Council of Independent Colleges Historic Campus Architecture Project


Walker Art Building and Bowdoin College Museum of Art

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Institution Name: Bowdoin College
Original/Historic Place Name: Walker Art Building and Bowdoin College Museum of Art
Location on Campus: on historic quadrangle
Date(s) of Construction:
1844-1855original design McKim, Mead & White
Designer: McKim, Mead & White
Type of Place: Individual building
Style: Other (Glossary)
Significance: architecture, education, history
Narrative: see below
References: see below
Foundation: stone
Walls: brick, sandstone
Roof: copper, rubber
1855-present (2006)museum (art museum)

The Bowdoin College Museum of Art, also know as the Walker Art Building, is a premier example of turn of the century Beaux-Arts classicism. It was designed by the leading Beaux-Arts architect, Charles Follen McKim, who also designed the commanding Boston Public Library and the Morgan Library in New York, to which many compare the Museum. In the Walker's combination of brick and limestone, McKim generates the right note of formality and informality for a college, as in McKim's gates for the Harvard Yard. The architect's quest is a "highly resistant little strongbox that marks the arrival of art as an independent 'civilizing' force in the rural campus." (Paul Byard, March 2003 campus visit). While designing the Walker, McKim was heavily involved in the design of the World's Columbian Exposition, which became in 1893 the built "manifesto" for a more vigorous engagement with the classicism of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

The building is in an interesting position from the point of view of preservation. The College has worked hard to take good care of the original strongbox, for example recently replacing the roof and skylights and re-coppering the dome. The work has been well done and, once the new copper dome oxidizes, will make available the experience McKim intended for the campus. However, the stresses of more than a century's efforts to make the building work as a college art museum show in interesting ways. Even with a new roof and skylights, there is still evidence that skylights in the principal galleries still leak. Crackling in the plaster of another gallery may be an additional consequence of the fact that when the underground connection to the new Visual Arts Center was built the original natural ventilation system was closed down in anticipation of the installation of air conditioning. The air conditioning was postponed for budgetary reasons, however, leaving the old building with no proper ventilation and indeed with no effective system of climate control. The result presents difficulties not only for the building's fabric and the collection, but also for Bowdoin's attempts to borrow works of art from other institutions. The same effort to make the building serviceable for a growing collection and to connect it to other arts facilities has included the creation of space for offices, storage, and other supporting uses under the terraces. As these spaces have developed along with that project, they have turned out to be substantially uninhabitable and need major work if they are to continue to support the old building as a working art museum. Addressing preservation issues at the Walker will have two principal thrusts. The first is the need to make on-going maintenance work not simply a response to emergencies but rather part of a continuous cyclical maintenance program executed to an appropriate and consistent set of technical preservation standards. The second is the need to find a way to address the very difficult question of renovation and expansion, while not compromising the old building's strength and autonomy.


Anderson, Patricia McGraw. The Architecture of Bowdoin College. Brunswick, Me.: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 1988.

Anderson, Patricia McGraw. "Preserving the Past." Bowdoin Magazine 69.3 (Summer 1998): 52.

Hatch, Louis Clinton. The History of Bowdoin College. Portland, ME: Loring, Short & Harmon, 1927.

Klauder, Charles Z., and Herbert C. Wise. College Architecture in America and Its Part in the Development of the Campus. New York; London: C. Scribner's Sons, 1929.

Schuyler, Montgomery. "The Architecture of American Colleges VII. Brown, Bowdoin, Trinity and Wesleyan." Architectural Record 29 (February 1911): 144-66.

Shettleworth, Earle G., Jr., and Frank A. Beard. Federal Street Historic District [including Bowdoin College]. National Register of Historic Places designation report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior/National Park Service, 1976.


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