“To the east the broad waters of Long Island Sound glistened beneath the bright and beautiful morning sun with here and there a snow white sail tripping across the surface of the waters”. This Gatsby-esque description by William Van Duzer Lawrence paints a panorama that the founder of Sarah Lawrence College came across on one of his first ventures to Bronxville. Formerly known as the Prescott property, what is now Sarah Lawrence College was once a farm located in the countryside.
The Lawrence family moved there in 1917, naming the surrounding acreage Lawrence Park West. Today, their house “Westlands” is home to admissions, dorm rooms and administrative offices. William writes that his friend Arthur Wellington mentioned to him, “there is an old farm out in the country in a place called Bronxville near where I live that has to be sold..” Apparently, not much had succeeded in growing there lately, save some wild blackberry bushes with the presence of occasional pigs and cows. Anna Bisland, daughter of William Lawrence wrote in a biographical sketch of her father that he first saw the Prescott property on a walk. He was in the area to meet his sons who were staying in White Plains for the summer and happened upon it by accident. Despite this discrepancy in the accounts—whether he happened upon it on his own, or his friend informed him of it—he saw a great deal of potential in the property.
The early 20th century Bronxville that William Lawrence first experienced was significantly different before it underwent a number of changes, many of which he was involved in. One such change being Lawrence Hospital. The hospital was expedited after its need became increasingly apparent. [His son Dudley Lawrence was rushed on a midnight train to New York City with appendicitis that nearly killed him.]
William Lawrence gives a brief description of the town: there was blacksmiths shop, a Village Store, and a railway station he thought dated back to the revolutionary war. At this station, William Lawrence writes, “The man in charge, Lancaster Underhill, was an old white-haired gentleman of ninety years or more, who had lived amid these scenes probably all his life”. He also writes that the road leading to the station was sandy, he describes a thoroughfare where “the carriage descended with a bump and came out with a real shock to the occupant”. He notes, “On the Western side of the grade-crossing was only a vast wilderness”. To describe Bronxville in terms of wilderness is indicative of the relative emptiness of the town back then.
Before Bronxville was on their horizons, however, both William and Sarah lived in a number of different locations. William Van Duzer Lawrence was born in Elmira, New York in 1842. He then moved to Monroe, Michigan. It was here in Monroe that he and Sarah Elizabeth Bates met. Anna Bisland writes, “In the little red schoolhouse he first saw her aged 10”. Sarah Lawrence used to make faces at the boys and from then on intrigued William Lawrence.
After finishing school, William Lawrence attended Kalamazoo College, but paused during the civil war at which time he moved back to be with his mother and younger brother. His older brother and father were in the Michigan regiments at the time. He then taught school for a short time, and was offered a job in a New York business.
Here he described his early days in the business world: “I did everything, but one of my first orders was that I must see that the cat did not sleep on the senna leaves which were kept loose in an uncovered barrel under the counter”. At the time his salary was low, and he sent a portion of it home to his mother. Then the war ended and days later came President Lincoln’s death. Lincoln’s remains were brought to New York and laid at City Hall. Anna Bisland writes, “My father stood for hours in line for one last look at him who represented the Union. “
Next, his job brought him to Canada. From there he returned to Michigan where he and Sarah Bates were married in 1876. Sarah Elizabeth Bates was born in Monroe, Michigan. She grew up on a farm until her family moved closer to town so that the children could attend school. In a 1965 article for The Villager, Helen Isherwood writes, “Her parents were of puritan and Quaker stock and firmly believed in the importance of education.” Sarah went to a local high school and then a seminary. She was the president of YWCA during their time in Montreal, an organization that assisted women arriving from the countryside during the rural exodus at the end of the 19th century.
Sarah and William Lawrence had five children, the first of whom died in infancy. Their four surviving kids (Louise, Anna, Arthur and Dudley) grew up in Montreal. After living there twenty years and as the children began to mature, Sarah saw the merits of an American education and they left for New York City. In the city Sarah worked to organize the New York Exchange for Women’s Work, an institution whose goal was to “provide a retail outlet for the handiwork of needy consignors”—and she was involved with them for many years. In later years she also became contributor and member of the Bethune-Cookman College Board of Trustees, Florida. She is described as a “conscientious, industrious, progressive and intelligent woman”. She and William moved into Westlands in 1917.
In the time that the Lawrence family lived in the house, the North side was considered to be the front of the building. Come the early days of the college, the white salon with its many tall windows was a space where students could entertain guests, and listen to radio or play the piano. Directly to the left was the space referred to as the piazza, which now houses offices; it too filled the role of a student gathering space, and contained a fountain in the middle of the room surrounded by ferns.
At the east end of the hall were the kitchen and scullery. The servants’ dining room and sitting room were here. The Bronxville historical society notes, “It was rather unusual that the servants’ rooms were on the main floor instead of below stairs. This situation was not due so much to the Lawrences’ sympathy for their servants’ comfort, as it was to the fact that this end of the house sits on impenetrable bedrock”. In the early days of the college this former kitchen area served as the biology lab and today houses Financial Aid.
On the right, just beyond the entrance hall is a room that was once the Lawrences' picture gallery. Today it contains a large round table. Just beyond the picture gallery is the original dining room. Opposite the dining room was what used to be a covered porch overlooking the North lawn. The porch was soon glassed-in however, and became the breakfast room, which would later be utilized as a space for steel book stacks until the library moved to MacCracken in 1930. At this time it is also noted that the old dining room served as a student reading room.
The second floor housed the bedrooms, including the master suite and balcony on the west wing. When the college first began, part of the master suite became the president’s private apartment. The third floor had 23 rooms as the servant’s quarters, which are now student dorms.
Following the idea to create an artists enclave surrounding the acreage around Westlands, William Lawrence had houses with attached studios built. After the first five were finished, the occupants began to arrive, and more houses erected.
Together, Sarah and William lived in Westlands for nearly ten years before she passed away in May of 1926. Anna Bisland described her father’s reaction to the event: “The death of our mother was a great blow to our father. The following year was a very distressing one for him to endure”. He was 85 years old at the time and felt that there was no longer any time to waste in establishing the college. He reserved a corner of the house for his private quarters, and items too personal for the college were removed. In his last will and testament he stipulates, “I am willing and hereby give my home known as Westlands, together with all the buildings thereon, and estate containing ten acres of land more or less, also the household furniture, library and pictures…” upon the condition that, “Westlands be made the nucleus around which other buildings for college purposes shall be erected”. Marion Coats was appointed in 1926 as the first president of Sarah Lawrence College for Women, and efforts towards its opening commenced at full speed.
Lawrence was very pleased and anticipated that everything was in order to receive the first students. At this time cataracts were causing his eyesight to fail and he moved that the operation to have them removed happen as soon as possible. He hoped to see the inauguration and take an active role in college work. However, in early May 1927 he went to the hospital with a severe chill and did not return. He died one year, week and day after his wife. Sarah Lawrence was opened in 1928.
Also in his final will William Lawrence wrote: “In my opinion the finishing school of the older type has failed because it prepared women to live chiefly as ornaments of a man-ruled society”. He sought to create an institution of a “type” separate from that. Part of the progressivist movement of the late 1800s, he believed in the role of the arts to generate equality of the sexes. A flyer announcing the beginning of the college informed that “The Sarah Lawrence College will open October 1st, 1928. Applications for enrollment received after July 1st, 1927”.