- Historic Sites
The founders of the first women’s colleges weren’t necessarily crusaders or even educators; one savored a vision of himself as the second Great Emancipator, and another was motivated chiefly by hatred of her brother
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
When the main hall of Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, was finally completed in 1875, astonished reporters, overcome by its magnificence, called it a palace and a fairyland. The project had taken four years, but it had been conducted with such discretion that no one was prepared for the sudden materialization of a brick structure 480 feet long, 80 feet high, and even further extended by a pair of 166-foot wings at the sides. Though the basic design was a double Latin cross, so many embellishments had been added that the fundamental shape was hard to find. The building was an anthology of architectural styles through the ages, with towers, bays, spires, pavilions, and verandahs projecting from every elevation. Urbane representatives of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine and The Atlantic Monthly , sent out to cover the routine opening of a new female seminary, found themselves gasping like backwoods plowboys, and their dispatches showed it. Inside they encountered a four-story central hall roofed with glass. Sunshine streamed down to a ground-floor conservatory filled with jungle plants and surrounded by arches, in each of which stood a lifesized classical statue, blindingly white but chastely draped. The whole glorious fantasy was set in a lavishly landscaped park and situated so that it would be reflected in Lake Waban. On fair and breezy days there seemed to be multiple castles in constant motion. Wellesley immediately made every other New England college look like a textile mill.
There was considerable worried speculation about the influence of all that gorgeousness upon tender young female minds and a great deal of simple bafflement. Although it was immediately announced that Wellesley students would be expected to share in domestic chores just as at Mount Hoiyoke and that the religious requirements at the new seminary would be much more stringent, the public was only slightly reassured, and people continued to wonder what sort of institution the founder really had in mind. There were inevitable comparisons to the Garden of Eden, the last days of Pompeii, and the Taj Mahal. Being New Englanders, the neighbors naturally feared the worst.
The college building, however, was no more or less florid than the man who made it possible. Had Henry Durant been born a century later, there would have been a large vocabulary with which to explain him, but in his own pre-Freudian era there was only a limited choice. “Flamboyant,” “prodigal,” “unsavory,” and “scurrilous” turn up often in accounts of his early life. So does “brilliant,” but almost always modified by one of the other adjectives. Durant began his career as an attorney, but not quite the sort that Victorian Boston understood or approved. He became quickly notorious as a criminal lawyer, and his services were much in demand by grand larcenists, embezzlers, and even murderers. Henry Durant accepted cases that no other Boylston Street barrister would touch, and he usually won them by tactics to which his colleagues would not stoop. Though his practice was lucrative, it wasn’t quite respectable, and Durant made little public effort to compensate. He was not, for example, either a pillar of the Unitarian Church or a great benefactor of Harvard; and his behavior outside the courtroom seems to have been every bit as abrasive, inconsistent, and theatrical as his manner inside it.
In addition to his legal work Durant had many business investments, and his personal fortune accumulated at a most un-Bostonian rate. Eventually he began to indulge a latent aesthetic passion and filled his house and grounds with job lots of books, paintings, sculpture, and specimen shrubs from all over the world. His taste in these areas seems to have run to the recondite, the lushly naturalistic, and the frankly bizarre. Even the plants he assiduously collected violated prevailing Boston standards. His hothouses included exotica like night-blooming cereus, passionflowers, succulents of various sorts, and other intemperate species. The women of Needham, in fact, would often find it necessary to avert their eyes from some of the glories of the Durant garden, finding them obscurely disturbing.
There was simply no place in nineteenth-century Boston for a newly rich underworld mouthpiece with such unorthodox enthusiasms, and Henry and Pauline Durant spent much of their time alone in their West Needham summer house adding to their collections and enjoying them in privacy. By all accounts they seem to have been a happy and compatible couple despite the fact that Pauline was deeply devout, and Henry, at best, was merely tolerant of religion.
When their infant daughter died, Pauline Durant begged and pleaded with her husband to “submit his will to God,” but his biographers report that he merely said, “Pauline, you must take your medicine in your way and I must take mine in mine.” His way was to lavish all of his affection upon his two-year-old son and to devote even more time and energy to his various flourishing enterprises. He gradually bought up much of the land that adjoined the country house and dreamed of the day when his son would be grown and grandchildren would marvel at the glorious surroundings that he had so imaginatively created for them.