May 1, 2014
On Friday, April 25, Associate Professor of German and Russian Languages and Literatures Frank Sciacca gave the most recent Brown Bag Lunch Talk of the semester, titled “Hamilton Revisited: Sex, Politics, and Religion on the Hill in the 1930s.” For nearly an hour, Sciacca captivated his audience, spinning a complicated narrative based on a score of fascinating characters.
Sciacca’s talk spanned an entire century, starting with the Class of 1909 and ending with former Hamilton President Eugene Tobin’s presidency in the early 2000s. Sciacca explored power dynamics exacerbated by sexuality and religious difference.
The connecting point between these decades and people, or as Sciacca put it, the “locus of anxiety,” was a “charming little salmon-colored stuccoed building” that once stood near the current Taylor Science Center. Like many other buildings on campus, its name changed several times. In its last incarnation, it was known as the Fancher House.
During the mid-1980s, Sciacca was a resident of the house. The building’s architecture, so unique and distinct from the other buildings on campus, intrigued him, as did its history, mired in rumors of scandal. Built in the 1930s and intended as a chapel, the Fancher House was used as a guest house through the 1960s, finally becoming faculty housing.
Sciacca interwove many different threads to tell this hidden history. Reverend Frederick Hastings Smyth, Class of 1909, is a central figure in the story. As a student, Smyth, along with Alexander Woollcott and Robert “Bobo” Rudd, a future Hamilton professor, helped charter the performing arts group The Charlatans. All three men were gay, and their classmates referred to them as “the sorority.”
After graduating from Hamilton, Smyth became both a Marxist and a member of the Anglo-Catholic church, a small denomination that attempted to bring dramatic Catholic pomp back to the Anglican Church. He returned to Hamilton in 1933 with the goal to merge science and religion.
Smyth also had the support of Hamilton trustees Rogers and Miller (the latter also an Anglo-Catholic). Smyth held requiems for small groups of students in a house in Clinton, which gained a reputation as a homosexual hangout spot. More inappropriately than his interest in boys or Catholicism, however, was his interest in Communism. It even garnered him FBI surveillance; Sciacca reports, however, that the FBI found Smyth “more odd than dangerous.”
Professor of English Composition, Choir Director and advisor of the aforementioned Charlatans, Paul Adee Fancher was also known for being gay. He earned the nickname “Smut” from his students. His wife Edith Read Fancher commissioned Ralph Adams Cram to build a chapel for Smyth. Cram, also gay, was an incredibly famous ecclesiastical and collegiate architect. “Cram was without question the most important architect to work on Hamilton’s campus,” said Sciacca.
However, the Fancher property, where Cram’s chapel for Smyth was to be built, was right next to the campus, meaning that the building would appear to be part of the College. Chair of the Trustees Elihu Root and then-President Ferry tried to deter the Fanchers and Smyth from building the chapel, but they were unsuccessful.
While President Ferry claimed objection because of the Catholic nature of the chapel, Smyth’s homosexuality and radical politics were most likely the true controversies. Elihu Root’s solution was to build a high fence to clearly separate the Fancher property and chapel from Hamilton’s campus. To avoid further trouble, the Fanchers ultimately decided to turn the nearly-completed building into a summer house. Eventually, Smyth left for Harvard and Fancher, after his retirement, gifted the house to Hamilton College.
The story continues 70 years in the future, when President Tobin’s administration renovated the science center. Ignorant of the history of building, Tobin planned to tear down the Fancher House and to create a more unified looking campus. Sciacca and Professor of Art History Rand Carter fought unsuccessfully to keep the building, educating the administration about Cram’s fame and architectural importance.
The Fancher House was demolished in 2002, but its connection to the art of architecture, religious dissonance in Upstate New York and its significance to this college live on in Sciacca’s research.