For most students at Bryn Mawr, “the Deanery” is an unfamiliar name. Half a century ago, however, this would certainly not have been the case. The Deanery was the home of the first Dean and second President of the college, M. Carey Thomas. When she moved there in 1885 at the age of 29, it was a modest Victorian cottage of five rooms, situated downhill from what was then the central campus building, Taylor Hall. Thomas lived in the Deanery for almost five decades, sharing it first with her friend Mamie Gwinn and later with her friend and partner, Mary Garrett. In 1896 and again in 1908, the building was renovated and expanded, ultimately becoming a sprawling 46-room mansion filled with the art and furniture that Thomas and Garret collected on their travels. While Thomas lived there, she entertained such famous figures as Henry James, Bertrand Russell, and Anna Howard Shaw, but she also held Senior receptions and other events for Bryn Mawr students.
When Thomas moved away from the campus in 1933, she left the Deanery and most of its contents to the Alumnae Association for use as the college’s Alumnae Center and Inn. It stood for another 35 years as a living memorial to the President, until it was demolished in 1968 for the construction of Canaday Library, which stands on the site today. In 1974, the Deanery’s garden was transformed into the Blanca Noel Taft Memorial Garden, which can still be visited behind Canaday.
Over time, the memory of the building, which had as much personality as the women who lived there, has faded from Bryn Mawr’s collective consciousness. I had never heard of the Deanery before I was assigned to work on this project, despite the fact that an exhibition called “The Deanery Remembered” was held in the Canaday foyer in 1985, as part of the college’s Centennial Celebration.
As work on the project has progressed, archival material from that exhibition as well as hundreds of works of decorative art have resurfaced. One of the most exciting aspects of the project is the search for objects around campus that were used in the Deanery; once found, many are brought to Special Collections for cataloguing and conservation. The “treasure hunt” has brought to light beautiful eighteenth- and nineteenth-century suites of furniture, charming bronze statues and figurines, and fragments of the brass filigree stencils and painted burlap panels that decorated the Deanery’s ceilings, among many other wonderful finds. As we dust off the china and bring the chairs out of their forgotten hiding places, we are able to slowly reconstruct what was clearly a unique and amazing place.
We have made incredible progress this summer in reassembling the Deanery Collection, but much work remains to be done. I am looking forward to the end result of our endeavors: the exhibition that will bring the Deanery back to life and remind us again of the significance of Bryn Mawr’s heritage collections. Check out the Deanery portfolio on Triarte!
by Rachel Starry, Graduate Student in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology