Why Boston College Got Ugly: Explaining postwar construction

Carney Hall groundbreaking (left to right: Classics professor Joseph Maguire, Richard Cardinal Cushing, and Father Walsh)

Carney Hall exterior: groundbreaking with Joseph Maguire, Richard Cushing, and Michael P. Walsh with shovels, 1963 April 16. Box 3, folder 37, Boston College Building and Campus Images, BC.1987.012, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

For more than four decades, the Chestnut Hill grounds of Boston College remained an astoundingly beautiful, Gothic-inspired campus. Critics noted Gasson Hall’s national influence among Gothic revivalism at universities, and, in 1926, Devlin Hall was recognized as “the most beautiful piece of architecture, building, monument, or structure” built in the area in the previous decade. After World War II, though, universities needed to grow to accommodate the thousands of veterans looking to enroll through the G.I. Bill. This time period, too, was a turning point for Jesuit and Catholic universities. Leaders questioned if their institutions could compete academically with secular institutions without sacrificing their core values. More generally, they debated over how to cope with the progression of higher education. (Centennial events in 1963 at Boston College included an academic conference on the consequences of the “knowledge explosion.”) Secular schools were attracting accomplished lay professors by constructing facilities to encourage research and the professors’ comfort. Dormitories, too, attracted the best students from outside the universities’ own territory. Institutions such as Boston College faced the prospect of falling behind if they did not keep pace

Fulton Hall, before its renovation

Pre-renovation Fulton Hall exterior, aerial view, 1948. Box 4, folder 34, Boston College Building and Campus Images, BC.1987.012, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Under the leadership of presidents William Keleher, S.J, Joseph Maxwell, S.J., and Michael Walsh, S.J. (1945-1968), Boston College began a series of major construction projects to provide a similar academic infrastructure found at secular institutions. New buildings were devoted to the sciences, social sciences, and liberal arts as well as for student housing and athletics. The school could no longer dwell on the ornate and magnificent architecture of the campus’s first buildings. Such elaborate architecture took too much time and cost too much money. As a result, especially during the Walsh era, the school built as fast as possible to provide to the growing needs of an elite institution of higher education. Rare were the months that a dormitory or classroom building was not under construction.

Cushing hall main entrance

Cushing Hall exterior: main entrance from road, 1960. Box 3, folder 62, Boston College Building and Campus Images, BC.1987.012, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The clash of aesthetics between the buildings built during this era and the beautiful original buildings represented the conflict between Catholic ideals and keeping up with the secular progression of higher education. Yet, without the leadership of Keleher, Maxwell, and Walsh, Boston College would have struggled to adapt and advance into the high-class institution that it is today. Although their compromise led to an “ugly” side of campus, the pragmatic decisions made by these presidents was necessary for Boston College’s academic successes.

  • John Fee BC 2016, Philosophy & 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.

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