16, 1929.
Ruth Miller Elson ’39 and Esther Gordon ’39, “Hostile Environment Made Life Exciting in First Cooperative House: Blodgett Hall,” The Miscellany News, vol. XXXIII, no. 21, 15 April, 1953.
Blodgett Hall Subject File, Vassar Special Collections Library