Thoughts on Theses: Catherine Lowdon
Issue   |   Tue, 04/25/2017 - 22:45

Catherine Lowdon is an English and art history major. Her thesis examines the architecture of Amherst College and other NESCAC and Ivy League colleges. Her advisor is Nicola Courtright, professor of art history and architectural studies department chair.

Q: What is your thesis about?
[The idea for my thesis] started with an interterm course I took with Blair Kamin, who is an architecture critic at The Chicago Tribune. He actually was creating a book, cataloguing [and] going into an architectural analysis about the Amherst College campus. Students got to help him put different pieces of that book together. My group was looking at different old frat houses and that piqued my interest in Amherst College architecture. Then, going further, I was thinking, “Okay, what do I want to say about Amherst College architecture?”

I started looking at the early college buildings [like] College Row (Johnson Chapel and North and South Dormitories) and then the Octagon and Morgan Library … I saw initially [that] there was this change from austere architecture, [which you see with] North and South, to this more specified ... architecture. I was wondering why that happened … [So I’m] basically looking at different ways and how walls shaped certain ideals, but in turn also shape people.

Q: Can you elaborate more on the architectural shift?
South is the original building, and then North came right after, and then Johnson Chapel. But then if you look at the Octagon and Morgan Library, you see that they are very different. The question is what was going on there.
Initially, I was looking on an even grander scope of how the college campus move[d] from [College] Row to the Quad. Why did it turn from [a] community-centered, outward-focused landscape to [a] more inward-facing quad?
But then [I] got caught up in the initial buildings and that shift between austere college row — North and South — and these grander buildings. I think something that people don’t know a lot about is that if you take a look at Williston and look on the side, there is a change [in the brick]. There used to be this big tower, but they took it down.

Q: How did the process work? What kind of research did you do?
I spent a lot of time first semester in Archives and Special Collections, just looking at things like the initial accountants’ book of the college. You can see [that] they actually spent money on an architect for Johnson Chapel, whereas there is no sort of indication of an architect for North or South. Seeing what they spent money on is really interesting, and you can see specific types of materials they used and you can get the sense of how they are allocating the initial funds.
Also, looking at other resources, like the initial college catalogs, they actually indicated where students lived. You could say, “this dorm [was] for sophomores [or for] seniors.” Or they would even mention when people were living in town.

Q: What did you do second semester?
Second semester, I did more writing. I think what really sharpened my argument was looking at other colleges. I was noticing the shift here at Amherst, but it wasn’t until I started looking at other colleges where the founders of Amherst were from, or [where] they went originally — Harvard, Dartmouth, Williams and Yale — and seeing how our campus compared to theirs.

Q: Why do you think your thesis is important?
I think my thesis is important because a lot of historians have discussed the history of Amherst College and a lot of architectural critics have cataloged the buildings, but they haven’t really brought the two together to combine the ideology and architecture. I think that I come in at the juncture of the two subjects.

Q: Do you have any advice for people writing theses?
Be really diligent about a schedule. Holding yourself accountable for each deadline is probably the best [advice] I can give.

Q: Anything else you would like to add?
There was this one architectural critic. I think it was Thomas Gaines, and he placed the Amherst College campus in his chapter labeled “mistakes.” ... [But] I think the Amherst College campus is beautiful.