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Davis Center

Until 2004, the Davis Center served as the principle location for student recreation. Hosting events such as dances, concerts, art shows, and plays, the Davis Center was rather popular on the weekends, especially during the fifties. However, as with nearly all of Smith College’s buildings, it served numerous purposes since its initial construction, first as a girl’s preparatory school, then as headquarters for the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service in the 1940s, and now as the center for the offices of various cultural organizations.

The Davis Center was built in 1898, featuring Georgian and Colonial stylistic elements in an academic pastiche[1] Before Davis Hall became part of Smith, it was used as a gymnasium by the Classical School for Girls, run by Bessie Capen. She was the second woman to be admitted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later taught Chemistry at Wellesley and Smith before creating the preparatory girls’ school. When she died in 1920, she left her school properties of Capen, Talbot, and Parsons Houses, and Davis to Smith College.[2]

Before Scott Gymnasium was built, Davis, initially called Faunce Hall, served as a gym to accommodate overflow from the Alumnae Gym.[3] Later, in 1924, it housed the Department of Spoken English. Smith students were required to take a speech exam when they first entered college in the 1920s and 1930s. Those with strong accents or troubles with pronunciation took elocution lessons from the Department of Spoken English. President Nielson ended this practice in the mid 1930s.[4]

In 1942, the Officer Training School for Women used the building as headquarters for the WAVE officer training.[5] This lasted for two years before the building was remolded to serve as a Student Center. During this process, the building’s name was changed from Faunce Hall to the Davis Center in honor of President Davis. The building did not open until 1949 to serve as the Student Center.[6] After renovation, it featured a ballroom with card tables, games, and ping pong equipment, a Food Shop with snacks and lunches, a juke box, candy machines, a “modern lounge” with a fireplace and couches, a grand piano, and several rooms for organizational meetings.[7] It also featured an informational board concerning bands, octets, and jazz groups for the students planning parties at their Houses.  The first event held at the Davis Recreation Center was a dance scheduled for the first-year students from Smith and also from the nearby men’s colleges. Many saw this new Student Center as vital to the students’ academic experience. Mrs. A. C. Ockenden, the first Davis Center director, asserted that “the importance of leisure time cannot be overestimated, and a well-balanced program of extracurricular activities on campus is essential if our graduates are to be ‘educated for living’ as well as for ‘making a living.’”[8]

The new Student Center featured a number of activities, such as art exhibits, modern dance recitals, Glee Club and Choir recitals, octets, bands, original plays by students, poetry readings, dances, fashion shows, and luncheons.[9] In the 1950s, Davis became the center for mixers with male undergraduates from Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and Amherst.[10]

The Davis Student Center director implemented a series of rules. For instance, all guests had to be introduced to the director, the lounges were reserved for students and their dates Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, the building was not open to unescorted visitors, food and beverages were not allowed outside of the lounge, and the juke box had to be turned off every Saturday night due to a state law that forbade dancing on Sundays.[11]

Students not only enjoyed the activities held at the Davis Center, but also organized the events themselves. When the Davis Center opened, Mrs. A. C. Ockenden created the Recreational Council, which consisted of 16 members from all class years. The council would ask the House Presidents for the names of students interested in participating in the Recreational Council. The council would then split into two groups to interview twenty women each. The likeliest candidates were then interviewed by the entire council and voted in by ballot. The Recreational Council was extremely popular when the Student Center first opened with 170 students applying for just eight vacancies. The responsibilities of council members included weekly meetings and hostess duty on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. They were also obligated to report any infringement of rules and give tours of the building.[12]

During the late sixties and seventies, the popular activities at Smith changed, transforming the Davis Center’s atmosphere. In 1970, one student insisted that “mixers don’t work anymore. You just don’t meet boys at mixers…a coffee shop atmosphere would be better”.[13] The Board of Counselors of the Committee on Residence and Recreation noted that “ballroom occasions are fewer and less popular than they used to be”.[14] Smith began to host more concerts, inviting rock bands from Boston such as The Unloved and The Restless Ones.

In 2004, Smith opened a new campus center whose location was more accessible for students living on Green Street and in the Quad. The Mwangi Cultural Center, which had previously occupied Lilly Hall, moved to Davis. The building currently houses the offices for the Black Students Alliance, Nosotras, the Smith African Students Association, and the Asian Students Alliance.[15]


[1] Smith College Archives, Box 22, Folder 1. Massachusetts Historical Commission. Recorded by Ann Gilkerson and Robin Stroup of Northampton Historical Commission. March 24, 1977

[2] Smith College Archives, Box 22, Folder 1. Davis Student Center Office of the Director, Mrs. King’s Office

[3] The Campus Guide: Smith College. Vickery, Margaret Birney. Princeton Architectural Press, New York, New York, 2007. Pg 112

[4] The Campus Guide: Smith College. Vickery, Margaret Birney. Princeton Architectural Press, New York, New York, 2007. Pg 112

[5] Smith College Archives, Box 22, Folder 1. Massachusetts Historical Commission. Recorded by Ann Gilkerson and Robin Stroup of Northampton Historical Commission. March 24, 1977

[6] The Campus Guide: Smith College. Vickery, Margaret Birney. Princeton Architectural Press, New York, New York, 2007. Pg 112

[7] Smith College Archives: Box 22, Folder 1. “Davis Student Center: Smith Lounge.”

[8] Mrs. A. C. Ockenden, “Davis Student Recreation Center, Smith College,” Nov. 3, 1953, revised September 15, 1954, Buildings and Grounds, Davis Student Center, Box 22, SCA

[9] Smith College Archives, Box 22, Folder 1. “Davis Student Recreation Center: Smith College.” Compiled and Submitted by Mrs. A. C. Ockenden. Director, Student Recreation Center. November 3, 1953. Revised September 15, 1954. Pg 2

[10] The Campus Guide: Smith College. Vickery, Margaret Birney. Princeton Architectural Press, New York, New York, 2007

[11] Smith College Archives: Box 22, Folder 1. “Davis Student Center: Smith Lounge.”

[12] Smith College Archives, Box 22, Folder 1. “Davis Student Recreation Center: Smith College.” Compiled and Submitted by Mrs. A. C. Ockenden. Director, Student Recreation Center. November 3, 1953. Revised September 15, 1954. Pg 3

[13] Davis Center, Preliminary Program, 3-16-70. Comments Section

[14] March 1968, Board of Counselors, Committee on Residence and Recreation. Anne K. McGuire, Chariman

[15] The Campus Guide: Smith College. Vickery, Margaret Birney. Princeton Architectural Press, New York, New York, 2007. Pg 112

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