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Visits to Bard College

October 2016

A year ago I was not familiar with Bard College, a small liberal arts school in Dutchess County, New York. I had a lot to learn in a hurry when Barbara's grandson Josh first applied there, and then decided to attend.

John and Margaret Bard bought part of the Blithewood Estate overlooking the Hudson River in 1853. They built a small wood-frame structure that served as a school during the week and a chapel on Sundays. That first building became today's Bard Hall in the heart of the campus. It's used for lectures, recitals, and classes.

These windows are in the non-denominational Chapel of the Holy Innocents next door. This chapel and a couple of other central buildings were the nucleus of St. Stephen's College, which was renamed for the original benefactors in 1934. You can read detailed histories of the school on its web site and Wikipedia; no need to repeat very much here. Over time, the original 18-acre site grew to today's 1000-acre campus. Since its founding, Bard has been home to many notable residents and alumni – mostly in the arts and humanities, but a few scientists as well. The school's history site names a few of these people.

Tivoli Bays, a large intertidal marshland, divide the north end of campus from the Hudson River. The hiking trails of the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve may as well be an extension of the college property. This view across the river to the Catskills is at the end of a mile-long road that passes Josh's dorm.


by John Cuneo
for the New Yorker

It's not possible to discuss Bard College without including one man, Leon Botstein. When he came to Bard, Botstein was the youngest college president in the country. That was over forty years ago. He's been president ever since, another record. He is also conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra.

John Bard built the college, but Leon Botstein has made it what it is today. His innovative policies and academic courses are unique in America, and his ability to elicit generous donations from wealthy friends is responsible for much of the impressive architecture that we see here.

This aerial view shows Botstein's musical headquarters, the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. The building was designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, one of Leon Botstein's many special friends and acquaintances.

At left center we find Olafur Eliasson's artificial island, Parliament of Reality. This permanent installation is meant to evoke the feeling of Iceland's parliament, the world's oldest democratic assembly. It invites people to relax, discuss ideas, or argue.

Josh's housing complex is at upper left. Because the dorms have names like Sycamore and Mulberry, students call these the Treehouses. The buildings in the middle are also dormitories, Robbins Hall and Ward Manor.

The large open plot is the Bard Farm, which produces a lot of the food used in the college's dining halls. Students are strongly encouraged to contribute their labor to this cooperative farm.

Let's have a closer look at the Performing Arts Center, and the view from the ground. Gehry's grand curves have earned it the moniker "Potato Chip Building." Every summer, this auditorium hosts the Bard Music Festival. Famous performers from around the world gather to perform great works, many of which are not usually heard. One of Leon Botstein's passions is to showcase the good works of "under-performed" composers.

There is a much larger version of the second photo here.

Here's the main part of the campus. The student center and some dorms are in the foreground. The dorms are the Alumni Residence Halls. That sounds much too stuffy, so students just call them the Toasters. The building to the left of the student center is for Studio Arts. There's a wall inside designed for spontaneous acts of graffiti. Spray paint is provided, but all of the cans were empty when we stopped by.

Crossing to the east side of Annandale Road, we find the serpentine science center, faculty offices and some buildings named for Franklin Olin, and the Stevenson Library. Winchester Arms is a subsidiary of the Olin Corporation, which produces ammunition and explosives. Mr. Olin made a fortune producing implements of war, but his buildings are there for the study of humanities and language.

Anna Margaret Jones was a popular Bard senior who was murdered on the grounds of a local church. Bard built this meditation garden in her memory as a place for contemplation. Two very long benches are framed by Canadian hemlocks. Large stones are engraved with poetry, and there is a fire pit.

As a requirement for graduation, every Bard senior must complete a substantial project. Bob Bassler ('57) produced the sculpture Seclusion, which was originally installed in another part of the campus. After thirty years, Mr. Bassler reclaimed his project and made this bronze casting, which sits in the shade near Anna Jones's garden. The bronze reproduction is also known as the Bard Nymph.

More recently, Sofia Pia Belenky ('11) designed and built Circle Swing. It's good for a few thrills, but Jessie learned that you can't ride it solo. Without somebody to keep it in balance, the seat tilts and jams, so it won't spin properly around the center pole. So Josh climbed on, and he got some thrills too.

This is not a senior project.

Jessie is admiring Pol Bury's 1984 kinetic sculpture Fontaine. The name isn't very imaginative, but the work is. Water slowly fills the tubes one by one, until they're heavy enough to tip and spill into the pool. Behind her, Warden's Hall is for faculty offices. If Jessie looked up and to her right, she would see the Ionic portico of the Stevenson Library. A major part of the library is now digital, but they still need a place to store a few dead trees.

Another eminent Bardian was Hannah Arendt, namesake of the college's Center for Politics and Humanities. As a Jew in Nazi Germany, she realized there was no future for her there, and left in 1933. Later, she met and married poet and philosopher Heinrich Blücher. He encouraged her interest in totalitarianism and Marxism, for which she earned world renown. Her first work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, is an important analysis of human rights and freedom. Later, she aroused great controversy with Eichmann in Jerusalem – readers thought she apologized for Eichmann because he was "just doing his job."

Ironically, this Jewish philosopher and crusader was plagued by a lifelong love for a Nazi, Martin Heidegger. As a young student, she became his lover and allowed him to take credit for much of her own work. German politics forced an end to the affair, but she resumed it many years later after her second husband died.

Hannah Arendt died in the year Leon Botstein assumed the presidency at Bard, but people can still visit her here. She and her husband are buried in a small cemetery in the woods, just a few yards north of the Olin buildings and the Stevenson Library. The cemetery has a bench for those who would like to pause and reflect. Some joker has wired a glove to its back – "Hold Me." So Jessie did.

The Bard College Cemetery is at the top of a hill. Students learn early that this is the best place to get a good cell phone signal if their carrier has gaps in the coverage.

There is a much larger version of this photo here.

Bard has no Greek system and very few organized sports. But the Raptors' soccer team has excellent fields for their competitions. They're right next to 1200 solar panels that help to keep the lights burning. Everywhere you go, there are signs that Bard College takes its responsibility to Gaia very seriously.

Blithewood Manor dominates the south campus. It's on the site of John Bard's first purchase, but he didn't live there. It was built a year after he died, in 1900. It's home to Bard's business school, the Levy Economics Institute. There's an art museum next door – we'll get there soon. Major features at Blithewood are its formal Italian garden and the goat pens in the center foreground of the second photo. A dozen goats were recently added to help clean up the hillside, an alternative to brush hogs and weed eaters.

John Bard sold his Blithewood estate to St. Stephen's College in 1897. The college sold the property to one Andrew Zabriskie two years later. Zabriskie commissioned Francis Hoppin to design the manor house and garden that we can visit today. The college got the property back in 1951 and used it as a women's dorm for several years, then repurposed it to house the Levy Institute.

The "All Saints" Maple on Blithewood's north lawn was judged New York's state champion tree in 1985. How does a tree become a champion? The keepers of the title use a formula that combines the girth of the trunk and the diameter of the crown. The championship was lost after a lightning strike, followed years later by a mysterious fire. Even in its crippled state, this remains one of the largest and most distinctive trees on campus. It's estimated to be about 350 years old.



Josh and Jessie are inspecting the groundskeepers. If they look past the goat pen, they'll have a prime view of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains.


The fountain in the center of Blithewood's garden is where Bob Bassler's Seclusion reigned for thirty years. The original cast stone sculpture now graces a koi pond at the artist's home in California. The sprinkler head is better than nothing, but it seems a poor substitute.

The gazebo at the end of the garden is a good place to watch trains go by, or to just sit and savor the garden. Three or four trains passed by in the short time we were at the garden.

Across the road from the Levy Institute, we find CCS Bard, the Center for Curatorial Studies. I suppose that means this is where you learn how to manage a museum. From all outward appearances, it's an art museum. The part on the right was closed when we were there because of the Fall Break. That part of the building houses the Marieluise Hessel Collection, on permanent loan (whatever that means) from another of Dr. Botstein's friends, the former Miss Germany 1958. She doesn't like to discuss her age, but one can't hide from history. (She wears her years very well.)

Although we couldn't see Mrs. Hessel's avant-garde collection in her half of the museum, the left side (rounded roofs) was open to the public. This area is used to show the disturbing paranormal exhibit of Tony Oursler, the "Imponderable Archive." This is a very large exhibit of encounters between humans and the supernatural world. If you can't get enough of this at Bard, there is a complementary exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. If you'd rather short-cut the whole process, you can buy Mr. Oursler's book, which covers the same material that's on view in the exhibit. The book will not afford you the personal encounter we had with a wooden mask that looked like a shrunken human head. The effect was enhanced by incorporating human hair.

Some of the sculpture at the Hessel Museum is outdoors. If it looks like there's a big wishbone on the front lawn, that's exactly what it is. In 2010, Mark Handforth enlarged a 3D digital image of a chicken wishbone to be over seven feet high, then copied it in raw aluminum.

I have not been able to find out who made this piece. It looks like a ten-foot-tall rubber band.

Henry Hudson was under contract to the Dutch East India Company when he discovered New York and sailed up his namesake river to Albany. Most of the early settlement along the river was Dutch, the county's name is Dutchess, and even its flag shows traditional Dutch colors. So, many of the place names here use Dutch words – specifically, 17th-century Dutch words. One of those words is kill, which meant a stream or creek. This word appears wherever Hollanders settled along a stream: Catskill, Sawkill, Kline Kill, Fishkill, ….

The word has nothing to do with ending a life, but PETA has taken up the cudgel to revise place names that use this antique word. Downstream from Bard, the organization is campaigning to rename Fishkill to Fishsave or Fishlove. How terribly ignorant and misdirected that is. A kill is a creek. Back to the story. This just seemed like a good place to explain the name of Sawkill Creek, which now seems a bit redundant.

Bard College was assembled by acquiring a few large, contiguous estates along the east shore of the Hudson River. Sawkill Creek is scenic, but in the 19th century it was also a valuable source of power for small factories. A few properties within the south campus along Annandale Road have not been absorbed into the college, as shown by the lighter color on this inset from Bard's map. Like the Botstein house in this area, these are mainly faculty residences. One of these sites was the location of a chocolate factory that was eventually moved to the main business district of Red Hook when the area was electrified. After that, the factory fell into ruin.

Frank Oja came to Bard in 1957 and taught psychology here until he retired in 2000. During his 43-year tenure, he was chairman of the Psychology Department. chairman of Social Services, and director of Bard's University Without Walls program. While he lived at Bard, Mr. Oja built his house on the foundation of the old chocolate factory by the Sawkill's Upper Falls. Most of the lumber was reclaimed from buildings in the abandoned Ward Manor Village in the north part of the campus.

Frank Oja was buried in the Bard College Cemetery. His widow Ruth has been an avid environmentalist and gardener. From time to time she opens her garden to the public, where visitors can enjoy her breathtaking view of the upper falls. But for the most part, we must be content with the view looking down on the falls, behind the faculty offices in Shafer House.

Sawkill's Lower Falls are easily accessible to the public; they have been attracting and inspiring artists for over two hundred years. Jacques-Gerard Milbert's monochrome lithograph The Lower Falls, Montgomery Place dates from 1825. There is at least one copy in existence (and for sale) that he hand-colored. One of the Tivoli Bays trails (mentioned earlier) runs through the Bard campus and past the lower falls. The site is popular among students for skinny-dipping and undocumented pharmaceutical experiments, so we bypassed it this time around. We'll come back when it's too cold for swimming. The photo at right is borrowed from an article about conservation efforts on the river.

Richard Montgomery distinguished himself in service to the Crown in the Seven Years War, both in North America and the Caribbean. When the American Revolution began, he took up the Patriot cause, with a commission as Brigadier General. He was highly regarded, and was deeply mourned when he was killed during the failed American invasion of Canada in late 1775.

When the war was over, his widow Janet moved into the manor they had been building in Rhinebeck, and began plans for a mansion on riverfront property the Montgomerys owned. Château de Montgomery was finished in 1805. She established a working farm and orchard there, which are still in operation.

Janet Montgomery's property passed to her brother Edward Livingston. It remained in her family until 1986, when it was sold to Sleepy Hollow Restorations, who did extensive restoration work and got Montgomery Place designated a National Historic Landmark. Bard College acquired the 380-acre estate in 2016.

It seems we always leave something unfinished when we travel. Next time we visit Bard, we'll have to start by sampling Janet Montgomery's produce at the farm stand, and maybe sneak a peek at the Sawkill Lower Falls on the northern boundary of her old estate.