The Building of the Bema

Commencement was held in the revered amphitheater for many generations of Dartmouth seniors, including the Class of 1901.

Excerpted from "A History of College Park" by senior lecturer Marlene Heck, which appeared in the the Mar-Apr 2018 edition of Dartmouth Alumni Magazine.

The word bema is Greek, and means a platform for public speaking. Plans for the Bema grew out of President Samuel Bartlett’s efforts to improve the College Park lands, and in fact, it seems excitement over construction of the Bema drew workers away from clearing and improving the park’s lands. Nearly four years after work began on improvements in College Park, the March 31, 1882, The Dartmouth reported the following:

The Seniors are making good headway toward the construction of an amphitheater in the Park for Class Day exercises. The cliff that rises abruptly on the west side of the open space, commonly known as the “Freshman Gallows,” is being dug away, and a sort of Bema made. Terraces will be built, and the place cleared of unsightly shrubs and brush, rendering it easier for both audience and speakers to get the most of the occasion. Delegations of the class are working every afternoon, and by the end of the term the work will be nearly done.

As the College outgrew Webster Hall, it held its first outdoor Commencement in the Bema in 1932 and continued to do every year until the ceremony moved to the Baker lawn in 1953. The first outdoor Convocation took place in the Bema in 1943, and it is still the site of Class Day exercises on the day before graduation. It tells us how far the fortunes of College Park had fallen by 1965 that the Bema area was considered as a possible building site for new dormitories. The College decided to place the buildings, later named French, Hinman and McLane halls, at the far western edge of the campus—the River Cluster—rather than in the midst of College Park.

Read more from Dartmouth Alumni News

Image courtesy of the Dartmouth Library.

Share