Sink or Swim: How the Sinking of Lower Campus in 1867 saved the Future of Boston College

Aerial shot on Easter Sunday 1938: Lawrence Basin, now known as Lower Campus, was a reservoir from 1867-1949

Aerial shot on Easter Sunday 1938: Lawrence Basin, now known as Lower Campus, was a reservoir from 1867-1949. Boston College Building and Campus Images, BC 1987.012

Boston College has not always been a sprawling campus divided between lower, middle, and upper campuses. In fact, the entirety of lower campus was underwater in 1948 when the college purchased the “Lawrence Basin” Reservoir from the City of Boston. Nearly a century earlier, the city had obtained the site from Amos Lawrence, a wealthy businessman who owned what is now middle and lower campuses. The city’s acquisition of the lower campus, however, robbed Lawrence of his retreat from the city and led to the creation of the reservoir, consisting of both the Lawrence and Bradlee basins. During World War II, Tufts University sought the establishment of a Naval R.O.T.C. unit, although it lacked a body of water of its own on or near its campus in Medford. Because the presence of such water would enhance its petition for a Naval R.O.T.C. unit, Tufts approached the Metropolitan District Commission about the possibility of using the old Medford Hillside Reservoir. The M.D.C. approved this plan.

Aerial shot from May 2013

Aerial photograph, May 2013. Boston College Building and Campus Images, BC 1987.012

The Reservoir was given to Tufts on a 99-year lease for $1. In a lighthearted conversation after the meeting, Joe Mckenney ’27, a commission member and former football player and coach at Boston College, asked the chairman whether the same arrangement could be made for Boston College when the Chestnut Hill Reservoirs became available for purchase. The chairman agreed to this proposition, and they shook hands.

Then, in 1948 the chairman called McKenney to tell him that the small reservoir near Boston College had been declared inactive and to remind him of their handshake deal. McKenney then presented President Keleher and the Board of Trustees with a 99-year lease for $1 for transferal of the Lawrence Basin to Boston College. The trustees did not like the idea of a lease but did agree to purchase the Lawrence Basin for $16,000, despite the reservoir’s estimated appraised value of $750,000. The purchase of lower campus exemplifies the college’s consistent growth despite restrictions and its heavy reliance on the connections and financing by alumni. When Amos Lawrence reluctantly sold a piece of his land for the reservoir, he unknowingly saved lower campus for Boston College and, therefore, the Boston College that we know today.

  • Sean Ryan BC 2017, History & Spring 2015 Making History Public Student

The images and content in this blog post are from the exhibit#WeWereBC, which is now on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South.    This exhibit was curated and organized byProfessor Seth Meehan’s Spring 2015 Making History Public class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries.

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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One Response to Sink or Swim: How the Sinking of Lower Campus in 1867 saved the Future of Boston College

  1. Ryan says:

    I like this a lot

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