Emma Hartman Noyes House (1960)
“About a house we’ll sing a song
That has not been at Vassar long.”
So began a 1960 freshman chant. In October 1958, the Vassar Office of Public Relations had announced the completed construction of a new, “strikingly modern” residence. The youngest of Vassar’s residential halls, Noyes House was named in memory of Emma Hartman Noyes, a music instructor at Vassar, a close friend of Red Cross founder Clara Barton, and a member of the Class of 1880. The north end of Vassar’s campus had been deteriorating, with Cushing House isolated from the other residence halls, and attempts to beautify the area were marred by financial constraints. President Sarah Blanding was eager to enlarge Vassar’s physical plant, and Art Department chairman Agnes Claflin, who moved in modern art circles, recommended Eero Saarinen, a Finnish-American modernist architect and the husband of Vassar graduate Aline Bernstein Saarinen, Class of 1935.
Saarinen was from an established architectural family, and he had demonstrated his modern techniques at Drake University (1957), the General Motors Technical Center (1956), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1955), and, with the David S. Ingalls Rink (1958), at his architectural alma mater, Yale University. He originally proposed moving the administrative offices out of Main and making it solely a dormitory, but that idea was poorly received, resulting in his proposed and accepted design for Noyes. Although Noyes’s crescent shape and triangular windows make it one of the most distinct buildings on campus, Saarinen also “wanted the building to fit in with the existing campus in terms of the gothic architecture,” as Vanessa Beloyianis observed in her senior thesis in 2008 on Noyes’s architecture. In response to some public doubts, the industrial design pioneer Henry Dreyfuss commented, “The building is beautifully situated and will enhance and unify the architecture of the campus.” The first building completed under Vassar’s $25 million Development Plan, Noyes House cost $1.4 million to build. The College borrowed what the Noyes family did not donate, making it the first Vassar building not entirely financed as a gift. Noyes was under a federally approved mortgage until the mid-1970s.
Students and faculty had mixed reactions to Noyes’s completion. Some criticized the modernity of its interior’s “stark and pervasive whiteness,” and the compact organization of the rooms. But others appreciated an “extremely attractive and imaginative design” and Saarinen’s effort to join the old with the new. Noyes was designed to accommodate 160 students and two house fellows along with their families. It has historically hosted many of Vassar’s international students, making it the only residential house that always stays open over breaks and, also usually has a higher proportion of freshmen than the other dorms. In 1978 Director of Plant Operations Robert H. Kluge noted that Noyes had the best structural integrity of any residence hall on campus due to its concrete foundation.
Saarinen originally envisioned Noyes as two connected buildings, together forming a semicircle. The Vassar Board of Trustees approved this second building in 1965, but a reprioritization of funds left it unconstructed. The students and faculty anticipated “Noyes II” throughout the late ’60s as an answer to Vassar’s enlarged, coeducational student body, but the problems were eventually alleviated by the decision to experiment with more independent living situations. The cost of the original Noyes, more than twice its allotted amount, contributed to the cancellation of Noyes II.
Noyes’s famous common area, unofficially called “the Jetsons lounge” because of its futuristic design, with marble tables and tulip and womb chairs, is also the site of the infamous Passion Pit, a sunken seating area primarily used for recreation and homework but so-called because of the rumor that Vassar women of old would entertain their male guests there. The Yale Daily News described the room as beset with “Babylonian decadence in a snow-white nunnery” when it was first unveiled.
The innovative residence hall, however, encouraged innovation by its residents. In the 1960s, Noyes hosted Theater in the Round dramatic readings three times a semester, as well as a “Thursday Night at Noyes” tradition with singing groups, bands, and violin recitals entertaining residents and guests. Noyes did not lack for entertainment during the ’60s; residents won a new TV by saving the most empty Marlboro cigarette packs in a contest sponsored by the College Drug Store. Noyes also supported an initially all-female football team, known as the Noyes Nymphs, that went head to head with all-male Ivy League teams in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And Noyes remains the only Vassar building to receive a bomb threat, which occurred in 1979. There was no evidence of a bomb, and the caller was never identified, having been deemed a likely prankster.
In 1981 Noyes hosted a series of auctions open to both students and the Poughkeepsie community. The house incurred a $3,000 dorm damage charge in 1982, along with frequent complaints about the rowdiness of its residents. This was not a new complaint; Noyes had been described, punfully, as “noisy” since 1959. The 1982 Director of Residence Sheila Gillert said that “People couldn’t sleep or study” there, but by the late 1980s Noyes had “successfully…changed its atmosphere and image.” It became the first handicapped-accessible dorm on campus in the late 1980s.
1974-1986 saw Noyes’s current multipurpose room used as the Epicurean East Coffeehouse, then the West End Coffeehouse, a nonprofit student-run center that provided entertainment as well as tea, coffee, and freshly baked goods up to five nights a week. The Student Government Association (later the Vassar Student Association) provided its funding. In its early days, the Coffeehouse did not serve alcohol and instituted a dress code, but by the mid-80s The Miscellany News described the atmosphere as full of “skinheads, punks and good-time-seekers.” Poughkeepsie bands, claiming it had better acoustics than Matthew’s Mug in Main, frequented the coffeehouse. Its 1986 closure, on grounds of mismanagement, was accompanied by the promise of accommodation for a student cafe in the Aula. The coffeehouse resurfaced a few times throughout the ’90s, but never to stay.
In 1998, President Frances Fergusson restored the main entry to Noyes. In 2001, she renovated the whole interior of Noyes House with the help of Minneapolis architect Leonard Parker. She restored scratched tables, missing furniture, and the original color scheme of the iconic “Jetsons lounge” revealed by some drab ’70s upholstery. Cesar Pelli, the architect of the Frances Lehman Loeb Arts Center, recommended Parker, who had worked with Eero Saarinen on the original design. The $150,000 renovation restored Saarinen’s original vision, as Parker found a notebook documenting the original materials and finishes. Noyes underwent a final, more technological renovation in 2007, which updated telephone and data lines and bathrooms.
Noyes Circle, as the lawn in front of Noyes is known, has a rich history of its own: Along with being the site of horseback riding, tennis lessons, and Founder’s Day picnics, it hosted the first women’s field day in America in 1895, as well as “nude-in” during the feminist movement in the 1970s. Saarinen intentionally left out a direct path through the circle so as not to disrupt its symmetry.
The Emma Hartman Noyes House
Former Noyes President Marcelo Buitron, Class of 2009, said “Just the architecture by itself gives us a stronger sense of community. We are so close. It’s not like the quad rooms where the doors separate the students.” Another former Noyes President, Hannah Groch-Begley, Class of 2012, attributed the dorm’s strong sense of community to its small size:. Most other Vassar dorms are home to around 200 students, compared to Noyes’s approximate 150.
Although the last to join Vassar’s distinguished set of residence halls, Noyes has had no trouble making its mark on the Vassar community. The 1960 song concludes,
“And now we’ll tell you a thing or three From under the shade of our potted tree We’ve found the perfect recipe For the best dorm we’ll ever be in.”
The Vassar Miscellany
The Vassar Alumnae Quarterly
Albrecht, Donald. Pelkonen, Eeva-Liisa: Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.
Louie, Elaine. “Saarinen’s Classic Vassar Dorm Is 50’s New Again.” The New York Times. January 25, 2001.
“Digital Images Database.” Yale University Manuscripts and Archives.