The First Decade

Brandeis University: A People's History: The First Decade

Aerial view of the campus in 1948Brandeis University campus, 1948

The need to overcome three basic challenges dominated Brandeis’ first several years as a functioning institution: constructing a campus, hiring faculty, and attracting students. In some respects, the first of these came last; for the first few years, the buildings that were the legacy of Middlesex University served Brandeis needs adequately, if uncomfortably. Middlesex’s most imposing structures, John Hall Smith’s beloved ‘Irish’ Castle and the brick academic building that housed the veterinary school, were modified to serve as living or office space, lecture halls and labs, classrooms and cafeterias.

Aerial view of Brandeis campus in its first few years.A few years later (take a closer look)

Other Middlesex buildings forming the initial core of the Brandeis campus included “the Worm,” a single-story, curved building that housed the campus bookstore, and converted stables that served as the first university library. The white cottage that had been John Hall Smith’s on-campus residence as Middlesex President was adopted as the first home of the Brandeis administration and officially renamed Woodruff Hall. Perhaps inevitably, it came to be known as “the White House.” A wishing well and apple orchard on the hill behind the castle completed the picturesque landscape. Only the former veterinary school, now Ford Hall, and the Castle (registered as a national landmark) survive as reminders of Middlesex University, the almost continual need for space having compelled the sometimes difficult decision to replace the older buildings with facilities better suited to Brandeis’ ambitious mission.

Recruiting faculty to the new university proved a less troublesome matter than one might expect. A variety of motives brought capable people to teach and work at Brandeis. Some had been associated with Middlesex University, like former dean of liberal arts Joseph Cheskis. C. Ruggles Smith, who had taken over as president of Middlesex University after his father’s death, stayed on to become Brandeis University’s first registrar. Some younger scholars and scientists, like chemist Saul Cohen, saw in America’s first Jewish-sponsored university opportunities for academic advancement that were far from certain at institutions still chary of admitting too many Jews into the ranks of their faculty.

At the other end of the spectrum, Brandeis profited by offering a home to eminent academics such as the literary scholar Ludwig Lewisohn, forced from their positions by then-current retirement regulations. Still others, like the young Boston-born composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, must have been attracted by the romance of the whole enterprise. Among them, these and other representatives of Brandeis’ first generation faculty established a lasting, distinctive tradition of excellence and commitment.

Like the campus itself, the first Brandeis students were a quirky lot. The decision had been to build the student body from the ground up, so to speak, admitting only a new freshman class for each of the first four years. One hundred and seven students enrolled as members of the first class, the class of ’52. They were iconoclastic and contrarian almost by necessity, willing to entrust their education to an institution with no academic track record (and, until 1953, no accreditation). For many of them, this Jewish-sponsored university offered a welcome unavailable at the country’s most prestigious campuses, where enrollment quotas limited the number of Jews admitted, qualifications notwithstanding.

The campus where these new students lived and worked, though charmingly rustic, still bore the marks of previous neglect, and they had to adapt to an environment in a state of non-stop alteration. Crossing mudpits straddled by wooden planks as they made their way from dormitory to classroom and back, passing construction sites that seemed to migrate from one part of campus to another, they came to think of themselves, in the trademark Brandeis compound of pride and irony, as “pioneers.”

Aerial View of the Campus in its early years

A Closer Look at an Aerial View of the Campus in the mid-1950s

Although the print is imperfect, this mid-1950's aerial view of the center of campus clearly shows the extent of change. Viewers familiar with the present-day campus will recognize the east wing of Ford Hall at the extreme left, and Massell Quad just beyond it. Ullman Amphitheater, one of the first additions to the Brandeis campus, stands in the immediate foreground; badly damaged by fire in the late sixties, the amphitheater eventually had to be demolished. Gone, too, are several structures visible beyond the amphitheater. Past the amphitheater seating is a grape arbor, behind that the old library (formerly stables for the Middlesex veterinary school) with its new annex, and, just visible beside the annex, the "Worm," site of the first Brandeis bookstore. Furthest from the amphitheater is Woodruff Hall, the president's house in the days of Middlesex University. It served as the first home of the Brandeis administration, and later as classroom space for the Heller School for Social Welfare. Rosenthal Quad now stands on the site.

Wien Students at a Hamilton Quadrangle party gathering around two students have their heads in a basin, presumably bobbing for apples.

Wien Students at a Hamilton Quadrangle party

Class picture, 1948

First Class 1948

Freshman Dance. Couples in formal dress dancing a ballroom dance.

Freshman Dance 1949

Ed Sullivan Visit. Ed Sullivan is seated at a table surrounded by a thick crowd of students.

Ed Sullivan Visit, 1950

Girl's Dorm Basketball Finals March 16, 1951

Girl's Dorm Basketball Finals March 16, 1951. One student on the left holds the ball; several other players surround her

Modern Dance with Merce Cunningham. Dancers on the stage in a V-pattern with Merce Cunningham at the apex.

Modern Dance with Merce Cunningham 1952

Students with Dr. Ludwig Lewisohn, J.M. Kaplan Professor Comparative Literature. Four students are seated on a sofa to Dr. Lewisohn's right. Two students kneel on the floor to his left.

Students with Dr. Ludwig Lewisohn, J.M. Kaplan Professor Comparative Literature March 25, 1953

Junior Class Party. Students seated and lounging in a room with paintings on the wall.

Junior's Class Party May 4, 1954

Danny Kaye standing at a mic looking away from the audience, smiling.  The students in the audience close to Kaye are seated on the floor close together. Behind them are students sitting on chairs. More students are seated on the floor in the aisles. Everyone is smiling.

Danny Kaye April 20, 1955

Sophie Tucker seated, in group picture with students who kneel beside her and stand behind her.

Sophie Tucker and Students September 20, 1955

Football Opening Squad Albert Alexanina, Larry Glazer and Bill Roth, running towards the camera.

Football Opening Squad Albert Alexanina, Larry Glazer, Bill Roth 1956

Large group of student actors in costume on stage during a theater production.

Hi-Charlie Association presents "Metatopia" February 11, 1957

Eleanor Roosevelt speaking to a class.

Eleanor Roosevelt Lecture for General Education Class April 17, 1958

Students with Joseph Cheskis, Professor of Romance Languages and Literature. Everyone is sitting on the grass listening to the professor.

Students with Joseph Cheskis, Professor of Romance Languages and Literature. Dr. Cheskis was the Dean of Middlesex University, the predecessor of Brandeis University. June 1, 1958