Fridays with Fred: Mrs. Pearsons has her say, and Emerson is built
“With her old-time faith and courage, and high standards, Beloit girds herself to her new tasks, and extends her cordial greetings to the young women who seek that robust culture and mental grasp which do not obliterate but stamp with deeper imprint the qualities of true womanhood.” - Admissions brochure, 1895: Beloit College and the Higher Education of Woman
In September 1895, Beloit College opened its doors to thirty-three women students. At the time, men boarded in town, at fraternity houses, and on campus at Chapin Hall and North College. Coed dormitories were far in the future.
In light of this new influx of women, the college announced a gift from Mr. and Mrs. C.B. Stowell: “The College has acquired a valuable piece of ground, several acres in extent, one block north of the College Campus, for the special use of the young women. On this property are four cottages. One of these was recently built with the conveniences of a modern home, including electric lights in all the rooms.”
The college made do with the cottages for a couple of years, but knew that as coeducation took hold, they needed a substantial building. Only a few years earlier, Beloit College had received a large gift from Chicago philanthropist D.K. Pearsons, making possible the construction of Pearsons Hall of Science. However, Pearsons, while still an ardent friend of the college, was strongly opposed to coeducation. Louis Holden, class of 1888, acting as financial agent for the college, tried to win him over. His first attempt failed.
“Dr. Pearsons [said] that if I ever came into his office again to argue that matter with him he would put me out,” he recalled in a lengthy letter to Professor Hiram D. Densmore in 1935. It wasn’t long before he tried again. “I had just finished reading the life of Mary Lyon, the founder of Mount Holyoke College, and remembered hearing Mrs. Pearsons tell of Mary Lyon being so frequently a guest in her father’s home…It occurred to me that if I could meet the Doctor in the presence of Mrs. Pearsons and her sister Miss Chapin, who was a graduate of Mount Holyoke, I would be able to change his mind toward coeducation for Beloit.”
Holden traveled across country and met Pearsons and the others at the Atlanta train depot, on their way to a winter vacation in Lithia Springs, Georgia.
“I stepped down to the Pullman car, assisted Dr. Pearsons off the car, also Mrs. Pearsons and Miss Chapin, and asked to carry their baggage. Dr. Pearsons was never more surprised in his life than he was to see me at the train. He said, ‘Well, well, Holden, where are you going?’ I replied, ‘I am on my way to spend the weekend at Lithia Springs, and I am just about to take the train.’ It all dawned upon him in an instant. He saw the handwriting on the wall! He replied, in his jocular way, ‘there is but one hotel there and I will see to it that you will not get a room.’ He did actually carry his joke so far as to tell the clerk of the hotel that I was a very undesirable guest and not to permit me to register…[later] I noticed that I was given the best there was in the house, evidently by the Doctor’s order.’
The following morning, Holden met Pearsons after breakfast. “The Doctor came out in the lounge with two cigars in his hand, evidently desiring to have a smoke. We lit up, and he said, ‘Now, tell me Holden, what brings you down here for the week-end?’ I replied, ‘I have some good news to tell you…”
Holden, however, refused to tell Pearsons anything until he’d called in Mrs. Pearsons and Miss Chapin.
“Upon their arrival, I [told] them that I had just recently become interested in the life of Mary Lyon and was thrilled by the story, and before I had become cold to it, I had gone to Hudson, Michigan, and had asked Mr. and Mrs. C.B. Stowell to join with us and build a second Mount Holyoke in Wisconsin and connect it with Beloit College, and they had agreed to supply the necessary money to buy a new campus for the girls.
I had come down to Lithia Springs for the purpose of asking the Doctor, just why he was opposed to coeducation at Beloit, when it was so successfully carried on at Oberlin and elsewhere, and to ask that you ladies help me to interest him in giving to the young womanhood of Wisconsin all the opportunities Beloit gives to their brothers. Mrs. Pearsons spoke up at once and said, ‘Why doctor, I didn’t know that you opposed Beloit’s opening to women! Do you, and what are the reasons?’ Miss Chapin then started in and told what Mount Holyoke and Mary Lyon had meant in her life. Believe me, the battle was won! The Doctor surrendered then and there…”
When Pearsons returned to Chicago he ordered Holden to draw up some plans for a building “not to exceed $30,000.” Pearsons insisted that the building be named Emerson Hall after Joseph Emerson, professor at the college from 1848-1900. Pearsons’ gift arrived in time to celebrate the college’s Semi-Centennial exercises held in June, 1897. Architectural firm Patton and Fisher designed the exterior and revamped Holden’s rough sketches for the interior. The college quickly inserted a description of the forthcoming building in its fall 1897 catalogue: “Emerson Hall, now in process of erection, is of Elizabethan architecture, of dark red brick with terra cotta trimmings and tile roof. It is to be one of the most perfect and complete college buildings in the country, heated throughout with hot water, and containing spacious parlor and dining room, library, society room, bath rooms on each floor, and a gymnasium equipped with the best modern apparatus.”
Joseph Emerson presided over the laying of the cornerstone on Nov. 19, 1897. Emerson Hall opened in time for fall term 1898 and accommodated fifty women, who paid one dollar per week “rent.” Newly appointed Dean of Women L. May Pitkin lived in Emerson Hall and served as advisor, also overseeing cultural and social activities.
Emerson Hall remained a residence hall for women into the 1960’s when it became coeducational, finally closing in 1977 due to declining enrollment. By 1979, when Emerson Hall joined the National Register of Historic Places, the college needed to determine whether to sell the building, continue to mothball it until needed, or tear it down. In December 1980, the college arranged with G. Bliudzius Contractors Inc. of Chicago to renovate Emerson Hall as subsidized apartments for senior citizens, with ownership returning to Beloit College after thirty-five years.