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College at Florham Turns 50  Part 1

As I drove through the front gate from Madison Avenue and down the drive, I could not help but be impressed with the beauty of the surroundings,” recalls William Maher, BS’63 (M). “In those days, the admissions office was the last office to the left as you entered the massive front door, across from Hartman Lounge. Transcript in hand, I was given an application. If I wanted to fill it out on the spot, I was directed to the library. I proceeded to fill in the blanks with a trusty Bic ballpoint. The librarian offered to type it up for me. … Her offer of help was the first of the many offers of help I was to receive from professors, staff and members of the administration over the next four years. A sense of community was a hallmark of the campus.”

That sense of community is being celebrated throughout this academic year in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the opening of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s College at Florham, its campus in Madison, N.J. The wrought-iron gates of the former estate of Hamilton McKown Twombly and Florence Vanderbilt Twombly, acquired by FDU in 1957, greeted students for the first time in May 1958, when the University held its 15th Commencement ceremony on the beautifully manicured grounds of its newest asset.

The Twomblys built their 1,000-acre seasonal estate, Florham, at the turn of the 20th century, establishing a profitable dairy farm and extensive greenhouses on the grounds. The Twomblys ushered in an era of social opulence, becoming renowned entertainers on the “Street of Millionaires” known as Madison Avenue. Carriages came and went by the dozens each weekend, as guests filled the bedrooms of the estate’s main hall. Elaborate dinners featured Lobster Florham, made with the fresh cream from the estate’s Guernsey cows, and the beautiful Aeolian-Skinner organ in the Great Hall, purchased for $85,000 in 1918, rang out while the social elite danced the evenings away. A Playhouse, with a swimming pool and clay tennis court, was added for the entertainment of the Twombly daughter, Ruth, and her friends.

It was a time of elegance and excess, enjoyed to the fullest.

 
The Vanderbilt-Twombly Mansion is now known as Hennessy Hall

Peter Sammartino, founder and first president of Fairleigh Dickinson, had been investigating the acquisition of acreage in rural New Jersey in anticipation of the day the recently designated university would need to expand. Several years earlier, after the death of Florence Vanderbilt Twombly in 1952 and Ruth in 1954, the remaining Twombly family members decided to give up the celebrated Florham estate. In August 1957, Sammartino received a call from Edward T. T. Williams, the chairman of FDU’s Board of Trustees. The board had successfully negotiated the purchase of a portion of the estate that included the main house, carriage house, recreation facility, orangerie, several greenhouses and other outlying buildings.

Sammartino immediately called a meeting of 17 key University administrators. Malcolm Sturchio, presently professor emeritus of chemistry and then an instructor at the University’s Teaneck location, recalls Sammartino directing the group to “Just get into your cars and follow me.” They proceeded to Madison, past the College of St. Elizabeth and alongside an extensive brick wall.

“When we saw two massive pillars,” wrote Sammartino in his book, I Dreamed a College, “we pulled into two iron gates. After riding through a beautifully kept road and underneath a railroad trestle, a magnificent building came into view, reminiscent of Hampton Court in England.”

After the group parked in front of the massive home, Sturchio recalls, Sammartino announced, “‘Well, this place is ours. Now what do we do with it?’” The group entered the 100-room Mansion (now known as Hennessy Hall) and sat on the grand stairway in the expansive, 150-foot-long Great Hall, with its floor of Carrara marble. “Then Peter proceeded to tell us exactly what we were going to do,” Sturchio chuckles.

Sammartino chose to debut the University’s acquisition 10 months later with the 1958 Commencement exercises being held on the lush grounds. “When we got to the Madison Campus [as it was then known], we were astounded,” recalls Sylvia Preziosi Schroeder, AA’58 (R), BA’61 (R), MPA’80 (R). “The grounds were lovely and expansive. … I knew that we were a part of a greater higher-educational institution that would be progressive … I am grateful that I was a part of the evolution of FDU.”

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For a print copy of FDU Magazine, featuring this and other stories, contact Rebecca Maxon, editor,
201-692-7024 or maxon@fdu.edu.

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