Bryant Campus Turns 50

Bryant Campus Turns 50

By Jim Ignasher


The Bryant Archway

     It was fifty years ago, September, 1971, when Bryant College (Now University) officially opened its new Smithfield campus to students, an event that began a new chapter in the history of the institution as well as for Smithfield.

     Bryant University can trace its origin to 1863 when Henry Bryant and Henry Stratton established the Bryant and Stratton National Business College on Westminster Street in Providence. In1935 the name of the college changed to Bryant College of Business Administration, and the campus relocated to Providence’s east side.

     The land which the university presently occupies has been in use since the 18th century. In 1730 Captain Joseph Mowry built a house which once stood where the dome of the “Unistructure” is located today. Another house was constructed next to it in 1820, and the two were later joined together.

     In 1894 the property was purchased by Jonathan and Eugenia Emin. One of their sons, John Arthur Emin, later took on the property and established the Smithfield Heights Farm, and raised dairy cows. The business eventually grew to be the second largest dairy farm in Rhode Island. He also grew 78 different varieties of apples, and a few apple trees can still be found growing on the campus today.   

Map of Bryant College – 1980
Click on map to enlarge.

     The property later passed to John Arthur’s son, John F. Emin, who continued farming the land, and is credited with establishing Smithfield’s first airport. In 1931 he purchased a Curtiss Pusher airplane which he kept at What Cheer Airport in Pawtucket. The following year he found an aircraft hangar for sale, and had it dismantled, brought to his farm, and reassembled. After clearing a cornfield for take-offs and landings, the Smithfield Airport was open for business.

     Although not in the history books, it could be said that the airport played a role in WWII history. In December of 1932, barely a month after the airport opened, William Benn, a young Pennsylvania Air National Guard lieutenant encountered a blinding snowstorm while piloting an open cockpit bi-plane from Boston to Philadelphia. As ice formed on the wings the aircraft began losing altitude and Benn was certain he was going to crash, but then he looked down, saw the Smithfield Airport below, and made an emergency landing. Years later during the height of WWII, (Then) Major Benn invented and developed a technique known as “skip bombing” designed to sink enemy shipping with bomber aircraft. It turned the tide of the war in favor of the allies in the Pacific Theatre. Had it not been for John Emin’s airport Benn might never have lived to fulfill his destiny.     

     William Benn – Footnote to History

     Eventually the land came into the possession of Earl S.Tupper, president of Tupperware Co. He later donated the property, which at that time consisted of 220 acres, to Bryant College. Thus the Smithfield campus became known as the “Tupper Campus”.

     Ground breaking ceremonies took place in 1970. The focal point would be the “Unistructure”, a large dome-topped building designed to include classrooms, a dining hall, administrative offices, a radio station, swimming pool, barber shop, and bookstore, all under one roof, which was very innovative for the time. Prior to its construction, the Mowry house and the 1820 house were relocated elsewhere on the campus, and both have survived to this day.

     Perhaps Bryant’s most recognized symbol is a wrought-iron gate known as “The Archway”, which has stood on a walkway leading to the Unistructure since being brought to the campus in 1971. It had originally stood at the entrance to South Hall on the Providence campus, and one legend associated with it says that a college professor and a handful of students surreptitiously removed it under cover of darkness and secretly brought it to Smithfield – a legend that’s fun to contemplate, but likely a myth. A superstitious tradition states that it’s bad luck to walk through the arch before graduation day, and if one dares to do so they won’t graduate. While some ignore the warning, others pass to either side – just in case.

     Most are probably unaware that John Mowry Road once ran from Washington Highway to Brayton Road, but that changed with development of the campus. Residents complained about traffic, so it was decided by the town to abandon the portion of road that crossed the campus, and create cul-de-sacs at either end. This left only one entrance to the campus, which allowed for better campus security.

     In the 1970s, there were those who envisioned Bryant eventually becoming a university, and that happened in 2004.

     When the campus first opened portions of it had yet to be completed, and in the ensuing years construction continued off and on, ultimately doubling the size of the campus and creating the educational institution we know today.

     Good luck Bryant. Here’s to the next 50 years!

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