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Unraveling the Mystery, continued

Brooks Hall: A Brief History

The context in which Brooks Hall/Brooks Museum was constructed at the University of Virginia is best told from letters, newspaper accounts, and the minutes of the Board of Visitors from 1876 to 1878. On April 14, 1876, a letter was delivered to A. H. H. Stuart, Rector of the University of Virginia, which required a pledge of secrecy from Mr. Stuart. He was instructed not to reveal the source of the letter, but was of course requested to share the contents of the letter with the Board of Visitors. The letter read as follows:

To the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia


Prof. Henry Ward, of this city, will deliver you herewith 45 bonds of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad Company of $1,000.00 each -- $45,000.00.

This sum being deemed by Prof. Ward sufficient to enable you to provide a suitable building for a cabinet of Natural Science and to provide through him, on terms which will be mutually satisfactory, the necessary material for such cabinet, which, in event, and all respects, will be well adapted to the purpose of instruc-tion in this department of education in the University of Virginia. I respectfully tender for your acceptance the bonds above mentioned: the avails of 25 of them to be devoted to the procurement of material for such cabinet, and the remaining 20 to the erection of a suitable building.

I am gentlemen,
Respectfully yours,

Lewis Brooks (4) 

On April 18th, the Minutes of the Board of Visitors acknowledged the receipt of an anonymous gift proposal from a "Northern friend of Southern Education," but Brooks' name was not mentioned. We know from a letter housed at the University of Rochester library that on April 19, 1876, Stuart wrote to Brooks.

The University of Virginia may justly be considered as the representative of the highest system of intellectual culture in the southern states. It may therefore be regarded as having a wider range of usefulness than a mere state institution, and upon your liberal donation will thus confer lasting benefits on the youth of all the southern states. Permit me to add that your gift, coming as it does from a citizen of New York, has, in the opinion of the visitors, a peculiar value as evidencing a broad and catholic spirit of patriotism.... We earnestly hope it may prove to be the harbinger of the permanent restoration, during this centennial year, of that fraternal feeling which existed in the earlier years of the republic. (5)

On May 25, 1876, Henry Ward showed preliminary drawings to an executive committee of the Board of Visitors, and in June 1876 Henry was officially commissioned to build and fill the cabinets. The minutes of the Board of Visitors show that by June, Mr. John R. Thomas of Rochester, New York, was hired as the architect for the building and was paid $75.00 for one trip to the site. Furthermore, a location for the building was selected as "that parcel of land between Washington Hall and the Staunton Turnpike." It is interesting to note that at the time the Rotunda was not a consideration in selecting the building's location. (6)

The Jeffersonian Republican followed the construction of the building with great interest. In November 1876 it briefly reported that the construction contract was awarded to a Mr. Carroll of the company of West and Carroll of Baltimore, Maryland, and that Mr. Carroll let the stone work to a Mr. Sisson and the brick work to a Mr. Kirby. According to this report, Mr. Kirby threw up his contract, and thus Mr. Carroll directly supervised the brick work himself. Commenting on the workmanship, the paper wrote:

"all of the work on this building is being conducted by skillful workmen and will be rapidly completed. The heads of the different animals are being carved or finished in a manner that speaks well of the workman, Mr. Mann." (7)

The foundation was started on July 1, 1876, and by June 25, 1877, the building was essentially completed.

On August 10, 1877, Lewis Brooks died at the age of 84. His death was the occasion of the first announcement of his name in association with the building given to the University of Virginia. The New York Times carried the following obituary on August 13, 1877, reprinted from the Rochester Democrat:

Our readers will long remember the curiosity awakened upon the announcement that Brooks had bestowed $120,000.00 on the University of Virginia, at Monticello, had erected new buildings, endowed the University with a large fund and provided it with a museum selected by Prof. Ward in a European tour.... Mr. Brooks was a peculiar man.... He had no family and no relatives in this city, and hence very little regarding his life may be said.

From the day of his death on, the museum building became known as the Lewis Brooks Hall of Natural Science, now Brooks Hall.

On September 28, 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes visited the University, where, according to a newspaper account, he was "shown through the entire grounds and buildings, including the new [Brooks] museum building. The whole party seemed to be very much interested in what they saw at this grand old institution." (8) Although Hayes's itinerary is hard to reconstruct, it would appear that on this visit, President Hayes was taken to an empty but architecturally impressive building. It is worth noting that he was taken there as a special point of his tour of the University.

On December 12, 1877, the Jeffersonian announced that "the mammoth at the Brooks Museum is ready for the reception of the public," having tracked the status of the mammoth since June, when the bones had arrived in Rochester from Germany. On January 2, 1878, the Jeffersonian prominently published the full text of a letter of appreciation that went out from the Board of Visitors to Henry Ward, thanking and praising him for his work in seeing to the execution of the museum. In the following week's paper, January 9, 1878, a full description of the contents of the building was given, proudly proclaiming the museum and its collection of 25,000 specimens, including the mammoth and a dinosaur, to be the best owned by any college in the nation. The collections were noted to be "remarkable" because of their "completeness," and because of the "admirable scientific classification" by which they were arranged. The building itself was called both imposing and striking by the Jeffersonian, (9) and "handsome, substantial and an ornament to the University grounds" by Professor William Fontaine in his opening day remark. (10) There is no hint whatsoever in the accounts of the late nineteenth century that anyone saw the museum or its archi-tecture as being an affront to the rest of the University. It was clearly an object of pride.

The building itself was impressive by any standard. Reaching a height of 75 feet, the building in its original construction had a high basement, a 25-foot high double story alcove, a 19-foot-high second story above that, with a high attic over all. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Magazine, a highly respected science journal of the day, described the building and its contents in 1878:

The building is of Italian Renaissance style, with modern adaptations.... The basement to top of the first story and entranceway is Richmond granite. The walls are pressed brick with heavy trimmings above the windows and doors of cream colored freestone from Ohio.... Over the main entranceway, a tablet of the finest marble, bearing the inscription, Lewis Brooks Hall of Natural Science has been placed.... A handsome flight of massive granite steps at the east end of the building 1eads up between columns of Scotch granite, with carved capitals to the outer door, which opens into the spacious vestibule. (11)

Entering the main gallery, the article noted:

Here is a full procession of life through the ages, starting with the earliest animals of the Silurian and leading along in the series and down through time to the advent of man, who, while the most modern of all, has lent his remains to the series in a cast of the famous fossil man of Guadaloupe. In the central area are standing on broad pedestals a few colossal forms--the great Siberian mammoth and the glyptodon of South America. (12)

The Jeffersonian ran a full column on January 9, 1878 describing the mammoth and the glyptodon in the most excruciating detail:

The most conspicuous and striking object in the Lewis Brooks Museum is the mammoth.... In its shape it appears to the eye as an ordinary elephant, but the scientific naturalist readily discovers a difference in the shape of its forehead.... Its height is 16.5 feet. It is 49 feet-2 inches around the body. Around the hind leg at its junction with the body it is 21 feet-7 inches. Around the fore leg at its junction with the body it is 18 feet-1 inch. Around the foot where it rests on the floor it is 8 feet-7 inches. It is 4 feet across the eyes. Its trunk is 22 feet-8 inches long. It is covered all over with long coarse hair.

The museum officially opened on June 27, 1878, and by August of the same year the Board of Visitors noted there were so many visitors that a janitor was needed. Three months later the first professor of Natural History, William Fontaine, was hired with a $50,000.00 endowment from W. W. Corcoran, the Washington philanthropist. A second professor, Professor Page, was hired in 1880. (13)



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