ARCHIVE: Esther Raushenbush pioneered a '25 year-old dream come true'

Esther Raushenbush in front of Westlands at Sarah Lawrence College. Esther was employed at the college from 1935 through 1969. Photo Courtesy of Sarah Lawrence College Archives.

Esther Raushenbush in front of Westlands at Sarah Lawrence College. Esther was employed at the college from 1935 through 1969. Photo Courtesy of Sarah Lawrence College Archives.

If one were to travel back to Oct. 11, 1974, they would find about 1,200 people, 820 of them students and the rest graduate students, faculty, friends and family, all gathered in the warm afternoon sunshine of the Sarah Lawrence College South Lawn. They would be there listening to alumna Barbara Walters’ speech at the dedication of the New Library and Performing Arts Center, and they would hear as president Charles DeCarlo referred to the new structure as a “25 year-old dream come true.”

Had they travelled back a little further, to the college’s founding in 1928, they would not have found the library next to Glen Washington Road, but inside Westlands, the former Lawrence family home. This library’s reading room was the family’s old dining room; the former breakfast room contained the stacks of books. The first collection of books here consisted of 3000 volumes, and by 1932 it had risen to 12,853. During the first two years of SLC’s existence, many books were shelved in classrooms according to the classes meeting in them. 

The Original Consolidated SLC Library, located on the ground floor of MacCracken Hall. Photo Courtesy of Sarah Lawrence College Archives. 

The Original Consolidated SLC Library, located on the ground floor of MacCracken Hall. Photo Courtesy of Sarah Lawrence College Archives. 

When MacCracken Hall was built in 1930, the library moved to the ground floor there, and the books were consolidated. The library lived contently in MacCracken until its move, which was preceded by minute planning and an initial idea formulated by none other then Esther Raushenbush during her presidency (1965-1969). With a precise count and description of chairs, tables, lamps, and various items needed, the proposal to build the library was launched. 

There were a number of aspects that had to be arranged in the formal plans: the median temperature should be set between 70 and 75 degrees, and kept at 45 percent humidity; the library needed to be slightly pressurized as to avoid dust gathering on the books; the light from any windows facing north should be fully utilized; and there should be acoustical treatment of the building. The proposal states that the idea was to reduce noise naturally, but it was also noted that this should not mean “a tomb-like silence.” 

Blue Print of the upper Level of the new Library. Photo Courtesy of Sarah Lawrence College Archives, 1974

Blue Print of the upper Level of the new Library. Photo Courtesy of Sarah Lawrence College Archives, 1974

The plans also placed importance on the psychological effect of the carpet for the reader as they walked in—carpet served to create an inviting and quiet atmosphere. Other details included one clock on each floor, coin operated copy machines, pencils and ballpoint pens, ink, disc players and tape players. There were typing rooms on two floors, containing two typewriters each, as well as empty spaces for students who wished to bring along their own. There was art on the walls. There was even mention of a study garden on the roof at the request of students.

In time, most of these details were realized and the move itself commenced. For this, the school enlisted the help of 50 alumni and more than 400 students, faculty and staff. These workers helped to pack, vacuum, carry and unpack 140,000 volumes from the old MacCracken library to the new space that now had room for 250,000 books. 

This moment would not have become a reality without Esther Raushenbush. Raushenbush arrived at the college in 1935, as a literature professor. She had left her job at Barnard College to join Sarah Lawrence, a university that at the time she called, “an institution still very uncertain on its feet, but not at all uncertain in its head.”

It was a long road that led Raushenbush to this point in her career. Her father believed that women should not attend university, and permitted his son rather than his daughters to enroll. Raushenbush, however, secretly enrolled at the University of Washington, using the money she saved from giving piano lessons to take the bus there each week. She did this for nearly two months before she told her father.

“He tore all the wisteria blossoms off the vine the Sunday morning I told him,” she said as she recollected the story. Upon her interview and subsequent invitation to SLC, many thought she was “raving mad” to leave Barnard, and, as she put it, “tie up with that odd-ball institution somewhere outside of the Bronx.” Sarah Lawrence was a place “considered so off beat that it wasn’t expected to last.” 

But she arrived, and established her life here— employed from 1935 to 1969—as a teacher, Dean, President, President Emerita, and founder of the Center for Continuing Education at the college. Raushenbush’s time as Dean (1945-1957) had its trials especially, as Sarah Lawrence was placed under the scrutiny of the American Legion and later Joseph McCarthy. She refused to react to controversy regarding the college in local newspapers or any spurred by various teachers being called forth to testify. She witnessed the fear this time instilled on campus and within the student body, but said in retrospect that it did not harm them. 

This time became one of many, indicative of her commitment to the students and faculty alike. If she noticed that students were in need of R&R or missed family meals, she invited them over for dinner. She was also devoted to her son John, much in the way she was to all aspects of her life. It was John whose bedroom and crib she arranged so it could be seen from her Westlands office and his Sarah Lawrence babysitters would have him wave to her when he woke from his nap.

Her lectures, books published, and involvement with universities such as Columbia and Skidmore, among many others, represent her influential career and shed light upon the figure she was. Raushenbush emphasized that she believed education to be experimental rather than fixed, and she valued activities in learning that attempted to “shake things up.”

Of her time at Sarah Lawrence, she wrote in 1980, “My commitment to Sarah Lawrence, the total use of my energies, and all the years I lived with it, the satisfaction the students and my colleagues gave me, filled my life.”

The Esther Raushenbush library was dedicated to her on May 12, 1979. It was without question that, “no one deserves this recognition and honor more than Esther.”  She was in attendance that day. Esther passed away shortly afterwards, in 1980. The New Library now stands as one remembrance of a woman formative to the college. Indeed, Sarah Lawrence’s Esther Raushenbush Library is a winner.

by Svea Conrad '18
sconrad@gm.slc.edu

 

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