History of the Athenaeum
September 28, 1983
(Left to Right) Marian Miner Cook, Donald and Bernice McKenna, Jil and Jack Stark '57
The term Athenaeum is derived from the name of Athena, the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom and the classical temple in Athens named to honor her, frequented by orators, poets, and men of learning.
The word also means a literary or scientific association or club, or building where a library, periodicals, or newspapers are kept. London's famous Athenaeum was founded in 1823 "for the association of individuals known for their scientific and literary attainments, artists of eminence in any class of the fine arts, and noblemen and gentlemen distinguished as liberal patrons of science, literature, or the arts."
Founding CMC trustee Donald McKenna envisioned a "student-faculty club or athenaeum" in a memorandum written to the board of trustees on the 12th of January 1968, where students and faculty would have the opportunity to come together as colleagues to share ideas, debate issues, and build friendships.
Donald McKenna grew up in Claremont, grandson of one of the founders of Pomona College, with fond memories of his father's Wednesday evening discussion groups in the family living room in the early 1920s. Faculty were forbidden to smoke in public, so the senior McKenna would invite them to his house to discuss issues of the day over cocoa and cigars. After a classmate of his brother Philip told their father that he had never spoken to a professor outside the classroom, students were added to the "bull sessions." Donald later remarked that these times had "more educational effect than anything else, including his college classes."
Donald also remembered his times at Harvard's Lowell House in the mid-1930s and the animated evenings hosted by senior tutor George C.S. Benson. Benson too was a grandson of one of the founders of Pomona College and fellow Pomona College alumnus. The evenings began with refreshments and continued through dinner, with after-dinner discussion. Students, faculty and visiting guests gathered in an affable atmosphere for refreshment and lively intellectual discourse. Evenings such as these were the essence of collegiate education, Donald believed.
In Donald's 1968 memo he speculated on the estimated 15,000 square-foot facility needed to include a lounge where guests would gather before dinner, a large dining room for main events; smaller dining rooms for luncheon discussions and more focused evenings; lounges and reading areas for browsing and relaxation; and guest accommodations for visiting speakers. He even chose the name for the new institution: the Athenaeum, although he feared that the word was perhaps "too high-faluting and not as warm as the term Faculty-Student Club or Student-Faculty Club." Donald wished "to make this a true residential college facility aimed at making the campus environment more attractive and at the same time educationally centered."
On March 25, 1968, the board of trustees and founding CMC president, George C.S. Benson P'61, formed an ad hoc committee to elaborate on the ideas on the Athenaeum first sketched by McKenna in his memo. Jack Stark '57, Benson's administrative assistant at the time, was a member of the committee which proposed an Athenaeum that would accommodate up to 200 guests and would be located between Collins Dining Hall and Seaman Hall. It would include an apartment for visiting scholars and lecturers. In addition to evening dinner lectures and discussions, there would be large-scale musical entertainments from time to time and a continuing array of luncheon and dinner programs in the smaller dining rooms. Food served at these dinners would be superior to that of Collins Dining Hall, which required that the Athenaeum would operate its own kitchen. Donald had even prescribed the menu: steak and all the trimmings--a fine incentive at an all male college! At all evening events, coats and ties would be required. The estimated cost of the project was between $1.4 and $1.7 million for the building and the endowment.
When Jack Stark became president of CMC, he already had a home in Claremont. The president's house at 890 Columbia Avenue was too small for their growing family and the Starks decided to stay in their own home. Jack had always thought that the meal hour was wasted time in a college student's life. He felt that adding intellectual stimulation during the meal hour was a good thing to do.
By combining Jack's and Donald's ideas, CMC's first Athenaeum was established at 890 Columbia Avenue in 1970, in the former president's house, later the Admission Office. Donald's visionary concept of the Athenaeum as the living room and dining room of CMC, the place like a family home where meals and conversation occur, had begun, although not yet on the scale he envisioned. Modeled on and reflecting the amenities of the literary and scientific dining clubs of nineteenth-century London, CMC's Athenaeum was developed to promote both intellectual and social exchange at CMC in an intimate and relaxed setting.
The Athenaeum programs soon outgrew the Columbia Avenue premises, so the decision was made to build a bigger facility in the middle of campus that would be a focal point for student activity at CMC. McKenna's dream of the permanent facility was on its way to becoming a reality. On March 5, 1980, he once again sent a letter, this time to the vice president for development, detailing his assessment of the funding necessary for the new Athenaeum. The total program involved $2 million for the building and $4 million for endowment. Donald and his wife Bernice donated $2 million and combined with $1 million from his brother Philip's foundation, covered half the cost of building and endowing the new Athenaeum.
A gift of $1 million from trustee Marian Miner Cook, whose husband established the John Brown Cook Association for Freedom at CMC in 1978, helped make possible the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum. Mrs. Cook has said that the Association was the source of her interest in CMC. Designed by A. Quincy Jones and Associates, construction of the building began in the fall of 1982 and was completed in September of 1983. At the time of her gift, Marian Miner Cook remarked that she and Mr. Cook "had a challenging and exciting life" and "hoped the Athenaeum would help students to experience similar intellectual challenges and excitement."
The Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum soon fulfilled its promise as a collegial environment for sociable intellectual interaction. Its chief purpose is to provide a cultural, social, and academic center for the interchange of ideas between CMC students, faculty, and community guests. Here the students preparing to become the leaders of tomorrow have the opportunity to meet the leaders of today.