Early Impressions of ASCSA

Early Impressions of the ASCSA, by Carl W. Blegen, 1959

In 1959, on the occasion of the inauguration of the Davis Wing of the School’s Library, Carl W. Blegen delivered a speech about his early impressions of the American School and life in Athens.  Blegen first came to the School in 1910. The text which is very informative and full of humour is preserved at the Archives of the American School together with the rest of the Blegen papers. Liz Ward Papageorgiou transcribed and edited the manuscript.

Almost a half century has passed—49 years, if you wish me to be exact—since I first came to Athens as a student at the American School of Classical Studies in 1910. I was very young, very naïve, and very unsophisticated. In those days the School itself was unsophisticated and relatively youthful, having just rounded onto its 28th year of existence. Founded in 1881, it opened its doors to students the next year, and for a lustrum from 1882 to 1887 it was established in the top floor of a large house which still stands today at 40 Amalia Boulevard, nearly opposite the Arch of Hadrian. In 1887 while waiting for its own home to be finished the School had temporary quarters for six or seven months in the “Spiti Melas,” which later became the central post office of Athens.

By the end of 1886 enough money had been raised to start work on a School building. The Greek government generously donated this ground, alongside a similar plot that had been presented to the British School, and the cornerstone was laid early in 1887. The house was designed by Professor Ware of Columbia University, and one of his pupils, S. B. P. Trowbridge, came to Athens as supervisor of construction, a task that kept him busy through the greater part of two years. The work was completed so that the books could be placed on the Library shelves in April 1888.

The building, which always seemed to me to possess character and dignity, laid out in simple lines, and topped by a terrace with an effective projecting cornice, still stood unchanged in 1910. It contained the Library, approached by a handsome marble stairway, living quarters for the Director and his family, who enjoyed the use of a beautiful drawing room and dining room, and also pleasant rooms for four or five students, all modestly furnished. The house in 1910 still had one rather curious lack in its planning: there was no bathroom anywhere in the building—a state of affairs first corrected by Mr. Hill in 1912. This does not mean that we previously had to forego bathing altogether: every student’s room, in addition to its washstand with basin and pitcher, was equipped with a large shallow circular tub of zinc which, when not in use, could be pushed out of sight under the bed. In the evening, or mornings we used to stand in our tub and pour water over ourselves, or one could call on his neighbor in the next room to do the pouring, a service which was duly reciprocated in kind. I still remember how cold that water often was. But we did not realize that we were living under hardships. In those days rooms in the School building were assigned only to men; they thought themselves lucky to be there.

The School at that time still stood in the very outer fringe of the city. The view in all directions was open and magnificent. No houses had been built between us and Lykabettos. Toward the east, outside our wall, was a deepish ravine which, despite its occasional use as a repository for garbage, served to carry off rain water and as a very inadequate forerunner of the present Gennadios St.; beyond it rose the monastery—not so large as it is now—but there were no other houses in this quarter—only olive trees—and no buildings except some temporary barracks much further away. We were practically in the country.

My earliest impressions of Athens have a musical background: every morning while I was disposing of the breakfast, brought to my room on a tray (there was yet no students’ dining room), I used to hear a sort of a concert from the region of the barracks, where potential buglers were being patiently trained. There were ten or a dozen aspiring candidates, sitting on or standing alongside a wall: the instructor with a flourish would play a lively bugle call; then his pupils tried to reproduce it. At first, in the autumn, they emitted the weirdest sounds you could imagine, no two alike, and none resembling the given theme, but all full of enthusiasm and volume. Bugles must be unusually difficult instruments to play, for progress during the fall and winter was desperately slow. Perhaps a two or three years’ course was need. But at the end I myself became fairly familiar with at least a dozen bugle calls of the Greek army, though I had no clear idea what any of them meant except taps.

Life was relatively quiet and peaceful at the old School. By day we were usually prowling about the Acropolis or in the Museum, or exploring Athenian topography. We ordinarily took our meals at restaurants down town, the Averoff when we were feeling flush, or other times the Panhellenion or some smaller place. We learned quite a lot of Greek there. In the evenings, we generally studied in the Library, unless it was too cold. There were no nightclubs in those far off days, no tavernas with a floor show, no Athens Festival, no concerts in the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Before going to bed, however, some of us, who had a sweet tooth, often wandered down town again to the “Dardanellia” where in a milk and pastry shop called the “Hνωμένα Bουστάσια”—known to us as the “United Cowstables”—we enjoyed a ‘kataeef or a honeyed Kopenhai’, or some such satisfying concoction. The walk down and especially up the hill again always stimulated one’s circulation so that we went to bed warm in a chilly, unheated house.

A new era was inaugurated on April 8, 1913 when excavation was begun for a much needed addition to the School building. Its primary purpose was to provide room for the growing library, but the Committee under the chairmanship of Professor James R. Wheeler wisely decided at the same time to add more bedrooms and a dining room for students, a Ladies’ Parlor, a Common Room, a drafting room and a study or office, and to install modern heating and plumbing throughout the whole structure, old and new. Under the supervision of Stuart Thompson, the project was pushed to completion in the spring of 1915. Having become Secretary of the School, I found that much of my time was taken up by multitudinous minor errands and tasks in connection with the work of construction. But frequently there were more exciting assignments. I remember particularly the many epic battles of facts, figures and works that Stuart Thompson and I together waged from time to time with the general contractor in our heroic struggles—often successful—to pare down his exorbitant estimates and claims. Buy my greatest tribulation came while Stuart Thompson was absent in America when I had to deal with his high-powered professional plumbers and a carpenter from New York, especially Jack Johnson and Ben Leach, who made constant demands for American food and American accommodations, which they insisted were guaranteed in their contracts. I should like to tell you tales about some of the specific problems that came up, culminating in an abortive strike. It was not only, they complained, that the breakfast coffee was undrinkable, the toast inedible, and the bacon burnt to cinders (we ourselves never had bacon), but as a crowning insult the maid who waited on their breakfast table had actually appeared in bare legs without stockings.

But an adequate account of the casual incidents and accidents that enlivened this chapter to in the history of the School’s growth and expansion and transition would deserve a long an detailed treatment that must be deferred to some other occasion. This morning I have only tried to offer you a few light glimpses of conditions in the good old days of long ago.