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From Dawesians to Dawsiennes: A Smith House History (Dawes House)

Over the years, each Smith College house accumulates its fair share of history.  The college’s French speaking Dawes House is no exception. However, considering the fact that Dawes House has been sold, remodeled, re-inhabited, and then moved to a new building entirely, it is evident that Dawes House is unique in its own rite.  Its inhabitants throughout the years have left their mark upon the Smith College Archives with an interesting recount of the house’s history with fierce debates, social outreach, and visits from various French military personal.  Known today as the epicenter of the French community at Smith College, it is a shame that the house and its rich tradition will disappear in the near future. Now is the time to recall the history of this invaluable asset to the Smith community.

Today, we know of Dawes House as the yellow house situated on 8 Bedford Terrace, home to about 19 students that chose to create for themselves a microcosm of French culture.  However, the French House was not always located in Dawes.  In fact, Dawes House was not always located on 8 Bedford Terrace.  It wasn’t until 1977 that the original house of Henshaw Avenue was torn down to make way for the Freidman Apartments.  Dawes was then relocated to a new building that became the beloved yellow house known and loved by Dawesienne Smith students of the past 35 years.

The original ‘Dawes House’ of 18 Henshaw Avenue was purchased in 1926 from the Quimby family.  The college decided to name the building after Anna L. Dawes, “daughter of Laurenus Dawes, U.S. Senator from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and one of the first three women on the Board of Trustees of 1889-96”.  Although she didn’t attend Smith,  “she bequeathed one quarter of her residuary estate to the College.”[1] Under the name of this benefactor, the house was originally a normal student residence.  Nevertheless, the students that lived there experienced several abnormal occurrences.  Its 1929 Smith inhabitants experienced the terror of a house fire- twice within two weeks!  A 1937 Dawes student recounts the history:

“Two major conflagrations (no, I don’t mean fights or love affairs) have marred the history of Dawes.  On Jan 5, 1929 there was a fire in the Ell, which was extinguished, I suppose, by the gallant Northampton Volunteer Hose Company, and on Jan 15 of the same year there was a chimney fire, also in the Ell.  Looks like a conspiracy to us, but then we’ll never tell.”[2]

The house also survived the Great New England Hurricane of 1938.  The house had to be evacuated and “out of the turmoil of crashing trees, Emay (a Dawes resident) was rescued by the best-looking-watchman-of –them-all,” recounts the house history of that year. Funnily, “the next day President Neilson came to view the damage announcing that it was too bad the cottonwood had fallen for it hid (the) ugly house.”[3]  The structure itself survived this among other trials but its reign as a typical Smith College dormitory did not last past 1941.

A student of the time recalls, “the most cataclysmic news of the whole year descended upon us at five p.m. on February 12.  Mrs. Scales came and, seated with utmost dignity in the living room, announced to the dismayed and astonished members of Dawes that we were to give our all for France.”[4] The Smith study abroad programs in Europe were canceled in September 1939, just days after the outbreak of World War II.[5] To offer an alternative language immersion opportunity to students, the college decided to instate the French House in 1941, which was to be located in Dawes House.  To many, this alternative seemed like a great idea.  Unfortunately, several of the English-speaking Dawes residents were not in agreement.

The former Dawesians felt like refugees cast aside by the future ‘Dawesiennes’.  The ‘refugees’ even wrote letters to the editor of the school newspaper, causing a strongly worded debate within the Sophian concerning whether or not Dawes should become the French House.  Despite their efforts for housing justice, the Dawes House was indeed taken over by the ‘Frenchies’, with their signature blue berets.  The news was also published in the local periodical:

“Dawes House, known to Smith graduates of the past seventeen years as a regular residence, is being completely renovated in the modern French style, and in the future will be identified as the French House, where members can increase their familiarity with the language, and where the elements of the life, art, and tradition of France that remain of permanent value to the world will be preserved.”[6]

 Despite the disappointment of the English-speaking castaway Dawesians, the house’s new French-speaking inhabitants became a very active group of individuals within the Smith community, especially during World War II.

Between 1943 and 1945, the Dawesiennes put forth their time and energy to aid the war effort by giving moral support to homesick French soldiers. As the Springfield Sunday Union newspaper writes,

“More than two years ago, French sailors from the “Richelieu,” then in New York harbor, caused a sensation among the girls when, coming to Northampton to see the WAVES, they lingered to visit the French House.  As a result of another hospitable gesture, they had other interested visitors last spring.  Yielding to the pleading of homesick French Air force cadets in training in this country last year, the girls started a regular correspondence with them.”[7]

Photographs remain within the Smith College Archives that illustrate the first visit.  In one photograph (Figure 1), the Dawes girls are seated within the house, accompanied by three uniformed sailors, engaged in conversation. The same young men are also seen in a photograph of three Dawesiennes upon bicycles, chatting happily with their foreign visitors.[8] (Figure 2)


Figure 1   [presently unavailable]


Figure 2  [presently unavailable]


Figure 3  [presently unavailable]

Not only did the young women of Dawes brighten the days of homesick French military figures, they also put forth their services to aid the lives of French children affected by the horrors of war.  As the Springfield Sunday Union writes: “Child adoption, Smith College students at the French house agree, is a serious matter; for when the 31 students returned to college this fall, they found that they had adopted, in a somewhat special sense, 60 French children.”[9] In the Smith College Archives, there are photographs of the Dawes students preparing packages to send to two disadvantaged schools located in St. Cyr, France in assistance to the Save the Children International Union.  (Figure 3)  The Dawes members provided global outreach to the United States ally of France, but they were also involved in more local endeavors.

The house member hosted Smith radio shows that featured French songs, performed French plays, and held French teas once a month, encouraging other Smith students to come practice their Français in a relaxed setting.  The traditions continue with modern flair as today’s relocated Dawesiennes run events such as the French film festival, an event that includes the screenings of numerous films throughout the week, each followed by French refreshments and discussion in Dawes House.  Completely new traditions have also begun.  Currently, the Dawesiennes raise funds for a house trip to Montreal each year, a highly anticipated benefit of living and pledging to speak French in Dawes House. Dawes House also has a valuable connection with the French Department as it provides funding for various Dawes activities and the members of Dawes occasionally host French-language teas for French Professors and students considering a major in French.

Past and present Dawesiennes cherish their time spent in Dawes House and are saddened by the possibility of its discontinuation.  Disposing of such an enriched environment would be a significant loss of the culture of Smith College.  Many students choose to live in the house to maintain their French skills and to stay with the friends they made abroad, strengthening knowledge and friendships in the process.  Cara Gubbins, a senior class resident at Dawes writes, “I met some of my best friends on the JYA program, and we decided that it would be nice to live together after having shared the common experience in Paris.  … It is great to be able to keep up my French and to continue to experience French culture through our house activities such as watching French movies and making French foods.”   (Cara Gubbins, Dawes resident) A language house is an important asset to the school because, as another resident claims, “To be together, (speaking French) is the best way to learn the language and to share the culture.”  (Pauline Pelsy-Johann, Dawes resident)


Prepared by Kaitlin Burns ‘2015, Global STRIDE Fellow 2011-2012




[1] Dawes House Opening Description, Buildings and Grounds, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts

[2] Dawes House A History-, Class of 1937, Buildings and Grounds, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts

[3] Dawes House A History-, Class of 1938-39, Buildings and Grounds, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts

[4] Dawes House History or What Will Happen to the Thirty-One, 1941, Buildings and Grounds, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts

[5] September 6, 1939, JYA Paris, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts

[6] “Dawes House Being Renovated for Use by French Students”, Local Newspaper, August 26, 1941, Buildings and Grounds, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts

[7]“ Smith College Undergraduates Lend Active Support to 60 ‘Adopted’ French Children”, The Springfield Sunday Union and Republic Springfield, Mass, December 30, 1945, Buildings and Grounds, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts


[8] Photos of “French House and French sailor guests”, May 1943, Buildings and Grounds, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts


[9] “Smith College Undergraduates Lend Active Support to 60 ‘Adopted’ French Children”, The Springfield Sunday Union and Republic Springfield, Mass, December 30, 1945, Buildings and Grounds, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts


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