Historical Notes on Brooks Hall

An Anthropological Analysis of an Origin Myth

By Jeff Hantman
This is an image of Brooks Hall

Lewis Brooks Hall of Natural Science, late 19th/early 20th century
Image courtesy of the University of Virginia Visual History Collection, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

In this and future essays I hope to share with you some of the cultural history and symbolism of Brooks Hallthe meaning of the names on the wall, the symbolism of the animal heads, the personalities who brought the museum to Charlottesville, the exhibits it has featured, its demise as a museum, and how Anthropology came to "live" here. This first essay is about the origins of Brooks Hall, and about the myths that surround the birth of this odd but loveable structure.

According to the myth, Brooks does not belong at the University of Virginia. It is the product of a mistake. It was designed for Princeton or Harvard or Yale or Cornellpick your favorite northern campusbut the plans were mixed up and UVa got Brooks. (Has anyone checked to see if one of those other universities has a curious neo-Palladian building?) As a student here you heard this. And, your friends or older students told you it was true. You may have believed it. Why not? Was there another explanation for this Victorian Gothic building that evoked cartoonist Charles Addams rather than Thomas Jefferson? While the facts are not true, we learn a lot of history and culture in the study of myth, and this is a perfect example. Let's explore the myth.

The myth explains Brooks as an honest mistake. But, does Brooks Hall really not belong at UVa? I'm afraid this part of the myth is simply wrong. The building was unequivocally intended for the University of Virginia. It was a gift from Lewis Brooks of Rochester, New York, as directed in a letter to the Board of Visitors dated April 14, 1876. Papers on file in Special Collections and the published oratory delivered on the official opening day for the museum building on June 27, 1878, leave no doubt about this. Lewis Brooks was a wealthy Northerner who made his money as a textile manufacturer. One year before his death in 1877, he provided the Board of Visitors a letter which promised the University of Virginia a gift of railroad stock and other monies that totaled some $65-70,000. The purpose of the gift was to provide for a fully-stocked, state-of-the-art Hall of Natural Sciencea museum. 

It's not quite enough to point out that Lewis Brooks gave this building to Virginiathat, in this way, Brooks Hall was no mistake. We have to ask why the University of Virginia, and why in 1876? To address these questions, we do well to recall two coincident social forces of late nineteenth century America. One was the politics of Reconstruction, and the other the development of evolutionary theory. Seemingly unrelated, they were, in fact, closely linked, although few if any of us would be comfortable with that logic today. But, those two forces came together across the U.S. in the 1870sincluding in Rochester, New Yorkand soon resulted in a new museum building in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

In the years immediately after the Civil War, a partisan political effort in the Northern states sought to encourage the growth of the South in the image of the North, following Northern ideals of modernity. Museums, evolution, and the study of the Darwinian laws of nature (paths to success, paths to extinction) were a part of that effort. Among the leaders of that political movement in Rochester, New York, was a lawyer/politician and soon-to-be "father of American Anthropology," Lewis Henry Morgan. Along with his political efforts, Morgan organized intellectual gatherings at his home and invited scholars of great repute to lecture. One was Louis Agassiz, famed natural historian at Harvard, and founder of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Particularly influenced by Agassiz's visit to Rochester was a local young man by the name of Henry Ward. Ward went to Harvard and studied with Agassiz. To make a long story shortbecause part of this is a story for another essayHenry Ward merged his intellectual passion for natural history with an original entrepreneurial venture in the business of providing (selling) the objects of natural history and evolution for museums. He created the Ward's Natural Science catalog and shop in Rochester, speculated and bought fossils from around the world, then sought buyers for the fossils and even the fully reconstructed woolly mammoths he had assembled in Rochester. 

Lewis Brooks was sympathetic to the efforts to restore the South and sought appropriate outlets for his planned largesse. He knew Morgan and Ward. Ward had visited UVa and saw that this place "needed" a natural history museum; it needed to become modern. The Board of Visitors agreed. Ward returned to Rochester and convinced Brooks of that need, probably not a very hard sell as Lewis Brooks was "an admirer of Thomas Jefferson and an earnest well-wisher of the South." In short, that is how Brooks Hall came to Mr. Jefferson's University. Lewis Brooks made his gift known in a secret letter to the Rector in 1876, and made it a requirement of the gift that Henry Ward receive the non-construction funds to fill the museum with his scientific collections. And, he did. By 1878 the Hall of Natural History was open, and its most famous inhabitant, the reconstructed woolly mammoth, took center stage in the then two-story high main exhibition hall (with a "do not touch" sign hanging off one tusk). A less revered but then equally exciting dinosaur skeleton was also on display (a glyptodon.) Overall, the exhibit displayed the history of life on earth, the winners and losers as they were perceived, from the Silurian era to the advent of the recently discovered Neanderthal Man. 

In the late nineteenth century, evolution, the lessons of science, and museums were all signs of "the modern," as defined by intellectuals and politicians in the North. Whereas in Europe, Marx and Engels saw in Darwin a Hobbesian story of war and revolution as the "natural" process of life, in America, remarkably, Rockefeller and Carnegie saw a justification for laissez-faire capitalism in which the "winners" won according to natural (not cultural) laws of competition. Northern industrialists who were sympathetic to the South knew that the mechanics of the story of the "survival of the fittest" was a model that UVa's Southern gentlemen needed to learn. The Rector of the University, A.H.H. Stuart, offered a statement which praised Brooks as "a Northern gentlemen, a man unknown to Virginia, [who] had bestowed such a fine gift as this museum." The Rochester connection, passing through Harvard and the entrepreneurship of Henry Ward, brought Brooks Hall to the University of Virginia in a very intentional act of charitable, if colonialist, philanthropy. Brooks Hall was meant for the University of Virginia. 

So it is clear that the building does not belong at Princeton, Cornell, Yale, or Harvard and there was no mix-up in plans that accidentally brought it here. It was intended for University of Virginia. But, the old origin myth deserves a hearing once we get past those facts. The anthropological question we ask is why the myth hangs on. I think the answer is fairly clear. The building was imposed on this Southern university, it was a Northern building. In fact, if you look at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard you will see an earlier model for what came to the University of Virginia. It was thus an imposition of a "foreign" idea. Though no plans were mixed up, something was awry, and we can see how some would call the gift a mistake (and some still do). Brooks Hall is the fascinating embodiment of the intellectual and political tensions of the late nineteenth century that were played out in the once empty area between the Rotunda and the Corner.