On Dec. 12, 1959, Skidmore College campus security officer James Cooney was patroling Circular Street in downtown Saratoga Springs. As he was passing Griffith Hall, the home of the Chemistry Department, there was an explosion.
Cooney raised the alarm and encouraged reluctant students to evacuate the building. The fire was contained to the upper floor of the building and the attic. It could have been worse. At the time of the fire, half of the building was structurally unsound, like many of Skidmore’s buildings at the time. The fire was blamed on a spark from a refrigerator motor that was used to store chemicals.
The fire proved that Skidmore College could no longer maintain its downtown Saratoga campus. Most of the buildings were beginning to break down due to age and the cost of maintaining them was rising rapidly. It was time to relocate.
The Young Women’s Industrial Club of Saratoga Springs, the forerunner of the college, was founded in 1903 by Lucy Scribner. The club initially sought to provide young women with vocational skills. At that time in Saratoga, there were few opportunities for woman to receive an education, according to Skidmore College Archivist Wendy Anthony.
“The town was a pretty ramshackle, foothills-of-the-Adirondacks type of town,” she said.
In addition to providing women with some form of education, Anthony said some at the time thought that the club would keep young women away from the horse racing track off Union Avenue, which was not seen as a place for any “respectable” woman.
Anthony said that because of the nature of the town, young women sometimes fell in with the wrong type of crowds. In some cases, this could lead them to get involved in prostitution.
“They just did not have options, so it was easy for them to fall into that trap,” Anthony said.
By 1908, the club had 436 mostly female members. In August 1911, the school received a provisional charter from the New York Board of Regents as the Skidmore School of Arts. Skidmore was Scribner’s maiden name. Anthony said that the choice to name the school after her was something that Scribner was uncomfortable with.
“It was definitely justified; she was really the energy behind it,” she said.
The school started out in downtown Saratoga, where it began to expand. By the early 1930s, the school owned about 20 buildings on Saratoga Springs’ East Side, including Skidmore Hall. The building was used as a dormitory by the college until the 1960s. It still stands and is now privately operated as an apartment building.
The school continued to grow in downtown Saratoga until the campus consisted of 80 buildings and 1,100 students. Maintaining these buildings as they aged, however, was becoming impractical. The Griffith Hall fire drove this point home.
In 1960, trustee Erik Jonsson offered to donate 1,000 acres of open land for a new campus. In 1961, the board of trustees voted unanimously to accept the gift. Today, the Jonsson campus off North Broadway is the home of Skidmore College.
By 1968 the campus was functional and the school began its move from the downtown campus. It has continued to grow since then.
The Tang Art Museum was completed in 2001 and the Arthur Zankel Music Center was completed in 2010 to house Skidmore’s growing music department. The campus now has over 40 buildings.
Many of the original buildings still stand, including Lucy Scribner’s home, which now serves as the residence of the college president.
The campus is often used as a place for recreational bicycle rides and this is something that the college has always welcomed. The campus was purposefully built with no fences or gates.
“One thing we do not want for our new campus, and that is walls or gates. For we want the world to enter,” wrote the chair of the board of trustees, Josephine Case, in a letter to the architects in 1961.
Anthony said that in the time she has spent at Skidmore she has seen students and faculty fall in love with the campus and learn to take great pride in its history and spirit.
“It’s not just learning the facts, it’s getting the soul behind those facts,” she said.