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In the beginning
Special report: Inside the 150th anniversary celebration
If there’s anything like a birth photo of Boston College, it’s the one on the page opposite. The picture is of a near-completed Gasson Hall and dates to 1913, half a century after Boston College was in fact born into a four-story brick building on a small plot beside a large church on an unpaved street in the south end of Boston—not yet the desirable “South End,” but the bottom of it all (the school and the church were nestled into an older “pauper’s burial ground”).
Boston College’s archives contain scores of photos dating back to the south-end era: unsmiling Jesuits in cassocks; boys and young men dressed for class or baseball or Macbeth; alumni gathered in hotel ballrooms for a feast; and still-life portraits of rooms trimmed out with the latest in glass and steel science paraphernalia or wood and leather gymnastics equipment.
On the day the photograph opposite this page was taken, however, the Boston College captured in those earlier images was done for, on the point of shedding its high school (the college and a secondary school had cohabited from day one) and its unfashionable location for a shot at a real college existence on a real campus: 31 acres of farmland atop Chestnut Hill that were “almost intended by nature for the site of a large institution,” as a realtor murmured in the ear of an early Boston College president. There would flourish “the greatest Catholic college in America,” according to a 1907 call to arms (and fund-raising) by Thomas Gasson, SJ, the president who bought the land and who publicly dreamed of a 15-building English Collegiate Gothic enchantment overlooking Boston.
That was the dream anyway. Gasson Hall’s foundation was laid in fall 1909, with the expectation that “University Heights” would open for business the following fall. It didn’t. Alumni were few, and of modest means, and construction stuttered along for years, to some degree powered by money gained from lectures and retreats the Jesuit faculty offered during their spare time. This went on long enough that the building had to be temporarily roofed. Finally, in March 1913, some 70 seniors, carrying their “Boston bags” and accompanied by Fr. Gasson, walked up the hill from the Commonwealth Avenue trolley terminus to claim a classroom in a corner of an incomplete building so they could at least finish their academic careers feeling like they were real college boys. (The three lower classes stayed downtown until the following September.) This photo was taken soon after the seniors laid claim to their room—late April, I’m guessing. “Linden Lane” is unpaved. Surveyor’s stakes are in the ground. Excavation rubble is scattered about. At right and behind the new “Recitation Building” is a barn, left standing in case the college’s Jesuit faculty would determine to upgrade it for residential use until their permanent home was constructed. (They rather sensibly declined and trolleyed from the South End to work each school day until St. Mary’s Hall was completed in 1917.)
I’m guessing it’s Sunday. Saturday was a workday in 1913, and there are no workers in this photo, only some well-dressed tourists, out for a stroll in the country (the twin reservoirs were a popular outing), who decided to get a close look at the piece of medieval Europe that had sprouted on a barren hill overlooking the city. They may be all one family: the man walking alongside his little daughter; two women in scalloped Edwardian dresses and hats; another bowlered fellow standing in the distance and gazing at the building, leaning back, his hands clasped neatly behind him, like a serious man getting a look at his first pachyderm.
After Boston College was founded in 1863, three years passed during which the Society of Jesus called it Collegium Bostoniense Inchoatum. The daring of Frs. Robert Fulton, Timothy Brosnahan, and Read Mullan, the Boston College presidents who along with Gasson were responsible for this photograph, is that after Boston College was quite solidly formed (the largest high school and college enrollment at an American Jesuit school) they conceived of a superior form, and temporarily returned Boston College to inchoatum, as in this photograph.
One day soon after the day captured here, workers will enter this scene and put hands on the clock and start time.