A view of Lower Campus in 1970: St. Ignatius Church is visible on the left; More Hall is in the distance; in the foreground is the remainder of the reservoir that was partly filled in during the 1957 construction of Alumni Stadium. (Photo by Marlone Studio Photography) By rolling the cursor over the photo the same section of Lower Campus can be seen as it appears now, from a slightly different angle. More Hall is just visible in the distance beyond the St. Thomas More Drive residence hall (at left); Robsham Theater and Corcoran Commons stand on the former location of the reservoir. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
The Lower Campus Renaissance
What was once a body of water is now awash in University activity
By Sean Smith
As a journalist, Michael Hofman '96 appreciates the importance of being a witness to history. So the former Heights editor can lay claim to participating in a Boston College milestone - by virtue of ordering a steak-and-cheese sub.
In January of 1994, Hofman, along with several Heights staffers, cut short their Christmas break to return to campus so they could work on the paper's first edition of the new semester. On a cold, snowy evening, Hofman and his companions, along with members of the BC men's basketball team, became the very first student patrons of the recently opened Lower Campus Dining Hall.
"We had been looking forward to checking it out," recalled Hofman, whose inaugural meal at the dining hall was a steak-and-cheese sub. "The building looked so new and nice, really posh, and the fireplace was going. It didn't seem at all like your typical 'college cafeteria.'"
Hofman had already been part of another BC milestone the previous fall when he moved into the brand new residence hall located directly across from the still unfinished dining facility. The two additions to Lower Campus, Hofman says, made his sophomore year of 1993-94 a particularly memorable one.
"I'm not sure BC sophomores are easily impressed by anything," quipped Hofman, now executive editor of Inc. magazine, "but it was nice to go from freshman housing in Newton Campus to this whole new little village that was ours that year.
"People liked that there was more going on on Lower Campus. I think the dining hall became a focal point for the Lower Campus community in a way that there wasn't one before."
Hofman's experiences hint at the evolution that has taken place on Lower Campus, especially within the past two decades. What was a reservoir half a century ago, and a somewhat remote site for athletic facilities and residence halls 25 years ago, has today become a dynamic locus of University activity, underscored by the Oct. 12 dedication of the Lower Campus Dining Hall and adjacent plaza as John M. Corcoran Commons.
P. Leo Corcoran, announcing the $5 million gift that he, his wife Helen and their foundation made to BC in memory of his philanthropist brother, John '48, referred to the spot as "a popular destination where students come together in a spirit of camaraderie."
Boston College administrators say the development of Lower Campus reflects the University's changing institutional character, as well as its ability - reflected in the leadership of J. Donald Monan, SJ, University President from 1974-96, and Frank B. Campanella, who was executive vice president from 1973-2001 - to anticipate needs and opportunities. Beyond the bricks, mortar and landscaping, they see an area of campus that contributes significantly to BC's academic and student-formation mission.
"Students love living on Lower Campus," said former Residential Life Director Robert Capalbo '62, now associate director of corporate and foundation relations in the Development Office. "You're a stone's throw from just about anything you need, but it still feels very much like a 'green' campus. There is so much to complement the students' lives."
Executive Vice President Patrick Keating said, "We are first and foremost an urban campus. When you compare our campus with those of other similar institutions, the density is one of the highest is the country.
"This makes it very challenging to figure out where to put a building, and how that building should relate to what's around it. I think Boston College has over the years been fortunate to have both excellent leadership and planning capabilities, and the result is a thriving Lower Campus."
Keating's predecessor Campanella, now a professor of finance in the Carroll School of Management, said, "It's no secret that a modern campus with first-rate facilities helps you attract faculty and students. That's where you need first-rate people who can help shape a vision of that campus and then make it a reality."
Some elements of Lower Campus history are familiar University lore: the swift construction of Alumni Stadium in 1957 on what had been a reservoir; the stadium's expansion in 1994; the opening of the Flynn Recreation Complex in 1972; the installation of the so-called "Mods" for student housing in the early 1970s; the debut of Robsham Theater in 1981 and of Conte Forum in 1988.
The addition of residence halls, from the Hillside dormitories in 1973 and Edmond's in 1975 through St. Ignatius Gate - which opened this fall - to Lower Campus further attest to BC's transition from commuter college to national university, say administrators.
"I would argue that the RecPlex had the biggest impact and represented the most significant step for BC," said Associate Academic Vice President for Undergraduate Programs Joseph Burns. "Much of that area had been a parking lot for students. But through the 1960s you saw BC provide more undergraduate housing, and when you have students staying on campus, you need something for them to do. Building the RecPlex was the first recognition that BC was no longer a commuter college.
"The buildings that came afterwards - especially Robsham, the new dining hall and plaza - all have helped to support BC's identity as a national Catholic university which is concerned with students' lives outside of the classroom."
Administrators and alumni from the 1990s say Corcoran Commons and the adjacent Vanderslice and St. Thomas More Drive residence halls were especially noteworthy additions. These buildings, in providing a place for relaxation and socializing, gave Lower Campus an anchor it lacked before, they say. The hosting of special events in the Corcoran Commons function rooms also brought a greater administrative and faculty presence to the area.
University Artist-in-Residence Rev. Robert Ver Eecke, SJ, pastor of St. Ignatius Church, sees another outgrowth of the Lower Campus development.
"We're certainly seeing more and more BC resident students come to us for worship," said Fr. Ver Eecke, who came to BC 26 years ago and once resided in Walsh Hall. "St. Ignatius also has been able to hold some of our functions in Corcoran Commons, so all this has helped to build ties between our parish and BC."
Another more recent, and no less vital, piece of the Lower Campus picture, administrators say, is the administration building that opened in 2002 on the interior roadway named after Frank Campanella. The namesake of 21 Campanella Way says the building is successful for practical as well as symbolic reasons.
"One of the longstanding issues about Lower Campus was how to link it to Middle Campus and thereby create a better flow from one part of the University to the other," said Campanella. "The administration building certainly helps do that, and not just in a physical way. It was designed to feel like a Middle Campus building, with offices for academic departments as well as Student Affairs administration and staff and student organizations. So now you're continuing to bring that academic and student-formation influence to Lower Campus."
Keating agrees: "With 21 Campanella Way and the St. Ignatius Gate Residence Hall, you're seeing the architectural language of Middle Campus make its way to Lower Campus."
More changes are on the horizon, beginning with the opening next year of the Yawkey Athletics Center at the north end of Alumni Stadium. The prospect of a Brighton Campus - on property acquired this past year by BC from the Archdiocese of Boston - also has implications for Lower Campus, administrators say. Although a master plan is still being formulated for the use of that land, the University is considering potential sites on Lower Campus for recreational, residential or administrative use.
"One thing the Brighton Campus does," said Keating, "is to shift the center of gravity on the Chestnut Hill Campus, so that area in and around 21 Campanella Way really becomes the focal point. And there's a new challenge: What can be done with Lower Campus so that it supports our mission in this new set of circumstances? What do we want to change and what do we want to preserve?
"These are pretty weighty questions for the BC community to explore in the months and years ahead. But given our past, there's every reason to be confident that we'll find some innovative answers."