Kenyon Hall (1934)
On February 23, 1934, Dr. William Darrach, dean emeritus of Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and a Vassar trustee, spoke at the dedication of Kenyon Hall, Vassar’s new gymnasium. The dedication was the culmination of a project that had begun on December 15, 1932, with the groundbreaking by President MacCracken, trustee Chairman Helen Kenyon ‘05 and Ida McKean ‘95, chairman of the trustee committee on buildings and grounds. It was on that morning, using Matthew Vassar’s ceremonial spade, that the college undertook a significant step in the advancement of women’s health.
Calling the building a “laboratory where the art of physical development may be learned so thoroughly that it will be practiced throughout life by every Vassar alumna and taught by her to oncoming generations,” Dr. Darrach declared it not primarily a space for athletic competition but a place in which the individual could explore diverse physical activities. Echoing the idiolect of the college’s new multidisciplinary euthenics program in his dedicatory remarks, President MacCracken saw in the building “the transition of physical education from its earlier function as a callisthenic drill to its incorporation as a social institution in daily life.”
Defined by its founder, Ellen Swallow Richards ’70, as “the science of better living,” and given a multidisciplinary interpretation by her disciple, the social reformer Julia Lathrop ’80, euthenics was defined in the Miscellany News in 1924 by chemist Annie Louise McLeod, the new program’s director: “The term euthenics is understood to denote the direct application of the arts and sciences to the adaptation of the environment to the individual, with a view to the improvement of the individual, and hence the race, through increased efficiency, mental and physical.” Her definition echoed Dr. Darrach’s three main points: individual learning, lifelong practice and the improvement of future generations. Joining Blodgett Hall of Euthenics, Cushing House and Wimpfheimer Nursery School in the cluster of buildings associated with the euthenics department, Kenyon Hall was thus planned as an apposite, modern venue for presenting physical activity as an art. It was intended also to provide access to such activity throughout the entire year, an element essential to the college’s developmental program.
Physical education, taken literally, had been a primary concern at Vassar since the founding. The first section in the Prospectus of the Vassar Female College published in May of 1865, “Physical Education,” appeared there “not as first in intrinsic importance, but as fundamental to all the rest, and to indicate the purpose of the managers of this Institution to give it, not nominally but really, its true place in their plan.” “In the education of women,” the prospectus declared “this is a consideration of peculiar importance: first because of the peculiar delicacy of their physical organization, rendering it specially liable to derangement from neglect or misuse; and, secondly, because of the transcendent importance of woman’s health to the highest domestic and national interests.” In 1866, the Calisthenium and Riding Academy—the third major building on the new campus, after the Observatory (1864) and Main Building (1865)— offered a broad, innovative physical education program that included the new discipline of “Swedish Calisthenics (or Boston Light Gymnastics),…such simple feminine sports as archery, croquet (or ladies’ cricket),” flower-gardening, swimming, boating and horseback riding—the latter, a short-lived component. This original concept had been adjusted to meet contemporary needs with the construction, in 1889, of the Alumnae Gymnasium. Inspired by the concerns of Boston alumnae that the innovative facility and program of the 1860s was falling short of those established a decade later at Smith and Wellesley, the new gymnasium featured 40 dressing rooms, 25 stimulating “needle baths,” a swimming bath 27 feet wide and 40 feet long (the largest in any college or university in America) and a large hall on the second floor that accommodated indoor tennis. This building served the college for many years, but as early as 1897 it had become too small to meet the increasing need, and space in Main Building’s first floor had been given over as an auxiliary gym.
During the development of the euthenics block on the northern side of campus, the need for another, larger and more inclusive site for exercise had become a major concern. In agreement with the euthenics department, Vassar’s physical education department believed that there must be a balance between physical and mental activity in order for a student to function at her full potential. In keeping with the surrounding buildings, Kenyon Hall was to harmonize with the themes of English style architecture and to expand the reach of euthenics. The new gymnasium was estimated to cost approximately $500,000, and the trusted firm of Allen and Collens—architects of Thompson Library (1905), Josselyn House (1912), Taylor Hall (1915) and, more recently, Cushing House (1927) and Wimpfheimer Nursery School (1927)—was called upon to draw up plans for it.
The site for the building, just north of Cushing, Blodgett and the Nursery School, had been chosen twelve years earlier, when the campus map had been drawn. In 1928, with the erection of Blodgett Hall, Keene Richards, the general manager of the college, had seen to it that pipes for heating and plumbing were laid northward in anticipation of a new gymnasium. The proposed building followed the English and Post-Gothic themes of the surrounding buildings, but more specifically, according to the building’s prospectus, The New Gymnasium, the plan also intimated a “country home with farm outbuildings suitable to the landscape and suggestive of Matthew Vassar’s birthplace in Norfolk.”
This antiquarian aspect met with criticism both on and off the campus. In “Vassar Buildings” in the Miscellany News on April 23, 1932, Nancy Rodman ’32 asked “Do we want another Old World Post-Gothic building on our campus? Are we satisfied to live in an atmosphere of antiquity and unsuitability? Quaintly enough we are living and breathing a paradox.” She called instead for “a modern building, a physical laboratory suitable for its purposes, a building redolent with light, air and sunshine, (not a roost for the birds and a barrier for English fogs)…. Why can’t we follow the enlightened examples of the Germans and the Swedes (incidentally the greatest promoters of physical exercise in the world) and build our new gymnasium after their fascinating and truly contemporary models?”
And on May 7, 1932, in the New York publication Arts Weekly, the critic and architect Catherine Bauer ’26 urged her readers to “look again at the architect’s drawing, saying over and over again that this is going to be Vassar’s new gymnasium. Let us try momentarily to forget Matthew Vassar’s birthplace and the nearby Tudor Euthenics Building…. Let us stop trying to find the ‘new note in gymnasium architecture,’ and merely essay to figure out what there actually is in this building. That complicated wing in the foreground, with peaked dormers and transverse gables suggesting at least three apartments and several stories…all of that is just the swimming pool…. It will be like swimming in a sort of Alice in Wonderland transformation of a don’s private study. And that left front wing, which seems to be an Old Halfe Timberede Englishe Inne on one side and a forsaken abbey on the other—what is that? Offices—it would appear—and Corrective Exercises, on the first floor. Fencing, among the half-timbers and gables and dizzy roof slopes. Dancing under the chimney (apparently a fake) and in and out of the little bird-bath oriel.” As planned, Bauer concluded, the new gymnasium would be “one of the all-round all-American worst building of this generation.”
Bauer and other critics were mollified by the modestly revised plans for Kenyon Hall which combined modern functionality with suppressed references to the English styles. With space for group, individual and social activities, Kenyon Hall was planned not only for the use of 1200 students. Members of the faculty and staff were also encouraged to enjoy the facilities through group lessons and open pool hours in the evenings. Sports areas were separated, making possible their coinciding use. The ground floor contained a four-lane bowling alley equipped with both standard and duckpins, and an archery range for indoor practice in cold weather. The first floor of the building housed a clay tennis court, three squash courts, a handball court, a golf driving range, a basketball floor large enough for two full courts and a “rhythm room” that was used for the instruction of dance. This floor also provided dressing rooms and storage lockers for students, as well as showers for pre- or post-swim rinses. The faculty and maids’ dressing rooms were also on the first floor, as was the service hall and rooms for laundry.
On the side of the main corridor that ran up the building from north to south, was the staircase that led up to the rooftop solarium, where approximately 30 students could enjoy the benefits of the sun. The central section, the only two-story section of the building, featured the “Social Room,” a large space with a fireplace and beamed ceiling that could be used for meetings and larger gatherings. “Its character,” Miss Kenyon noted, “is indicative of the new note in gymnasium planning which emphasizes the pleasure of exercise rather than the duty of taking it.” Adjacent to this was the fencing room, which could accommodate up to 16 fencers. The body mechanics laboratory, a room with large mirrors and apparatuses for the correction of movement and posture, sat above the first floor rhythm room. Nearby, the photographic and lamp room was used to take posture pictures and silhouettes for study and physical examinations.
Perhaps the most anticipated part of the building was the large swimming pool that made up the east wing of the building. The pool, deep enough to “encourage diving,” was encircled by a viewing gallery and illuminated by twenty-two large windows on three sides. Anticipating the new building in 1930 in the Miscellany News, Helen Kenyon had promised that, compared to “the present tank” in the Alumnae Gymnasium, the pool, viewed from the gallery, “would look like a safe anchorage for all the navies of the world.” Another feature of the building was its technological imitation of varied outdoor environments. In a caption under a photograph of the new building, the New York Times reported “The Rooms Are Soundproof So That the Din of Games Will Not Carry Through the Building; There is Thermostatic Control So That Varying Climates Can Be Provided, A Summer Temperature for the Swimming Pool, One Like Spring in the Individual Exercise Rooms and a Brisk October Day in the Basketball Courts.” The building also stood near outdoor exercise areas such as the golf course, the tennis courts, and the ice hockey rink in the field to the east of the building.
Kenyon Hall was received with much excitement, its facilities being used even before the official opening. An appreciation in the Miscellany News predicted a marked change in the student body as a result of the new gymnasium—even those students living nearby in the cooperative housing in Blodgett Hall:
“1934 Forecast – Time past we deliberated on the relative merits of mullioned and modern windows, of aluminum and stone construction, for the new Gym. Before its advent, uncertainty was expressed as to which of its nearest neighbors it would take after in external appearance. Today we have among us the long anticipated Kenyon Hall, whole and happy, near the most cheerful people on campus, the nursery school cherubs and the Blodgett Hausfrauen. At last our fondest plans are realized; the red bricks and the stone we argued about are resolved in the Tudor Kenyon Hall. As soon as the Department of Physical Education posts the ‘further notice’ bulletin, a general exodus to Kenyon Hall is expected…. For all forecasts indicate a new Vassar health regime; there will be such heavy participation, it appears, in squash, badminton, swimming, etc., that the pale intellectual will disappear from out midst, Metcalf and the Infirmary will be transformed into quarters for the crew and football team, and the Machine Age will give way to the V.C. Physical Culture Era!”
Kenyon Hall underwent a $21 million renovation in the early 2000s, resulting in the addition of six “smart” classrooms and the Frances Daly Fergusson Dance Theater in the space originally occupied by the swimming pool. The old basketball court was transformed into a volleyball court, and the squash courts were refurbished and updated. With all its contemporary modifications, and the substantial augmentation of its mission by Walker Field House (1982) and the Athletics and Fitness Center (2000), Kenyon Hall retains many of the original features and the atmosphere of the building completed in 1934: an emphasis on the “pleasure of exercise” rather than the “duty of taking it.”
- Helen Kenyon
- The Disappointing First Thrust of Euthenics
- The Calisthenium and Riding Academy
- Blodgett Hall
- Ellen Swallow Richards
- Julia Lathrop
Daniels, Elizabeth, Main to Mudd and More. Poughkeepsie: Vassar College, 1996.
Van Lengen, Karen and Lisa Reilly, The Campus Guide: Vassar College. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004.
”Gift Makes Possible Plans for New Gym,” Vassar Miscellany News, Vol. XIII, No. 3, October 6, 1928.
“Tudor or Not to Be ,” Vassar Miscellany News, Vol. XII, No. 54, June 12, 1928.
Nancy G. Rodman ‘32, “Vassar Buildings,” Vassar Miscellany News, Vol. XVI, No. 38, April 23, 1932.
“Plans for New Gym Cause Metropolitan Comment,” Vassar Miscellany News, Vol. XVI, No. 42, May 7, 1932.
“To the Editor,” Vassar Miscellany News, Vol. XVI, No. 48, May 28, 1932.
“1934 FORECAST,” Vassar Miscellany News, Vol. XVIII, No. 21, January 10, 1934.
”Kenyon Hall to Be Officially Opened By Dr. W. Darrach, Vassar Miscellany News, Vol. XVIII, Number 26, January 27, 1934.
“President’s Letter Suggests Gym Gift,” Vassar Miscellany News, Vol. XVIII, No. 29, February 17, 1934.
“Kenyon Hall,” Vassar Miscellany News, Vol. XVIII, No. 30, February 21, 1934.
“Bits About the Gym,” Vassar Miscellany News, Vol. XVIII, No. 32, February 28, 1934.
Ruth Murray ’41, “Helen Kenyon, Long Active Alumnae Trustee to Retire,” Vassar Miscellany News, Vol. XXIII, No. 50, May 13, 1939.
Subject File, Kenyon Hall, Vassar College Special Collections Library
Subject File, Vassar College Office of the Historian