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From classroom to common room

A history of one of campus' most prominent landmarks

Published: November 7, 2008
Section: Features


Floor plan of Middlesex Castle.

IMAGE COURTESY OF Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections, Brandeis University

Writing an article about the history of the Usen Castle is a bit daunting considering its many uses and modifications over the past 80 years. In a 1997 publication called “Building a Campus: An Architectural Celebration of Brandeis University’s 50th Anniversary,” editor and Brandeis professor Gerald S. Bernstein described the castle as “less archaeological than theatrical” with a “whimsical ambiance that could have served as a stage set for a Hollywood adventure movie.”

One can understand a lot about the castle’s oddities by examining the building’s function when it was first constructed. Beginning in 1928, Dr. John Hall Smith, the founder and director of Middlesex University (a medical and veterinary college) led the design of a structure that would serve as the major academic center for the school. In “Building a Campus,” Bernstein suggests that while the Castle’s appearance is similar to the Cavendish castle in Ireland, its design was a combination of several historic castle layouts as well.

Amy D. Feinstein ’98 chronicled the many uses of the castle in a senior thesis titled Unlocking Doors to the Past and Future: An Architectural and Social Exploration of the Irving and Edyth Usen Castle in 1998 within the Department of American Studies. Her work compiles materials from the Brandeis Archives as well as interviews and oral histories to provide a detailed description of the Castle’s many uses.

While many at Brandeis are used to the Castle as solely a residence hall, one only needs to glance at an old map of the castle to see how each section was used. A-Tower (the square tower with the flagpole on a high turret) housed administrative offices on its higher portion as well as pharmacology labs and physics labs.

Within the lower section, Feinstein writes, the first floor served as a medical library and the second floor housed lab spaces. The main entry was through the large wooden doors that can be seen adjacent to the castle parking area.

Each floor of B-Tower (the “Chums tower”) was a lecture hall that could house 110 students and was built complete with a teaching platform for presentations. The ceiling of every floor was originally like that of Chums, however in the process of renovations the top four floors were plastered over. The fifth floor served as a dark room “Penthouse Theatre” and had a slide projector for special presentations.

C-Tower had laboratories for histology, pathology and bacteriology. D-Tower (where castle commons is located) was the anatomy and physiology building with dissection rooms on the first floor and physiology laboratories on the second floor. Several photos have survived that show the castle commons filled with microscope stations. Visible in the photographs are quite a few female medical students, which was common at Middlesex but unlike most medical schools of the time.

In the area near the kitchen in Castle Commons there was a washroom, telephone area and the Dean’s Office. The Dean’s office was adjacent to the currently inaccessible spiral staircase that leads to the courtyard.

Middlesex students at work in the physiology lab in the 1930s or 1940s, currently the Castle Commons. Middlesex had a relatively large number of female students, which was unique for medical schools of its time.

Middlesex students at work in the physiology lab in the 1930s or 1940s, currently the Castle Commons. Middlesex had a relatively large number of female students, which was unique for medical schools of its time.

IMAGE COURTESY OF Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections, Brandeis University

Directly adjacent to the physiology lab (castle commons) were a few small laboratories and offices, which connected to the chemistry laboratories in the front section of E-Tower. The back section of E-Tower (castle suites area) was known as the “premedical building” and contained lecture rooms.

The structure completing the loop is the old reading room, currently used for facilities storage. It served as a library annex and had a row of study carrels adjacent to the small courtyard windows. The building includes a mosaic ceiling, which is still visible, and contains random designs and symbols along with a portrait of Smith.

The two entry archways connected the Reading Room (labeled as section F on its doors) to D-Tower on one end and A-Tower on the other. The original layout conveniently allowed one to reach any section of the castle without stepping outside.

Schwartz Hall was added to house a student locker room, a trophy room and an additional lavatory. The Northern side (the side of Schwartz Hall closer to Usdan) had 500 lockers. Adjacent to it was a trophy room, the bay window of which can be seen above the entrance to the Schwartz Hall lounge.

The current laundry room and pottery studio was originally used as refrigeration facilities. The small machine room adjacent to B-Tower housed men and women’s restrooms (or “lavatories,” as written on the building plan).

As construction began during the Depression, Smith used secondhand building materials as it was all Middlesex could afford (an early form of environmental sustainability). As the Baker House, part of an old farm adjacent to campus, had been lost to fire, Smith limited the use of wood in the Castle’s construction.

As a result the handrails throughout the castle’s stairwells were made of poured concrete. Smith hired local residents to aid in construction and provided them room and board as well. The hinges for the doors were custom-designed and patented; there is even a sample of one in a folder adjacent to old photographs.

After the initial acquisition of the campus by Brandeis, renovations began to convert the castle into offices and dormitories. In addition to Middlesex’s financial difficulties, Smith had passed away in 1946 and the castle had not been well maintained. The Locker Room building was the first to be renovated as a women’s dormitory and was renamed “Founders Hall.”

In total, Bernstein writes, 48,000 square feet of the castle was converted to women’s housing. Other sections of the castle became men’s dormitories, as described in an early postcard of Brandeis that identifies A-Tower as “a portion of the men’s dormitories.”

Several random aspects of the Castle are interesting to note. The Castle Overlook, currently the location of the old Brandeis University bell, had an additional lower tier with a stairway that led to the sidewalk below.

The left-side wall has a visible gap filled in with cinderblocks, and if one looks at the ground one can still see the remains of the stonewalls. While construction for the castle was complete by 1941, it is possible that the addition of a third tier was considered in subsequent years.

The myths of secret passageways and tunnels have some basis in fact. Bernstein writes that Smith did construct several steam tunnels throughout the campus, but they were likely meant primarily for maintenance purposes.

Archie Riskin, an architect hired by Brandeis to survey the castle, reported sliding panels and secret rooms. Bernstein points out that with all of the renovations “there is no question [that] other inaccessible spaces have been created.”

A symbol of Brandeis, the Castle is a structure that has been absorbed into many aspects of Brandeis culture, not to mention its influence on other parts of campus.

With so many stories and bits of information it can be hard to separate fact from fiction, but in a broader sense that only adds to the Castle’s charm and reaffirms its status as a defining aspect of Brandeis.