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  • Natalia Estela

Eells House racist wallpaper to be removed after two-year committee review

EELLS HOUSE – A racist wallpaper in Eells House dining room will be removed after a nearly two-year committee process, per an announcement from the College. It will also place an informational plaque next to the new wallpaper. “Vues d’Amérique du Nord” is an 1834 painting by Jean-Jacques Deltil and Jean Zuber depicting an idealized version of American society that includes Black people dressed in formal attire and depictions of Native Americans dancing for the crowd of white and Black people. After acquiring Eells House from the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity following the 1995 Residential Life Decision to end Greek housing on campus, Hamilton paid about $50,000 to reinstall the wallpaper in 1999. The College had hoped to avoid additional conflict with Greek life. Students had raised concerns about the wallpaper for years, including in an opinion piece for the Monitor last August comparing it to the rapid painting over of Co-op’s student paintings against student will.

The Eells House Committee

According to Hamilton’s announcement published on April 16th, 2024, “concerns about the depiction of Indigenous Americans and American descendants of slaves on the wallpaper… were raised in the spring of 2022”. As a result, President David Wippman formed the Eells House Committee (EHC) with the task of recommending efficient ways to address the issue. The committee included Nathan Goodale (Chair, Assoc. Dean of Faculty for Arts & Sciences, Professor of Anthropology), Sean Bennett (Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), Mark Harrington ’23 (Alpha Delta Phi, President Hamilton Chapter), Emily Jiang ’25 (past Student Assembly President), Derek Montroy (Member Outreach and Advocacy Coordinator, Oneida Indian Nation), Monty Pooley ’84 (Charter Trustee, Alpha Delta Phi member), and Ty Seidule (Visiting Professor of History). During the fall and spring of 2022-2023, the committee was tasked with researching and consulting students, alumni, staff, and faculty members to gather perspectives to provide recommendations representative of the stakeholders. 

While a committee report obtained by Monitor cites the start of concern in spring 2022 from summer Opportunity Program students residing in Eells, anonymous student racial justice advocates with The Movement demanded the wallpaper be removed seven years earlier in a list of lengthy concerns. They demanded that colonizer Elihu Root’s name be removed from campus properties along with “all other racist hallmarks around campus, such as art and wallpaper in various places.” Therefore, despite the growing concerns from many students and the summer OP program, the final decision to remove the wallpaper was made nearly a decade later.

The reason for this inaction has been questioned by faculty and students, given the precedent of Co-op students' paintings being painted over without hesitation. Co-op  was a special interest housing arrangement at Woollcott House where students lived cooperatively, in which the living room walls of Co-op served as a canvas for student art. Students asserted these walls weren’t to be painted over, but during summer 2023 after Co-op did not gain enough students to return for this year, Hamilton painted over the walls without notifying the students. Hamilton also recently painted over student artwork in the ALCC basement and Sadove Basement without similar committee processes to Eells, apologizing for the ALCC case as an accident.

History of Eells House, Alpha Delta Phi, and the wallpaper

In an archival interview with Facilities Management employees involved in the project obtained by the Monitor, it is mentioned that renovations to the Eells House started in 1999 after the College obtained the property from Alpha Delta Phi sometime between 1995-1999. Alpha Delta Phi fraternity members sometime between 1910 and 1930 purchased the wallpaper “Vues d’Amérique du Nord.” During modern renovations, Facilities noticed that the wallpaper was in “bad shape.” According to one of the speakers, “I don’t have any recall that we were forced to do anything or that it was a legal mandate.” To avoid further tension with the fraternity after eliminating Greek housing, Hamilton reinstalled the wallpaper.

The committee report says Hamilton spent approximately $50,000 from its $3 million renovation budget to remove, purchase, and reinstall the wallpaper. According to the committee report, they “did not identify any special funds set aside from donors to specifically reinstall the…wallpaper.” However, the report said Marjorie Keehn, wife of former trustee Grant Keehn 1921, “chose the original wallpaper in the dining room, which was dedicated to the Keehn Family in recognition of their philanthropic relationship with the College following renovations to the building in 1999-00.” 

Concerns about the content of the wallpaper

Questions about the wallpaper resurfaced during the spring of 2022 from students enrolled in the summer Opportunity Program. The program was looking for a group study space and a place where students could build community. Ultimately, after viewing the dining room, leadership of the Opportunity Program felt that without first contextualizing the images on the wallpaper, use of the space would distract from the goals of the program and would not be an appropriate introduction to the College community for a group of students from marginalized backgrounds. Due to the requests to take the wallpaper down from the student body, the Eells House Committee was formed to come up with proposals as to what should be done with the wallpaper. Two weeks ago, the committee along with President Wippman decided to take the wallpaper down and replace it with Isola Bella

Overall, the efforts to address the controversial wallpaper in Eells seem to have been prompted by student body pressure and conflicting ideals, given the racist imagery and Hamilton College's DEI initiatives. In a significant change from past practices, the College involved a representative of the local Oneida Indian Nation and Haudenosaunee communities in the decision-making process concerning the Eells controversy.

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