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Lilly Hall

Before Lilly Hall was built, all classes at Smith College took place in College Hall. As the student body grew and College Hall could no longer contain the volume of students and administrative offices, President Seelye recognized the need to construct a new building entirely devoted to the sciences. However, the task was not as simple as finding an architect and beginning construction. The school first needed to find proper funding for the project. This proved to be troublesome at first, until President Seelye happened upon Alfred Theodore Lilly.

Alfred Theodore Lilly: Born on April 15th, 1813 in Mansfield, Connecticut, Alfred Theodore Lilly developed a kindness that came from remembering those who had aided him in the midst of dire circumstances, such as when his father’s silk manufacturing business endeavor failed.[1] Lilly later enjoyed success when starting his own business, and became a local benefactor.

He met President Seelye in 1884 on a train between Springfield and Boston. As the two men conversed, Lilly learned of Smith College’s need for a science building. In fact, Seelye was on his way to New Bedford in hopes of receiving funds for the construction of the new building. Sometime later, Lilly learned that Smith College had not been able to collect any resources. He contacted Seelye and offered to fund the project. [2]

Lilly Hall: Construction began in late 1885. Lilly chose to remain an anonymous benefactor until the building’s dedication the following summer. The building was designed by William C. Brocklesby of Hartford, Connecticut, an architect praised for his work with the Gothic revival. He also designed the Forbes library in Northampton.[3] His interpretation of the High Victorian Gothic style, when compared to the architects of College Hall, Peabody and Stearns, was more somber with relatively muted stones.[4] The total cost of construction was around $20,000.[5]

According to an article in the Springfield Republican, Lilly Hall’s features included a “library of reference books and charts and the chief scientific periodicals, a spectrum analysis room, arrangement for the use of solar lanterns and microscopes, a botanical laboratory with herbarium and collections for the study of vegetable histology and physiology, and a photographing room for the preparation of photo-migrographs.”[6] The official dedication of the building took place on Tuesday, June 22, 1886.

Lilly Hall was not only an innovation for Smith College, but for women’s scientific education in general. According to the authors of This, the House We Live In, Lilly Hall was the “first building in the world erected for the teaching of science to women.” Also, the science building installed a “Van de Graaff electrostatic generator, an ‘atom smasher,’ the first in a women’s college and among the first in the initial development of nuclear physics” in 1940.[7]

Over the years, Smith College received numerous funds for the upkeep of Lilly Hall. In 1908, Andrew Carnegie donated half the sum for an additional lab in Lilly Hall. Smith College raised the remaining half of the $125,000. President Seelye announced Carnegie’s generous donation at Chapel for the 31st anniversary of Smith College. Apparently, Carnegie believed that biology was of “upmost importance in a college for women.”[8] The additional laboratory in Lilly Hall caused an enlargement of the science department through new courses and professors.

After thirteen years, Lilly Hall proved to be too small to house all of the classes for the departments of botany, physics, physiology, and chemistry. In 1899, the chemistry classes were moved to Stoddard Hall. Eleven years later, the geology department moved to Seelye Hall, and in 1914, the botany and biology departments moved to Burton. The physics department remained in Lilly Hall for a number of years. It did not switch buildings until 1967.[9]

After Science: The same year the physics department moved out, the sophomore class planned and decorated a coffeehouse in the basement of Lilly Hall which they dubbed the Lilly Pad Coffeehouse. They would occasionally invite bands to play on their raised stage in the basement. The Smith College School for Social Work and the offices for graduate study were housed in the rest of the building.[10]

Only a year later, Lilly Hall found a new purpose as the African-American Cultural Center in 1968. The cultural center used the basement and the full first floor of Lilly Hall.[11] In 1973, the center was renamed the Mwangi Cultural Center in honor of student Ng’endo M’Wangi, class of ‘61, the first woman doctor in Kenya.[12]

Ten years later, in 1983, the administration proposed to make Lilly Hall a Multicultural Center, offering space for the Asian Students Association and Nosotras. In March of the same years, the members of the Black Students Alliance wrote a letter to then president Jill Ker Conway, describing their unanimous opposition to the movement. In the letter, they wrote that they supported the unity of minorities, but that each group deserved their own space. They believed that the purpose of the proposal was to address the lack of space for the other minority groups rather than to foster unity. “We oppose our administration’s attempt to pacify [Nosotras and the Asian Students’ Association] by first allocating them to such a small area, and second by taking away space from its Black students.”[13] They asserted that placing three groups on the first floor and basement of Lilly Hall would only foster tension between them.

Later that month, President Conway replied to the Black Students Alliance, agreeing that the space belonged to them. She wrote that “under no circumstances [would any change be approved] in the mission and use of the Cultural Center unless that change has the informed consent of the black community at Smith College as expressed through the Black Students’ Alliance.”[14] However, she explained that there would not be any new space available for the next year in which to house the other minority organizations, and thus asked if the Black Students Alliance would be able to design a plan in which Lilly Hall could be shared by the three organizations.

Not only did the students of the black community at Smith oppose the proposition. Many Smith alumnae wrote to President Conway, expressing their concern over the situation. Patricia M. Harden, class of ’73, said in a letter to the president that the black students “see the center as not only a focus for the dissemination of Afro-American culture but as a refuge from some of the stresses of being a black student at Smith… All people of color enrolled at [Smith College] deserve special considerations but this does not mean that all their needs can be met in the same way and in the same place.”[15]

However, later that year in May, the members of the Black Students Alliance voted to loan out the space in Lilly Hall to the other cultural organizations on a three-year trial basis. After those three years, the “space allotment and the coordination programming of appropriate events among the three students organizations [would] be reviewed…and the general success of the arrangement [would] be assessed.”[16] The left side of the center, including the Round Room, BSA office, TV room, stereo room, and a small office would be kept for the Black Students Alliance. Nosotras would receive a small office off the side of the library, and the Asian Students Association would use the basement.

Although the original terms called for a review after three years, no such review took place. In 1989, the Black Students’ Alliance wrote to the administration, describing feelings of resentment among the minority organizations housed in Lilly Hall. The effects of the situation “ghettoized and segregated these students in a negative way and reduced the effectiveness of the center; Set up tensions and potential conflicts which have added to the pressures and stress experienced by these students…There are now seven cultural organization who use the shared spaces in the center: ASA, BSA, EKTA, International Students Organization, Korean Students of Smith, and Nosotras.”[17] There were also complaints of the School for Social Work using the Round Room without request during the spring and early summer months. Many of the minority students felt that they could not claim the cultural center as their own. They wrote the administration, asking the school to find adequate space for the various cultural organizations.

On September 22, 1989, E. Holmes, director of the Multicultural Center, met with the chairs of each of the organizations.[18] They devised the following terms:

  1. The decision on the allocation of more space for the Center should be made by January of 1990. No more reviews would be tolerated.
  2. The student organizations should be able to move into their new space by September 1990.
  3. Students should not have to be involved in the logistics of finding or creating new space.
  4. The entire building should be an exclusive space for all seven groups during their stay in Lilly Hall. There should be no academic or other departments in the same building.
  5. The building should have 24 hour access.
  6. The Black Students Alliance requests that all of its space be returned to its use.

Lilly Hall had originally been intended to house only 150 students. With seven organizations meeting in the building, several hundred students would crowd the hall.

The following year in April, the Associate of Student Affairs drafted a memo to the Chairs of the Black Students Alliance, asking them what they wanted to do with their space in Lilly Hall. The group voted in favor of reclaiming their space by September 1st, 1990.[19] Unfortunately, these terms were not met.

When the Black Students Alliance wrote of their concerns to President Mary Maples Dunn on September 26th, she replied that she was working with the College Planning and Resources Committee and the Space Committee on “a master plan for space utilization on campus.”[20] On October 7th, the Black Students Alliance wrote to President Dunn again, describing the growing number of students in the organizations and the need for space.[21]

In the October 25th issue of the Sophian, the cultural organizations sent a campus-wide memo demanding that Lilly Hall’s be used exclusively by the cultural organizations. They planned a sit-in at Lilly Hall that would last from Friday afternoon until Monday. Multicultural organizations from the Five College area, Harvard, MIT, Wellesley, Brown, Yale, and Columbia sent students to protest with the Smith cultural organizations.[22]

The sit-in was extended to last a full week and the location was changed from Lilly Hall to College Hall. In response, President Dunn hired the architectural firm of Frummey and Rosane Anderson Inc. of Boston to study the space needs and devise plans for reallocating space. The administration also offered temporary space in Stoddard to the cultural organizations while these plans were being devised. [23]

In 2005, the Mwangi Cultural Center moved to Davis Hall, and since then Lilly Hall has been used as a space for the office for the School of Social Work. [24]

Renovations: Not too long before the cultural center moved out of Lilly Hall, the building was awarded a Preservation Award. Lilly Hall had undergone renovations from late 2002 to early 2003. In April of 2004, the Historic Commission of Northampton recognized eleven projects that practiced architectural sensitivity. Commission Chairman Christopher A. Kennedy stated that the renovation of the building was done tastefully and respectfully.[25] Although the interior of Lilly Hall has changed and served numerous purposes, the exterior looks much like architect Brocklesby’s original design in 1886.[26]


[1] Prepared by Trustees of Florence Kindergarten and Lilly Library Association. Memoral: Alfred Theodore Lilly. Florance, MA. Bryant & Brothers Printers, 1890. Page 7

[2] Prepared by Trustees of Florence Kindergarten and Lilly Library Association. Memoral: Alfred Theodore Lilly. Florance, MA. Bryant & Brothers Printers, 1890. Page 20

[3] Springfield Republican, January 25, 1886

[4] Vickery, Margaret Birney. The Campus Guide: Smith College. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007. Page 32

[5] Springfield Republican, January 25, 1886

[6] Springfield Republican, January 25, 1886

[7] Lincoln, Eleanor Terry and Joen Abel Pinto. This, the House We Live In: The Smith College Campus from 1871 to 1982. Northampton, MA: Smith College, 1983. Page 44.

[8] Smith College Archives: Box 76, Folder 1

[9] Vickery, Margaret Birney. The Campus Guide: Smith College. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007. Page 31

[10] Vickery, Margaret Birney. The Campus Guide: Smith College. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007. Page 31

[11] Smith College Archives: Box 76, Folder 5

[12] Smith College Archives, Box 76, Folder 5

[13] Smith College Archives, Box 76, Folder 5. Memorandum: March 1983

[14] Smith College Archives, Box 76, Folder 5. Memorandum: March 1983

[15] Smith College Archives, Box 76, Folder 5. Patricia M. Harden, November 24, 1982

[16] Smith College Archives: Box 76, Folder 5. Memorandum, May 1983

[17] Smith College Archives: Box 76, Folder 5. Memorandum, May 1989

[18] Smith College Archives: Box 76, Folder 5. Memorandum, September 22, 1989

[19] Smith College Archives: Box 76, Folder 5. Memorandum, April 1990

[20] Smith College Archives: Box 76, Folder 5. Memorandum, September 26, 1990

[21] Smith College Archives: Box 76, Folder 5. Memorandum, October 7, 1990

[22] Krasik, Erin. “Cultural Organizations Plan Rally and Sit-In.” Sophian. October 25, 1990

[23] Platt, Susan. “Protesters Extend Sit-In, Demand ‘Concrete Plans.’” Sophian. October 29, 1990.

[24] Gallagher, Heather. “Mwangi Center Moves to New Home.” Sophian. January 27, 2005.

[25] Contrada, Fred. “Historical Effort Cited in ‘Hamp.” The Republican. April 28, 2004.

[26] Vickery, Margaret Birney. The Campus Guide: Smith College. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007. Page 32

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