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|VOLUME 17 NUMBER 2, FALL 2009|
Coburn Hall Remembered
by Brenda Howitson Steeves, Special Collections Department
As another semester begins on the busy campus here at the university, staff at the library are often asked by new students and employees where to find a certain building or department. A quick glance at the campus map, a gesture toward where the building is located and the person is on the way to the desired class or meeting. Only afterward does one reflect on what the history of the designated building may be and for what worthy citizen it is named.
A look at various historical information and photographs in Special Collections brings the campus past to life in an immediate and charming way. Take Coburn Hall, for example, the site of much construction work and renovation this past summer: built in 1888, it is one of the oldest structures on campus and the second classroom building to be constructed here. It is named in honor and in memory of Abner Coburn, who died three years before the building was completed. Coburn, born in 1803 in Skowhegan, served as president of the college board of trustees from 1867 to 1879 and was a generous benefactor to the endowment and especially to the newly established library. Coburn served as governor of Maine from 1863 to 1864 as well as president of the Skowhegan Savings Bank and president and director of the Maine Central Railroad. Students receiving military training in the early days of the college, a requirement of the Morrill Act, were from the first called Coburn Cadets, probably in honor of Governor Coburn who often extended financial aid to those cadets who could not afford to buy their own uniforms and supplies.
Coburn Hall was designed by architect Frank E. Kidder, a member of the class of 1879 at the college. Kidder first established a practice in Boston and later in Denver, Colorado, and was the author of The Architects’ and Builders’ Handbook, a very successful book for building construction that was issued in at least 18 editions. The design of the building incorporates several symbols of its history, including a marble plaque commemorating Ivy Day and one to mark the founding of the honor society Phi Kappa Phi at the University of Maine. Ivy Day was celebrated in the late 19th century as a time when graduating seniors planted ivy and placed ivy-shaped stones on buildings such as Coburn Hall. Phi Kappa Phi was conceived in 1897 by Marcus Urann, a student at the university, as a way to focus attention on those students who achieved the highest academic rank; he saw the society as a means to de-emphasize athletic and social organizations on campus and to create respect for scholarship. The society flourished after its foundation, now having chapters on nearly 300 campuses of which the University of Maine remains Chapter 001.
At the dedication of the building on June 26, 1888, an elaborate program took place, with many speeches, the singing of the university ode, and the presentation of the keys to the building by Hannibal Hamlin, first president of the Board of Trustees. Built to serve the departments of agriculture and natural history, Coburn also housed the university library from 1888 until Carnegie Hall was completed in 1905. The library had reached over 4,000 volumes by the time of its move to Coburn and most appropriately, Abner Coburn had served as a source of its financial support. Merritt Fernald in his History of Maine State College and the University of Maine says of Coburn’s assistance to the library: “His benefactions were always timely and served to tide over hard places.”
The renovation of Coburn Hall this year points out the beauty of the old building and honors its architect and the man for whom it was named so many years ago.
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