From swamp to Simmons: Lincoln, the legacy

City & State Editor
Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Caught between two names, Lincoln Field was originally dedicated to a well-loved Latin professor who passed away in 1891.

Bound on four sides by all varieties of academic disciplines and student life, Lincoln Field, the University’s historic lower campus, lacks both the imposing splendor of the Main Green and the sleepy solace of the Quiet Green.

Its sloping expanse has long been a hub of academic life on campus, but it has also been home to the less intellectual but equally valued pursuits of lunch tray sledding, Frisbee slinging and sunbathing.  

Until 1880, the space was “nothing more than a swamp … inhabited by a numerous colony of musical bull-frogs … bordered with a tropic growth of shrubbery and tall grass,” wrote alum Anthony McCabe in “Memories of Brown: traditions and recollections gathered from many sources” – a 1909 compilation of student accounts. In 1880, the swamp was formally laid out and named Lincoln Field. 

Upon former President Ruth Simmons’ departure earlier this year, the Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, formally rededicated the land as the Ruth J. Simmons Quadrangle.

 Honorary naming and dedication is a responsibility of the Corporation, said Richard Spies, interim senior vice president for University advancement. There are no formal rules governing the process, but the members try to proceed in “an orderly fashion,” he said. 

“They are the stewards of the physical spaces and assets of the University,” Spies said. “Ultimately the decision about naming something would be theirs.”  

Currently, there are no plans to commemorate Professor John Lincoln, the quadrangle’s original namesake, in an alternate way. “It does happen in some cases that buildings are demolished and names disappear,” Spies said. “The memories are usually captured somehow, but not always.” 

(A)Live on Lincoln

John Larkin Lincoln 1836 was a Latin professor at the University from 1844 until his death in 1891. References to Lincoln’s character and teaching are frequently scattered throughout “Memories,” often taking the form of reminiscences on his academic prowess, imposing presence and sharp sense of humor. 

By most accounts, Lincoln seems to have been one of the professors originally responsible for making the University’s name synonymous with great teaching. While Simmons was often considered a rock star at Brown, stories suggest that Lincoln may have been one of her 19th century equivalents. 

“Seniors were frequently invited to his table, and they adored him,” wrote Benjamin Wheeler 1875 in “Memories.” “I was sure no college had such remarkable professors as Brown,” he wrote.

Lincoln also showed great enthusiasm both for the Latin language and for teaching. “How he beamed and glowed over a happy translation … How he radiated his own joy in the Ars Poetica!” wrote former University president William Faunce 1880 of his colleague. “Latin a dead language? No one ever said that who sat under ‘Johnny Link’ in 23 University Hall.”

The pieces also recount tales of Lincoln’s quick wit and dry sense of humor. One unfortunate student, caught off-guard in class by a question about the Roman historian Livy, replied that he had forgotten the answer, James Angell 1849 recalled. Lincoln’s retort was devastating: “Forgotten? Did you ever know?”  

Adoration aside, the classics professor was equally talented in the discipline of his young charges. “Students in that group will never forget the impressive and indignant manner with which Professor Lincoln fixed his eyeglasses and glared through the window at the offenders,” wrote August Swift of an incident involving former University president Francis Wayland’s dairy cow and an incessantly ringing University bell. 

Lincoln’s name will live on in history books, but how deeply attached it will be to the field in the future remains to be seen. “Is the Lincoln name removed, or is it in effect shared?” Spies asked. “I don’t know the answer to that yet.”


Throughout the years, thousands of students have used the field as a sun-drenched spot for studying, sports and a bit of lounging between classes.

But in the 1800s, the field had yet to be surrounded by its current array of academic buildings. Baseballs flew freely – until one crashed unceremoniously through the window of St. Stephen’s Church, leading to a hasty reorientation of home plate.

The ability to bring together a community, whether through a 19th century baseball team or a 21st century dance class, seems to be a long-standing feature of the space. Each spring, hundreds now gather on the field for an evening of traditional African Mande dance. In years past, sporting events were the major draw for crowds. 

The quad has also witnessed its fair share of mischief over the years – even Victorian-era Brunonians were not without the characteristic streak of sly troublemaking.  

On a spring night in 1899, students celebrating a baseball victory over Princeton set the field alight with bonfires on a “never-to-be-forgotten night on Lincoln Field,” an unidentified student wrote in “Memories.” It was an event perhaps responsible for setting the precedent for an age-old struggle well-known to any student who has ever called Keeney Quadrangle home. 

The bonfires “transformed the arena of Lincoln Field into a battleground,” he wrote. “The warring factions were the students of Brown University and the fire department.” 

In perpetuity?

On the opening day of the 2012-2013 academic year, bewildered first-years and transfer students consulted freshly labeled maps directing them through the Simmons Quadrangle. After the Van Wickle gates swing inward to admit three more classes, the field’s original name may be lost to all but historians and alums. 

But for three-quarters of the current undergraduate community, the majority of memories related to the field – Fall Concert, Live on Lincoln and the annual Foam Party, to name a few – will exist under a different name, at least for now. 

 Though the name does not yet roll easily off the tongue, most upperclassmen and recent alums seem to be aware of the change. Juan Lorenzo ’12, who had just informed his friend Cristina Alvarez ’13 of the new title, said he thinks the quad is desper
ately in need of a nickname. 

But both thought the name would catch on fairly rapidly “because Ruth was so adored,” Lorenzo said. And they agreed that Simmons deserved the remembrance. 

“It’s a huge honor,” said Briana Garcia ’14. “It’s one of my favorite greens on campus.” 

Several more recently dedicated buildings have yet to answer to their name in the minds of students. New Dorm seems almost certainly entrenched as the unofficial title for the Vartan Gregorian Quad and Faunce House is still fairly universally the name of choice for the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center. 

“Some things are instantaneously accepted, and other things take forever,” Spies said. “Sometimes four years is a reasonable estimate of ‘a while’ before they become part of the popular lexicon, but some things happen a lot faster.” 

The Corporation’s resolution of gratitude towards Simmons states, “In high honor and lasting legacy of her Presidency, the historic lower campus between Soldier’s Arch and Sayles Hall will be henceforth and in perpetuity known to all as The Ruth J. Simmons Quadrangle.” 

“There’s a time and a place for everything, including naming,” Spies said of campus rededications. “Not everything is forever.” 

More than 100 years later, student knowledge of the once illustrious Professor Lincoln has all but faded from memory, raising a lingering question. 

Centuries later, in perpetuity even, what remains of a name? Even one as powerful as Ruth J. Simmons. 


To stay up-to-date, subscribe to our daily newsletter.

  1. The renaming of buildings and parts of buildings is disgusting actually, as the University takes every brick as some plaque to mostly make money from. When an original name disappears, this is the height of commerce. That Simmons is used — honoring her as opposed to making more bucks — to essentially hide the basics of renaming is even worse. If I were her, I would refuse the honor. Give Ruth Simmons something new that has not been named, or something that is not named and has never been named and is not presently merely a part of something that is named. I can see Magdalene College in England named Ringo Starr Hall. Whatever, tradition is also bunk, of course, and one day Simmons Green will become Garcia Playground.

  2. Peter Mackie'59 says:

    The Corporation’s decision to rename Lincoln Field is as unfathomable as it is shortsighted. It is an affront to history and to generations of Brunonians who cherish memories of this special place. Brown has always prided itself on its longevity and permanence. “Names That live Through Time” is an oft-used development phrase to entice donors to place their names on a significant campus structure. The message should now be clear however, that nothing at Brown is truly permanent.
    Past practice at Brown has honored presidents by naming new structures which were built during their tenure: Wriston Quad, Keeney Quad, and Gregorian Quad are recent examples. Lincoln Field stretches the definition of quad to the extreme- it is not a quadrangle. But the more important question is the appropriateness of this decision. While there can be no question that the Simmons years were extraordinary, and that Ruth deserves our enduring gratitude, there are far more fitting ways to honor her. The Walk is one, the unifying link between Pembroke campus and Lincoln Field.
    Brown folks should be as indignant as was Lincoln at this offense. To remove the name of a great professor is counter to what Brown is all about; teaching and learning. It is never too late to change a bad decision.If the Corporation refuses to reconsider, Ruth Simmons should have the good sense to insist that her name be shared with Lincoln: Ruth Simmons Quadrangle on Lincoln Field.

  3. I really appreciate the alliteration in this title.

  4. There is some appropriateness of a structure or place surrounded by such structures of a certain age to have a name associated with that age. That’s why Lincoln is appropriate and Ruth Simmons is not. More, when every piece of a place is subdivided and old places get redone and renamed in parts or entirely (Faunce, Solomon, Dexter Field) it merely highlights the whole campus is for sale all the time, the the university is not universal and timeless at all, it is an arm of a hedge fund and big bucks.

  5. Donor money is a fact of life at most institutions of higher learning. As sordid as it may all sound, it is what pays to make many of the improvements that the campus needs. If there is no donor money, there is no Brown University as it exists today. A student’s $50,000 per year isn’t sufficient to pay for the best faculty, the leaders, the administrators, professional librarians, and all of the staff that keep this place running. Personally, I have always called it the Robert Campus Center in Faunce House. And I like the Ruth Simmons Quadrangle on Lincoln Field. Just because there are new names it doesn’t mean that they cannot be incorporated in with the older ones. Respect for the past, and hope for the future of an institution that turns the most amazing students out into the world.

  6. It would be better to name a new structure or site than to rewrite history. Certainly the new campus downtown would probably one of Ruth’s larger legacies. It may not be glamerois now but it should grow into something quite big. There must be something that could use her name

  7. I’m calling it Lincoln. People still call it Lincoln. The Simmons thing is stupid. I don’t feel obliged to explain why.

  8. Simmons and Tisch are spineless.

Comments are closed. If you have corrections to submit, you can email The Herald at