Just three faculty members, including Principal Arthur B. Morrill, and fewer than 90 students, all of whom were female, attended for the first day of school at what would later become Southern Connecticut State University on Sept. 11, 1893.
Then called the New Haven State Normal School, the institution was used to train educators according to Thomas J. Farnham in his book, “Southern Connecticut State University: A Centennial History 1893–1993.”
Now, the school is celebrating its 125th anniversary. A look at the names on campus buildings today reveals details about the former leaders who helped bring Southern to its current state.
The Normal School was housed in the building of Skinner School, an active grammar school on the corner of State and Summer streets, the latter of which was destroyed by the construction of Interstate 91 over half a century later. The budget for the entire first year of operation was under $18,000, with $7,500 used for the salaries of teachers and staff members employed at the grammar school.
A new 10,000-square-foot single story building on the corner of Howe and Oak streets was completed in May 1896. According to Farnham, the Normal School was a welcome addition to one of New Haven’s most affluent neighborhoods at the time.
The site had been part of the Maltby Estate and was surround by elegant Italianate homes, Farnham wrote. The new location’s proximity to three elementary schools, Welch, Webster and Dwight was, according to Farnham, ideal to Charles D. Hine, secretary to the Board of Education, so that the students may receive hands on training once there.
Morrill was the principal of The Normal School from 1893 until his retirement in 1924 and his namesake, Morrill Hall of Science, completed in May 1961 still stands, now connected to Jennings Hall, across from the Academic Science and Laboratory Building.
“The young women who entered New Haven State Normal School in 1935, soon faced a college, a nation, and a world where the only constant was change,” Farnham wrote.
The concepts of electives and academic departments were not present at The Normal School. There was no bookstore. The prospect of graduating with a bachelor’s degree in science or school becoming a college seemed, according to Farnham, “far-fetched.”
Transition to Teachers College
When Finis Ewing Engleman joined The Normal School in 1935, he connected with the staff and students extremely well, wrote Farnham, having a youthful, personable energy. According to Farnham, he played baseball with students, discussed curriculum with staff and taught his own psychology courses. Engleman made The Normal School as good as it could be, Farnham wrote, being able to provide a better education for students and bring the best out of his faculty.
“He was a rock and inspiration to us all,” Barbara Atherton Field, a graduate from the class of 1942, was quoted as saying in Farnham’s book.
In 1937, The Normal School became the New Haven State Teachers College after Ernest Warren Butterfield, state education commissioner, required that all students from normal schools in New Haven, Danbury and Willimantic complete their fourth year in New Britain for the 1936–37 school year, according to Farnham. The New Haven State Normal School had been offering a fourth year for the previous three school years. According to Farnham, the requirement caused a number of logistical issues in which students could not commute as the Great Depression was still happening and parents protested prompting a change in this requirement.
Principal Engleman, who had become the new college’s first president, staying until 1945, later decided that the decision was not to improve teacher’s education, but to quiet “a group of disgruntled constituents,” Farnham wrote.
Post-war enrollment boom
The school moved again to accommodate the growing student body following World War II, Farnham wrote. Enrollment increased by 335 percent from 1945 to 1955. Farnham wrote that along with intentions to serve the youth in a broader sense, an unexpected number of veterans were attending colleges nationwide, thanks to the G.I. Bill. By 1947, veterans in attendance at the Teachers College nearly equaled the number of all enrolled students just two years prior. This also meant an influx of money, something which could make such a move possible. On top of that, there was a higher demand for teachers, according to Farnham. The state expected 450 to 500 new teachers a year, but 825 new teachers were employed by the 1951–52 school year as the “baby boomer” generation entered elementary school. The growing student body was too much for the single location on Howe Street to handle and the college had already started using neighboring buildings.
More space needed
In 1947 as deputy commissioner of education, Engleman along with the General Assembly brought a bill before the legislature proposing acquisition of a new site for the college whose president was now Samuel M. Brownell. Before the bill became law, Brownell and Engleman had already selected a location; 150 acres of a farm owned at this point by brothers, Myrlon and Birdey Farnham, which had once occupied 1,500 acres from the Hamden town line to where the Yale Bowl is now. The brothers saw no advantage in selling, but were persuaded by John Lyman, chairperson of the State Board of Education, who had been close friends since their attendance together at Yale years prior, according to Farnham’s book.
In the end, 37 acres were sold for $134,750 and groundbreaking ceremonies were held for the Crescent Street campus in early October 1951, with Pelz Gymnasium being the first building constructed. The gym, as well as a section of the main building that would become Engleman Hall, were usable by 1953 and a library was constructed by spring 1954.
Brownell left in 1953 to serve the Eisenhower administration as U.S. Commissioner of Education, leaving Warren G. Hill as acting president until Hilton C. Buley was appointed in July 1954. The college became Southern Connecticut State College in 1959.
According to Farnham, Buley differed in his administrative style compared to previous presidents. Farnham wrote that he had many critics and was one himself. According to Farnham, Buley did not hesitate to “berate instructors openly, often in front of other professors and even in the presence of students.”
Faculty saw him as, “less a threat than a bad joke,” Farnham wrote. They saw him as provincial and his inquiries at a New Haven bookstore about students’ access to the “Communist Manifesto” as, according to Farnham, “darkly humorous.”
The Crescent Street campus experienced a lot of expansion under Buley, according to Farnham. There was a rising number of building, awaiting dedication which caused ceremonies to be common and often simultaneous. One of these ceremonies was that of Anne E. Seabury Hall, Ralph Earl Hall and the College Memorial Union.
Buildings named for presidents, professors and a painter
Farnham wrote that Buley refused the custom of naming the fine arts building after a former faculty member, administrator or friend of the school. “Instead, in a rush of patriotic fervor, he asked the art department for the name of a Connecticut painter from the Revolutionary War era,” Farnham wrote. “Unfortunately, no one from the department bothered to mention that Earl was a loyalist, a man who had little more use for George Washington than Hilton Buley had for Joseph Stalin.”
In 1969, four dormitories on the corner of Farnham and Wintergreen avenues were built. Three halls, Natalie B. Wilkinson, A. Blanche Chase and J. Allen Hickerson, were named for instructors, while the fourth’s namesake was Lyman’s friend, Myrlon A. Farnham. In the same year, Schwartz Hall, named for Pauline P. Schwartz, a former professor, was purchased and converted from an apartment building.
Lyman received his own namesake in the college’s auditorium dedicated in October 1968, later to be called the John Lyman Center for the Performing Arts.
The last two major projects before Buley’s departure were the food service building, Connecticut Hall and a library capable of holding 500,000 books.
The library was dedicated in 1970, just four months before Buley retired, according to Farnham’s book.
“Campus wags quipped that the building had been named for him because he was the least likely person on the faculty to use it,” he wrote. In the 1990s, the university began renovations and expansions to the library, about which current Special Collections Librarian Paul Holmer said, “cathedrals have been built in less time.”
In 1981, Frank Harrison was chosen to be Mason Jennings’ replacement as president unanimously by both an advisory and search committee in 1981. “Southern 2000: A Guide to Lead Southern Connecticut State College into the 21st Century,” was a detailed plan of long-term goals for the college that he presented at his very first meeting with the faculty that was to be in new editions annually, according to Farnham. In this plan was that the college would soon become Southern Connecticut State University.
In March 1983, university status was granted to Central, Eastern, Western and Southern, to be known collectively as Connecticut State University.
By Jeff Lamson
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