Architecture and Power Structures

at Mount Holyoke College

  When Mount Holyoke College was originally constructed as a seminary in 1837, it was in a single building with an emphasis on a family-style home structure. Its internal structure, with parlors, specific fixtures and styles, further supported this idea. Click here for details of the interior.

This building burnt down in 1896, providing the opportunity to rebuild the college in cottage form. This period is often viewed as the pivotal point in the college's history due to the complete change in structure and order.

   Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections.

Such a structure allowed for constant observation of the students, which, with the rigid timetable and elaborate rule code based on visibility and confession, created a strict power structure. Mary Lyon and her sucessors served as sorts of omnipresent mother figures, keeping a constant eye on her students' intellectual, personal. and spiritual developments. This power structure was parallel to many other forms of architecture and power structures in the ninenteenth century, particularly those in prisons and asylums. Many followed the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon, which was a way of control through an invisible supervisor viewing constantly visible inmates. Click here for a look at a prison system that architecturally followed Bentham's ideas.

Such a discipline and structural system was kept until the late 1880s, when Elizabeth Mead was appointed to the presidency of the college. Under her leadership, the seminary was quickly changed to a college, obtaining this charter in 1888. Mead began then to argue for cottages to house a student overflow; as they would be used in conjunction with the seminary building, little opposition was voiced. These were early, subtle ways that President Mead began to change the power structures at Mount Holyoke.

In 1890, President Mead took the great step of altering the tight rule strucutre that had been in place since the 1830s. Such a drastic change was a large alteration in the power structure, although the college's architecture still kept student visibility quite high.

 When the seminary building was reduced to ashes in 1896, many viewed it as a blessing in disguise. Facing competition from nearby womens' colleges with cottage housing, Mount Holyoke's family-home may have held it behind in future years. Reconstruction was in cottage form, which placed a visual alteration in the old power structure. Despite some very vocal opposition, Mead's hopes for separate buildings were fulfilled, with Brigham Hall's completion in May 1897.

   Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections.

President Mead provided the impetus for the changes that Mount Holyoke underwent in the late 1880s through the 1890s. The fire and reconstruction were themselves not watershed events but rather the conclusion to over a decade of changes in the established power structure.