Fraternities questioned, Baxter rises to fill social gap

Amid the constant din of construction of new and renovated buildings on campus this fall, a Williams student can be forgiven for taking the fixture that is Baxter for granted. Yet 45 years ago, the newly built student union building had all the novelty of a co-ed on campus. At the time, it was simply designed to answer the community’s need for a certain type of space. As a student union and freshman center, however, Baxter marked a significant, early step away from the fraternity system’s domination of campus social life.

In January of 1952, reacting to an 18-month study of campus social problems by students, faculty and alumni, the college trustees voted to establish a Williams College student union. The student union and freshman center would provide a place where undergraduates and faculty could gather and interact comfortably. Its construction was accompanied by the installation of a new social code stipulating that no student could be rushed by fraternities until his sophomore year. Additionally, freshmen were to eat together in a designated section of the new dining facility.

These changes, according to a brochure published by the college at the time, would “promote the solidarity and spirit of the freshman class and improve social conditions on the campus in the interests of all.”

In keeping with the goal of freshman solidarity, the center was designed with separate entrances, lounges, bathrooms and dining areas for freshmen and upperclassmen. Such division might seem contrary to social harmony, but inclusion of upperclass facilities, intended for non-fraternity members, shows the prevailing desire to develop connections outside the Greek sphere.

Construction on Baxter began on September 13, 1952, and the dining hall opened in November 1953. The building’s layout remains little changed today, though the uses of many spaces have changed over the years. What we know as Baxter lounge was originally the upperclass lounge, while the mailroom began as a freshman lounge. Freshmen dined in Baxter North; upperclassmen used the south entrance. A small post office was located between the freshman lounge and the corridor behind the current mailroom. Nearby, the ladies’ toilet and powder room provided essential facilities. Where we now find Dining Services, students in 1954 found the Williams Record, a travel office, and Senor Antonio de Lahiguera, first director of the student union and its activities.

While the Dog House is nowhere mentioned in Baxter’s grand opening publicity, the Rathskellar did exist as a place for small gatherings or larger functions. The Outing Club and WCFM, along with now-defunct WMS radio, were among the basement’s original occupants. The Chaplain’s office remains in its original spot, and the snack bar, lined with weathered lumber from South Deerfield barns, looked much as it does today.

The building was dedicated Baxter Hall, in honor of then-president James Baxter III, in February of 1954. Speaking at the dedication ceremony, Baxter expressed his wish that the building “play a larger and larger part in bringing students, faculty and guests together.” It proved, perhaps, too successful in this regard. By the mid-1990s, Baxter had become such a humming, multi-purpose site of student activity that it offered inadequate space for group meetings or for those, cited in the introductory brochure, “who wish to converse or relax in a comfortable and friendly atmosphere.” Enter renovated Goodrich, a site that will supplement, not replace, the essential role Baxter has come to play in every Williams student’s life.

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