History of BC

A Short History of Brooklyn College


History in Pictures

Below are some archival photographs of Brooklyn College at different stages in its history. Click on the small icon to see a full sized image.

How is should have beenThe original plan for the new Brooklyn College campus on the old circus grounds. This plan, by Randolf Evans, included a five story academic building, a gymnasium, a theater, sports fields and administrative buildings, all in a Georgian style.

FieldThis is the " Former field in Flatbush " and the farm house where the modern campus was eventually located.

The Circus GroundsFor a long time the circus came to Brooklyn. The Flatbush fields where they pitched their tents became the " Circus Grounds "

The building beginsA College landmark. Construction begins on the library building with its landmark clock tower.

The Building of Boylan HallThe building of Boylan Hall begins.

Air ViewThe original 1930's campus when the building program was interupted by the second World War.

LaGuardia HallA view along the original campus through the gates on Bedford Avenue towards La Guardia Hall.

Roosevelt HallA view of Roosevelt Hall from the original West Quadrangle. New building in the 1970's has completely hidden this view.

StudentsStudents gather on the original campus outside Boylan Hall.


History in Words

Established in 1930, Brooklyn College was originally located in temporary, rented quarters near Borough Hall. Seven years later the college celebrated the opening of the Midwood Campus. It has since grown to include more than ten buildings, each with a distinctive character.

A Former Field in Flatbush...

Once known as the Wood-Harmon property, this 40- acre field in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn eventually became the site of the new campus for the growing Brooklyn College. Approved for purchase at the fire-sale price of $1,6000,000 in December 1934, the nascent Brooklyn College still required a combination loan-grant of $5,500,000 from the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works for the construction of its new buildings. Mayor LaGuardia later claimed credit for going to Washington and personally getting the President to approve the funds, provided that, "Fiorello, can you do all this in one year?"

The Board of Estimate gave final approval for the planned purchase in July 1935 and the title on the property passed to New York City on August 29th. Brooklyn College was coming to "a former field in Flatbush".

The Wood-Harmon property was only one of several possible sites considered for the building of "a collegiate center in the borough with the largest high school registration" - Brooklyn.

In 1926 the Board of Higher Education was mandated to build what was to become Brooklyn College, and the search for a location began in earnest. Many possible sites were considered including the Mt. Prospect Reservoir site of 10 acres near Prospect Park, Owl's Head Park (the Bliss Estate) of 25 acres at 68th Street, and the Wood-Harmon field of 40-50 acres at the junction of Bedford Avenue and Avenue H.

This third site, and the one eventually chosen, was vacant and was used occasionally as a golf course when Ringling Brothers Circus was not in town. At first the Board of Estimate balked. The owners were asking $5,500,000, a huge sum in those days, and many considered to asking price outrageous. But in 1932 all planning was put on hold by one of New York City's many financial crises. The Wood-Harmon owners kept lowering and lowering their asking price, but it was not until the New Deal and the advent of Fiorello H. LaGuardia in 1934 that serious plans came back on track.

"Wondrous Fair"

Ground was broken for the new library building in 1935. Students of Brooklyn College were to get their own library - at last. No longer would they have to trek to Manhattan or make do with the inadequate conditions in downtown Brooklyn. They would have a place of their own to read and study.

Originally termed "the library" this building was eventually named "LaGuardia Hall" in honor of one New York's more famous mayors, and one who had done much to create this "new" Brooklyn College. On top of La Guardia Hall is the landmark clock tower. Tradition states that no building on the college grounds can stand higher than this tower.

Boylan Hall was one of the buildings that surrounded the central quadrangle. It was first called the "Academic Building", and only later given its permanent name. This was to be a five story academic structure with a mirror image science building the other side of the quadrangle. Although these buildings were to have state-of-the-art laboratories, a roomy cafeteria and lots of new, large class rooms, there was no provision for an elevator. It was assumed that fit young men and women would benefit from the exercise of walking up and down stairs!

The buildings were completed more or less on schedule, but, even after the impressive opening ceremonies, the landscaping left a lot to be desired. A few days after the special guests had left it rained. And rained. The Quadrangle became and impassable quagmire waggishly termed the "Bilder Sea" after the Dean of Women. Shamed by a humorous article in the Vanguard, wooden walkways were constructed, but even as late as 1939 there was still a lot of finishing off to be done.

Into War ...

Classes started at the new campus in October 1937 under the guidance of President William A. Boylan, who had done more than most to make the "new" campus possible. He was not to preside for long however. Ill health required him to retire within two years. Taking his place was President Harry D. Gideonse, originally an associate professor of economics at the University of Chicago. One of his first tasks was to reorder the random administration of the college, where, very often, whole faculty committees were responsible for publishing College Bulletins! New academic programs were introduced and older programs modified or improved.

The ambitious programs at Brooklyn College were halted, however, when America entered the second World War. On July 2, 1940, President Gideonse appointed a Committee on Defense, which went to work organizing first aid courses, training for air raids, drills, and the training of pilots for the civilian sector. However, Faculty Council initially rejected proposals for an ROTC unit on campus. By the fall of 1944 male enrollment at Brooklyn College was down to 1,468, but the admission of women was increased. Some students spent the summer of 1942 doing farm work in northern Duchess County, and about 100 never came back; they remained farmers!

The Return to Education.

Immediately after the war, returning veterans flooded the Brooklyn Campus. In the spring of 1947 alone 5,000 veterans lined up for registration and a second mobilization was necessary to accommodate them all. Even students with weak academic pre-war records were readmitted automatically, but, veterans as a group maintained excellent academic performances. A remarkable performance in an era of high standards.

No sooner had all the new buildings been occupied, however, when it was realized that even more space was needed. In fact, Brooklyn College has never had enough space to meet all its wide variety of needs. As part of his program to expand the faculty and course offerings at Brooklyn College, President Gideonse was always on the lookout for new and promising scholars and researchers. Seymour Fogel is a case in point.
The Biology Department needed good scientists, and in 1948 Earl Martin, the Chairman of the Biology Department, wanted Seymour Fogel. But there was a space problem. Fogel's field of research unfortunately needed fields: real fields in which he could grow corn. Not for the pot, this corn was research material for the study of genetic patterns of inheritance. Martin solved this problem by taking over a small plot of land at the corner of South Campus Road and Nostrand Avenue and offering it to the eager Fogel. Years later Fogel praised Martin and Gideonse for their vision and support.

The Students

Even before the war years, the demand for places at Brooklyn College was high and grew higher as its reputation expanded. Inevitably the criteria for admission grew as well, and the required high school grade average needed to enter Brooklyn College quickly became the highest in the municipal system.

Under this pressure, the college began to notice grade inflation at the high school level. So, beginning in 1941, an entrance examination was instituted and the high school grade average was raised to 80 and then 85 in 1960. It remained at that level for another 10 years.
Good students and a strong academic program produced excellent results. At the end of its first decade, 60% of Brooklyn College freshmen received degrees, and by the mid-1950's 69% were graduating with degrees within seven years. This was the highest number of and of the city colleges and other public institutions. (Note: in 1960, 76% of the entering class would graduate within 7 years, at U. of California, Berkeley, the number was 54%).

And in those days no one walked on the grass! !

Having these new buildings did not, however, ease all the space problems. From the beginning students suffered from overcrowding in the cafeteria; a problem that was just tolerable until the food prices went up. Eight cents were added to the price of sandwiches in the fall semester 1939, and soup skyrocketed by another six cents! A trickle of negative comments while waiting on the food lines, became a flood which overflowed into a critical article in the Vanguard. A few weeks later, a quite reduction of four cents in the price of malteds was instituted to head off any rebellion.

Crowded as it was, the cafeteria was valuable real-estate for other purposes. Even with all its handsome academic buildings, space for social functions was at a premium. Student societies, official and unofficial used the cafeteria tables as centers for lively debate and exchange of ideas. A person walking from one table to another would be invited to join half a dozen different discussions ranging from Wagner to Marx.

In the 1950's the cafeteria management, trying to create a new ambiance, replaced the long, institutional style tables with more decorative, smaller, rectangular tables. Social groups could no longer form around these new fangled inventions, and the response was immediate. Rows of the new tables were pushed together to reform the old patterns, and the debates continued.


Science at a Distance
© 2000, Professor John Blamire