On April 13, 1970, something very important happened in the history of Boston College. At the intersection of the Vietnam War, American bombings in Cambodia, the Kent State shooting, and a rise in tuition costs declared five days earlier by then President Seavey Joyce, the Undergraduate Government of Boston College declared a boycott on classes and a group of students took to occupying the one building on campus they knew would make a statement: Gasson Hall.
The atmosphere of anxiety and distrust in the 1970s had infiltrated college campuses across the country. Because of the student boycott of classes and the failing relationship between undergraduates and the University administration, the President’s office moved out of St. Mary’s to Botolph House, the office of the Provost moved out of Gasson Hall to a site across Beacon Street, and the Fulton Debate Society—the oldest student organization on campus, whose founding is grounded in the Jesuit ideals of debate and knowledge—chose not to hold its annual competition for the Fulton Prize.
In Gasson 305, a lecture hall adorned with murals depicting some of the greatest public speakers reading their greatest public speeches, the consequences of the civil and collegiate anxiety can be found on the list of names of the Fulton Prize debate winners. Spaces for the names of the year’s prize debater go back to the founding of the club in 1890 and are enough to hold names up to the year 2104. But, during the time of unrest when Gasson was occupied, the Fulton Debate Society—in choosing to not hold their annual event—left some spaces blank.
Like the Gardner Museum’s golden frames that hang painting-less on its walls, the negative space in Gasson 305 sends a chilling reminder of a time of troubles long past, but ever so relevant to the present. In the years until the last name will be written in, sometime in 2104, will there be the inevitable potential for another moment leaving blank space, another period of anxiety where we as a college will stop and think and turn toward the spires of Gasson Hall—in protest, in fear, and in thought?
All of that happened almost 50 years ago, speaking volumes to what this iconic building means on campus and to the general public outside of BC. The protesters of the 70s were trying to make a statement by occupying Gasson Hall, using the building’s originality, influence, and image to protest something much larger. It’s the same method used by those today protesting the recent immigration bans, gathering on O'Neill Plaza with Gasson at their backs, many of them not knowing that their cause is the same that laid the foundations of the college in the first place.
In a time when universities around the country were in a construction boom, the fledgling one-building Boston College in the South End needed more space to further its goal of educating the growing population of Irish immigrants. Knowing that it could not garner respect among other wealthier and more established American universities without a campus designed in the popular collegiate gothic style, and seeing as the population it would represent was not of the most fortunate class, the early administration of BC began what came to be known as the “Buy a brick for Boston College” campaign. Unlike Harvard’s wealthy alumni contributions or UChicago’s Rockefeller support, Boston College constructed its first buildings—Gasson included—with a mass of small donations from immigrant and first-generation families.
From the pockets of many came a building that would define the rest of the campus and personify the Boston College student. Gasson’s architectural style came to embody almost every other building on campus, from Devlin and Lyons early on to the Stokes buildings just a few years ago. With a handful of exceptions, almost every addition to the campus has been built to reflect the collegiate gothic style that has come to define what the public thinks a college ought to look like: old, steeped in Western tradition, and reaching up into the heaven's own blue sky. In the future, Gasson’s style will possibly be the model for the new Plex and student center—and perhaps every building built after that.
We as a school have chosen Gasson as our flag and standard bearer, turning it into an Instagram sensation, showing it off on our student IDs and promotional videos, and splashing it onto our club flyers and Snapchat Geo-filters. We start commencement on Linden Lane looking up at its tower and we build ice sculptures of it to celebrate the holiday season. We choose it to represent us—not knowing how it was built or how it has been used in protest, in anger, and in grief. In this disconnect we forget the complexity of the building and, by extension, the complexity of our college. We are left with half a story of how we have developed and who we are today—but it’s a story worth completing, one that can only be told by those of us who carry it forward into the identity of Boston College students fighting for education, for justice, and for the future.
A special thanks to Professor and Clough Millennium Chair in History, James O’Toole, for the conversation and wisdom that inspired this article.