The east side of Silliman Hall is the ninth of ten vantage points on a self-guided tour of Mrs. Perkins’ Union College, 1895-1904. Mrs. Perkins, the wife of Professor of Chemistry Maurice Perkins, lived on campus for nearly sixty years and wrote vivid letters to her son Roger about her life at Union at the turn of the 20th century. These letters were recently donated to the College by a Perkins descendent. An interactive map of the entire campus in Mrs. Perkins’ day is posted on the Schaffer Library website at http://www.schafferlibrarycollections.org/s/mrs-perkins/page/interactive-map. The library’s website also includes excerpts from Mrs. Perkins’ letters and additional pictorial, historical, and biographical material as well as further information about this Schaffer Library Digital Project.
Silliman Hall was built in 1900 as a meeting place for the YMCA and other student organizations. In her letters Mrs. Perkins reported the donation of the money for, the construction of, and the dedication of the building. Its appearance pleased her – an important matter from her point of view, since she could see both the structure and events being held in Silliman Hall from her rear windows. Apparently the activity also pleased Mrs. Perkins, for she commented on how pretty the lights were as they shone from the hall during evening events. In common with other buildings on campus, however, Silliman could have heating problems. Mrs. Perkins reported in one of her letters that due to a widespread coal shortage in the wintertime, some buildings, including Silliman Hall, had to be closed for an extended period.
Long before Silliman was constructed, another building had come and gone in this general area. The modest structure had been the home of Moses Viney, longtime servant to College President Eliphalet Nott. Viney was born into slavery in Maryland, but escaped to the North and started working for Nott in 1842. Nott later secured his freedom and Viney worked for Nott until Nott’s death in 1866. Sometime afterwards Viney moved off-campus, but he established and continued to run an independent carriage service in Schenectady until his retirement in 1901. Mrs. Perkins was one of Viney’s regular customers. Although she could walk to and from her daughter’s home at The Orchard on Nott Street, weight gain and other health issues made her reluctant to walk longer distances, such as to the downtown area. Her solution was usually to use Moses Viney’s carriage service, and her dog, Flop, loved to accompany her. On at least one occasion Flop hid under Viney’s feet so that Mrs. Perkins would forget him in the carriage, and Viney had to bring him back to South Colonnade at the end of the day.
Across Library Lane from this general vantage point one can also see the Ashmore House (now known as John Blair Smith House), flanked by two fraternity houses that were constructed during this general period, Alpha Delta Phi on the left (now the Grant Hall admissions building) and Sigma Phi on the right (now the Breazzano Minerva House). At the time of Mrs. Perkins’ letters, the middle house was occupied by Professor of Latin Sidney Ashmore and his wife, who was one of Mrs. Perkins’ closest friends. Mrs. Ashmore expressed concern about being crowded in between two fraternity houses, and Mrs. Perkins lamented the loss of the pretty open space on that end of campus. (St. John’s Roman Catholic Church was also being built at this time.) Nonetheless, the Ashmores and Perkins apparently had a good relationship with the fraternities, and all of the women would sometimes be chaperones at fraternity dances. In any case the shortage of student dormitories on campus, which at the time were limited to North and South Colleges, made the construction of large fraternity houses on campus something of a necessity. (Two others were also built at Union during this decade: the Chi Psi Lodge, now the Golub Minerva House, and the Kappa Alpha House, which is no longer standing.) The popularity of fraternity housing was likely enhanced by the fact that there were no dining halls on campus at this time. This meant that many students would have to walk to downtown Schenectady for their meals. Students who belonged to fraternities, however, could eat all of their meals “at home” without having to make the trek off-campus.
Fraternities were a major part of campus life overall in this period. A significant number had been founded at Union, a majority of students belonged to one, and some Union faculty members had been in fraternities themselves while they were in college. Thus close bonds tended to form between faculty members and students over their fraternity loyalties. Mrs. Perkins reported, for example, that after the death of College Professor of Natural Philosophy John Foster, who had been a member of Sigma Phi as an undergraduate at Union, the students who were then members of Sigma Phi stayed up all night in the chapel with his body. Mrs. Perkins herself had a particular affinity for Kappa Alpha, because her son Roger had been in that fraternity when he was a student at Union. But the activities of all of the fraternities were reported in her letters with lively interest along with more general student-faculty interactions. Mrs. Perkins once wrote that some students undertook to teach their professors, including Professor Perkins and President Raymond, how to ride bicycles, and greatly enjoyed the spectacle.
The building that is now the Becker Career Center on the left was built as the college gym and is where basketball games would take place during the period of Mrs. Perkins’ letters. There was also a hay loft above the gym, and the dust from the hay would apparently cover the players. Better facilities at Alumni Gymnasium would not be built for another decade.
Walk northeast towards Vantage Point 10, Mrs. Perkins’ Garden.