A lot can happen in 80 years. Dreams can come true beyond the dreamers’ wildest imaginings. A 38-acre farm can become a 175-acre campus. An old brick house can become a college with 60 buildings and state-of-the-art facilities. A half-dozen professors can swell to a full-time faculty of over 200, and 90 students taking a handful of courses can grow into 3,000 men and women pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in 31 majors and 80-plus minors and certificate programs. A lot can happen in 80 years, and a lot did happen in an Albany, New York suburb where seven Franciscan friars opened a Catholic college for men in September of 1937.
The United States was still reeling from the Great Depression, and the storm clouds of the Second World War were looming on the horizon. It hardly seemed the time to embark on a risky new venture. Yet, the Franciscans of Holy Name Province were willing to take the risk. Fr. Thomas Plassmann, OFM, President of St. Bonaventure College, sent seven friars from his faculty to establish a satellite campus in the New York State Capital Region. They purchased the Garrett estate in Loudonville and converted the family home into classrooms, offices and living space for the friar community. When twice the number of registered students showed up on opening day, the old farmhouse became so crowded that the friars had to teach some of their classes in a stairwell. It wasn’t long before they broke ground for a new academic building.
When the cornerstone was laid for Siena Hall on June 20, 1938, Fr. Plassmann announced that the fledgling institution would be known as St. Bernardine of Siena College in honor of the noted fifteenth-century Franciscan preacher and missionary. The south wing of the building opened in September, 1938, joined by the north wing a year later. Siena Hall hosted classrooms and laboratories, faculty and administrative offices, a library, a bookstore, a cafeteria and a chapel. For each of the College’s first four years, the student population doubled in size. A gymnasium was completed in the spring of 1941. It was the site of Siena’s first commencement exercises, at which seventy-four graduates received bachelor’s degrees. To complement the all-male day school, the College added coeducational evening and summer divisions in 1938-39. In 1942, Siena received its permanent charter from the State of New York.
During World War II, enrollment dropped dramatically. One estimate put the number of Siena students and alumni serving in the armed forces at over 1,000. Were it not for the non-traditional students and the women in the evening division, Siena itself would have become a casualty of the global conflict. However, in the wake of the war and with the advent of the GI Bill, Siena grew rapidly. Enrollment peaked at 2752 in the fall semester of 1948. Quonset huts served as temporary buildings to accommodate the overflow of students. In the early 1950s, the College built a free-standing library and a large friary that included a chapel for the College community. Siena also enhanced its course offerings with master’s degree programs in ten fields. Under the leadership of Coach Dan Cunha, the Siena men’s basketball team captivated the Capital Region and captured the Catholic Invitational Tournament championship, gaining the school national attention.
The commuter college of the 40s and 50s revamped itself in its third decade with the construction of three dorms and a dining facility. Once again, the student population doubled. The College opened a new science building in 1967 and named it for Roger Bacon, the 13th century Franciscan who was an early champion of experimental research. In 1968, the school was formally renamed Siena College, and a year later, became co-educational. Between 1962 and 1973, Siena expanded its course offerings by adding six majors while eliminating its graduate division to focus more effectively on undergraduate education. Many more majors and minors as well as a Masters in Accounting program have been added over the past 40 years. The College’s physical plant has been no less transformed by extensive landscaping of the grounds and by erecting dozens of academic, recreational, residential and administrative buildings.
A brief survey of seven and a half decades of construction projects and curriculum development cannot do justice to Siena’s history. For three quarters of a century, thousands of dedicated friars and lay people, students and faculty, staff and administrators, trustees and alumni have been living and shaping the College’s Catholic, Franciscan, liberal arts tradition. The vibrant undergraduate institution that gradually took shape on the old Garrett estate is the fruit of their faith, hard work, determination and commitment. It is their stories, individually and collectively, that are the real history of Siena College and its enduring legacy.