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Why is Brandeis on a hill? (and other weird facts about campus)

As I was walking down the Rabb Steps this Monday, my foot stumbled, and I narrowly managed to balance myself before I fell down all three flights of stairs (and possibly broke all of my bones/died). This catastrophic near miss made me wonder, why does our school have to be on a hill? 

Surely if Brandeis was built on flat ground, or on a plateau, we wouldn’t have to trudge up every day, back and forth from Lower to Upper Campus. We wouldn’t have to climb stairs and cross bridges from Gosman after an already tiring workout, and we wouldn’t have dorms located in strange, valley-like depressions (I’m looking at you, East). Which really begs the question; of all places to build Brandeis, why not find some flatter ground to build upon? 

The answer to this question lies not with the creation of Brandeis but of its predecessor, Middlesex University, which I wrote a little about in my last article. According to the Brandeis Library, Middlesex was originally founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1914. Now, Cambridge is not known for having especially hilly terrain, so if Middlesex had stayed there, one can imagine that the Brandeis campus would be much easier to get around. However, this would also mean that we would be right next to Harvard and MIT, which raises a lot of implications—for one, housing prices in the area would be unbearable. 

In 1928, Middlesex moved to Waltham. According to a school bulletin from 1933, the university purchased “Edgecliff Park, a ninety-five acre tract of land in Waltham” to build itself upon. Yep, you read that right. EdgeCLIFF park. And, given that this same bulletin mentions the “blasting of rock ledges” during Middlesex’s construction, the slope of the hill was probably much steeper than it is today. Perhaps there may well have been an actual cliff on the site overlooking the Charles River. So be glad you have to struggle up the Rabb Steps, and not up the Rabb Cliff instead!

While researching more about Edgecliff Park I found a cool map of Middlesex in 1941, which reveals a lot about what the campus looked like in its early days. Back then, it was still called Edgecliff Park, and although there are no cliffs to be seen it does retain a bucolic atmosphere with few, if any, buildings. Thus, it provides our best glimpse into the land’s natural state, similar to how Middlesex’s trustees must have seen it when they were deciding where to build their school.

Some details that I found interesting:

– The train tracks and station have not moved at all, so Middlesex students would have had to trudge down the hill every time they went into Boston, just like we do. Although instead of just going to Wachusett, the line would have gone all the way to Maine. Really makes you think about how train travel has gone down the gutter.

– The approximate location of Usdan today was a reservoir. This probably explains why Lower Usdan constantly has leaks; it’s trying to revert back to its natural state. Water will always find a way.

– Speaking of water, Massell Pond was quite a bit larger than it is today; to the extent that it was known as “Silver Lake.” These days, it barely has enough water to be considered a “pond” anymore. Well, at least it has a fountain now.

– Chapels Pond appears to have been the same shape and size, and had a lovely tree-lined road leading straight up to it. Bizzarely, however, it was called “Leif Ericsson Spring.” But why? Could it be that the history of Brandeis is centuries older than anyone thought? Was Brandeis once a Viking settlement? Who knows???

– This isn’t the only odd name on the map. Apparently a body of water named “Mystery Lake” could be found where the Theater lot is today. Whomever was in charge of naming these bodies of water seemed to be having too much fun.

– Lower Campus was completely untouched by human hands, except for some winding country roads with names such as “Bridle Path” and “Willow Way.” The name of the largest road—Ridgewood Terrace—seems to live on through Ridgewood Quad.

– There were two frat houses right on campus. Make of that what you will.

So, the big question remains: why build on Edgecliff Park and not somewhere else? Why even move to Waltham in the first place? Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find much rationale for the move. We may never know what prompted the trustees of Middlesex University to make that fateful decision, and condemn generations of students to endless trudging up and downhill. The most likely answer, in my opinion, is that Middlesex simply took advantage of the largest plot of land for sale in the area. 

That choice, it turns out, was Middlesex’s greatest legacy. Most other traces of their campus, and of Edgecliff Park before it, have long disappeared. The medieval towers, the ponds and streams, the winding roads, all gone and replaced by dorms and labs. Even Middlesex buildings from later on—like Ford Hall and “a semi-circular yellow and green structure affectionately named the Banana Building”—have vanished after they were inherited by Brandeis. Only two towers of Usen Castle remain. (Forget the Roman Empire—how often do men think about Middlesex Unviersity?) 

But the choice of location that Middlesex made on that fateful day in 1928 remains with us. And, perhaps, there are moments when I feel like they made the right choice. The hilltop location keeps Brandeis secluded from the bustle and traffic of Waltham, and the views of the Boston skyline at night are fascinating. And plus, all of that uphill walking’s got to be good for your legs. For better or for worse, the legacy of Edgecliff Park is part of what makes Brandeis what it is.

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