Whispering Pines: This Old House

Whispering Pines

Anyone who has waited for the traffic light to change at the northeast corner of the campus has no doubt found their eyes drawn to the large Italianate-style building at the corner of the Federal Street-Bath Road intersection. With its impressive granite-slab front steps, Corinthian columns, eight-sided cupola, cast-iron fence and gate, the house at 85 Federal Street looks as though it had been designed for this spot, to command the attention of all who travelled these busy thoroughfares. For generations of Bowdoin students and alumni the house was the home of College presidents: Samuel Harris [1833], William DeWitt Hyde, Kenneth C. M. Sills [1901], James Stacy Coles, Roger Howell [1958], and Willard Enteman. Presidents Joshua Chamberlain [1852] and A. LeRoy Greason preferred to live in the homes that they had occupied as members of the faculty. Since 1982 the grand home at 85 Federal Street has housed the Development Office.

Federal Street had been laid out in 1803, and the earliest houses on the street were built by printer and Baptist minister Benjamin Titcomb (now known as the Stowe House) and a grand home for Bowdoin science professor Parker Cleaveland. Following Cleaveland’s death in 1858, the house was purchased by his son-in-law, Peleg Chandler of the Class of 1834, a successful Boston lawyer who played a key role in the creation of the Boston Public Gardens. The house remained in the Chandler family until 1951. It was subsequently converted to apartments by Robert Miller, Bowdoin’s swimming coach from 1935-61. Professor Emeritus William Shipman and his wife, Alison, acquired the house in 1960 and began an extensive program of architectural research and restoration. In 1992 the College bought Cleaveland House, and ever since then it has served as the official residence of Bowdoin Presidents Robert Edwards, Barry Mills ’72, and – soon – Clayton Rose. Like Barry and Karen Mills, Clayton and Julianne Rose will have a private residence at number 79 (a 1790 house that was moved to Federal Street in 1821), located between Cleaveland House and the Cram Alumni House.

I now return to the imposing house at 85 Federal Street. The front gate has an anchor-and-rope motif in cast iron, hinting at a maritime association for the original owner. If the angle of the light is just right, on a panel above the anchor you can see the faint outline where raised letters had been chiseled off – letters that spelled out F.- J-O-R-D-A-N. Francis C. Jordan (1820-1892) was a Brunswick sea captain who also owned a corn cannery, developed the area of Pearl Street in Brunswick (now known as Jordan Avenue), and served a term in the Maine legislature. He built the Federal Street house in 1859-60 on land that he had purchased for $500. In her book, The Architecture of Bowdoin College (1988), Patricia McGraw Anderson wrote that Jordan’s neighbors “…may well have gasped, for it was of a scale quite unlike those of the surrounding houses.” At the time of its construction, the mansion occupied the lot at number 77 (now a grassy lawn and gardens), between Cleaveland House and the president’s private residence.

Captain Jordan was often accompanied by his wife, Lydia, on his commercial voyages. When the Confederate raider Alabama captured Jordan’s ship off the coast of India in 1864, it was Lydia who engaged the Alabama’s captain, Raphael Semmes, in a series of spirited debates over the cause for which he was fighting. Because the Jordans were so often away at sea, they decided to sell the house. Bowdoin was in the market for a home for President Samuel Harris, and they purchased the land and house for $9,000 in 1867.

Four years later, President Joshua Chamberlain elected to stay in his Maine Street home, and the College leased the Federal Street house in 1871. Peleg Chandler – a Bowdoin classmate of Charles Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother), Alexander Longfellow (the poet’s brother), and missionary Cyrus Hamlin – bought the house in 1874. Expressing the desire to live and maintain a garden free from the shade cast from the three-story mansion next door, Chandler bought the Jordan house and had it moved to the corner lot, a plan and a process that gave Albert Tenney [1835], the editor of The Brunswick Telegraph, plenty to write about. Before and after photos show that the original barn did not make the trip to the corner lot.

With the end of the Chamberlain presidency, the College found itself once again in the market for a new home for President and Mrs. William DeWitt Hyde. They re-purchased the Jordan house in 1890 and leased it to the new president for $350 a year. Over the next 90-plus years, 85 Federal Street witnessed the life of the College and the lives of its occupants. President and Mrs. Hyde welcomed a son, George (Class of 1908), into the world in the same room that is now the office of George’s grandson, Stephen Hyde, Associate Vice President and Director of Gift Planning. Children in the Coles and Howell families learned the best places for hide-and-seek, and took in the view from the cupola. Dignitaries of all sorts stayed at the house, and sometimes signed Edith Sills’s damask tablecloth. Once an English lord suggested that the cook should be fired for the quality of the dinner that was served; he was never told that Edith was the chef. He was also not aware that when he left his boots outside his bedroom door, that the “domestic help” who polished them was Casey Sills himself. Nervous freshmen learned the art of light conversation and etiquette over tea with Edith Sills. When Roger Howell was president in the mid-1970s several students lived in rooms on the third floor of the house. It is a building with lots of memories for the Bowdoin family.

On the afternoon of December 7, 1941, President Kenneth C. M. Sills arrived in Brunswick from Boston, where he had heard the news about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He scrawled a brief note and posted it on the bronze Class of 1898 Bulletin Board that stood outside the Chapel at that time. It read, simply, “The door to my office and the door to my house are open to you twenty-four hours a day.” While our hours are 8:30 to 5:00, Monday through Friday, you are always welcome to stop in for a visit at our offices in this history-rich house.

With best wishes,

John R. Cross

John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations


  1. Eric Weis says:

    John, this is a fantastic column which touches on the fascinating architectural history of Bowdoin, Brunswick and the surrounding area. In the early 1970s, Professor Charlie Wing gave a seminar on “The Art of the House”. I was fortunate to be in that class. I also had the good fortune to stay in one of the Federal Street houses, living in an upstairs room which was filled with light. To this day, I am involved in real estate management. I marvel at what good architecture can do to improve life.

  2. Conrad Spens '77 says:

    Thank you, John, for another illuminating column. When I return to Bowdoin next week for my daughters graduation we’ll walk on over to 85 Federal and read this again with the benefit of an on-site perspective. And next time I’m looking for a little garden space I’ll remember to keep all my options open- including moving the house!

  3. jim smith '62 says:

    Great to know more of the federal house story, recall a visit during the stacy coles era. Keep ’em coming the informations, also enjoyed info about my hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain!!

  4. Dave Doughty (1968) says:

    John, I learn something new and interesting about the college and its people every time I read one of your articles … please keep up the great work!

  5. Dick Buttner says:

    Great story John! I can remember being entertained in that house by Edith and Casey in the fall of 1946. Since that was the largest incoming class up to that time , there were many seatings, as I recall.

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