Constructing the Castle
It’s the end of a royal era. At the end of this semester, Usen Castle will officially be closed as a residence hall for undergraduate students. The iconic building has existed as part of Brandeis since the University’s inception. Students, faculty, alumni and Waltham residents alike lamented the news when it was announced in January that parts of the Castle would be demolished to make room for a new dormitory. Though there have been multiple attempts to prevent this change to the Brandeis landscape, the University has announced no changes to its plan regarding the building. There can be no doubt that, for many, the Castle is quintessential to the Brandeis campus, yet the castle was first constructed as part of a different university.
In 1914, the Middlesex College of Medicine and Surgery was founded by John Hall Smith. Its campus was located in Cambridge, Mass. Middlesex was a unique educational institution in great part because of its admissions policy. The school strove to admit students regardless of their religion or ethnicity. This policy led to a large student body - one so large that Smith purchased 100 acres of land in 1928. This land would eventually become the school’s Waltham campus. On Nov. 23 of that same year the cornerstone for the first section of the Castle was laid.
Most students have heard the story of how Smith famously built the Castle as an exact replica of the Irish Cavendish Castle he had seen on his travels. The story goes that Smith was unable to convince Cavendish’s owner to give him the castle’s floorplans, leaving him to get creative with the floorplan for the Castle on campus. This is a myth. Cavendish Castle doesn’t exist, though there is a Lismore Castle in Ireland owned by the Cavendish family. Many of the Castle’s features are similar to those of Lismore Castle, though the two are by no means identical. Rather, scholars believe that Smith gained inspiration from a variety of British and Irish castles, leading to the Castle’s somewhat inconsistent appearance. Smith was an eccentric leader and his desire to have a castle on campus could have been part of his attempt to leave his own unique stamp on the college. Some even argue that the Castle was meant to create an atmosphere similar to that at Oxford or Cambridge. Smith wanted Middlesex to be taken seriously as an academic institution.
Yet by the time of Smith’s death in 1944, the institution was failing. Massachusetts suspended the college based on the new state regulations for medical schools. Joseph Cheskis, the dean of liberal arts at Middlesex, had established relationships with Jewish organizations as he tried to recruit European immigrants for the college while it was still open. It was through these relationships that Cheskis heard of several Jewish communal leaders in New York who were looking for a place to start a Jewish-sponsored university. Once he gained permission from C. Ruggles Smith, president of Middlesex, Cheskis spoke with Israel Goldstein, the head of the New York group, and offered Waltham as a potential location for the Jewish university. One of the caveats specified by Middlesex was that the new university must uphold the standard of non-discrimination set by Middlesex.
Brandeis University was officially founded in 1948 under University President Abram Sachar. However, most of the existing campus buildings were in extreme disrepair and needed extensive renovation before the University could officially open. Archie Riskin, a Boston architect, was hired to oversee the renovations and make changes to the floorplan of the castle so that it better suited Brandeis’ needs. The Castle’s D Tower was created as a first floor cafeteria and the second floor was turned into a common room. C tower was created as an infirmary, while A tower and B tower were used as dormitories.
Over time, the creation of new buildings on Brandeis’ campus made many of the Castle’s initial uses obsolete. Updates and changes have been made over the decades, though none were as drastic as the ones first made upon Brandeis’ acquisition of Waltham’s campus. That is, of course, until August 2018, the projected completion date of the University’s demolition of Towers C, D and E and the renovation of Towers A and B.
—Rachel Lederer contributed reporting.