George Mason University is celebrating fifty years as an independent university this year, but did you know that Mason was in existence for 15 years prior to April 7, 1972?

In February of 1956 the Virginia General Assembly approved Joint Resolution No. 5, establishing a Northern Virginia branch of the University of Virginia.  The University named the new branch “University College of the University of Virginia.”

George Mason College, Bailey's Crossroads, 1961.
George Mason College, Baileys Crossroads, December, 1961. From the Richard Sparks photograph collection, RA196112-0001.

University College opened on September 24, 1957 in a former elementary school in Bailey’s Crossroads, Va. Initial enrollment was 17 freshmen. The college was a two-year branch, offering the opportunity to earn an associate degree. The building had 8 classrooms, no air conditioning, substandard heat, and leaky plumbing. Former occupants have described the climate conditions inside as “hot in the summer and cold in the winter”. There were no gathering places for students outside of class, aside from the main hallway and the parking lot outside.  The neighboring Bailey’s Crossroads Volunteer Fire Department, offered the college its upstairs bingo hall during the daytime as a “lounge”. Students were always prepared for an interruption of their lunch or a student assembly by the deafening clang of the fire bell announcing an incoming call to fire station personnel downstairs.

GMC students take part in Student Government debates in April 1964.
George Mason College students listen to Student Government debates, March 23, 1964 in the “Lounge” located at the Baileys Crossroads Volunteer Fire Department. From the Richard Sparks photograph collection, RA196404-23.

 

George Mason College students and faculty at the Student Faculty Picnic, May 20, 1964.
George Mason College students and faculty at the Student Faculty Picnic, May 20, 1964. From the Richard Sparks photograph collection, RA196405-20C

Early student involvement activities included the annual Christmas Dance, held at an Arlington hotel and the Student-Faculty Picnic. Student government debates and elections, held on the second floor of the firehouse, were attended by nearly the entire student body. Students produced a 4-page mimeographed school “newspaper” called The Perspective. In 1963 The Perspective was replaced by The Gunston Ledger (which was renamed Broadside in 1969).

Final Day Exercises, 1963.
Final Day Exercises at the Episcopal Seminary (now known as the Virginia Theological Seminary) at 3737 Seminary Road in Alexandria, June 6, 1963. From the George Mason University photograph collection, R0120, Box 1, Folder 8.

Instead of Commencement, University College celebrated “Final Day Exercises” at the Episcopal Seminary in nearby Alexandria with Director, John Norville Gibson Finley presiding. Finley, a former member of the English Department faculty at Charlottesville, headed up the branch from its inception until the end of 1963. While no caps and gowns were worn at the ceremony, degree candidates dressed to impress in jackets and ties for the men and skirts and blouses or dresses, heels, and gloves for the women.

Letter from University of Virginia president, Colgate W. Darden, Jr. to University College Director, John Norville Gibson Finley regarding the renaming of the college, June 16, 1959.
Letter from University of Virginia president, Colgate W. Darden, Jr. to University College Director, John Norville Gibson Finley suggesting “George Mason” as a possible new name for the college, June 16, 1959. From the George Mason University Office of the President records, R0004 Box 3.

During the fall of 1959 administrators in Charlottesville sought a more permanent name for the college. Finley and the student body (about 100 at that time) were presented with three choices: keep the name “University College” or change it to either “Northern Virginia College” or “George Mason College”. The vote was evenly divided among the three. In December, the University’s Board of Visitors broke the tie by choosing “George Mason” to become effective January 1, 1960.

The original campus, affectionately called “Bailey’s Crossroads University”, or “BXU” by most students, was in service until June of 1964. At the beginning of the next semester, George Mason College would open in four brand new buildings about 1 mile south of the Town of Fairfax.

The Special Collections Research Center has mounted an exhibit entitled: “We Are Mason: A Student History” celebrating George Mason’s 50th Anniversary and the role students have played in its history. Please visit https://scrc.gmu.edu/wearemason.php for more information.

Follow SCRC on Social Media and look out for future posts on our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts. To search the collections held at Special Collections Research Center, go to our website and browse the finding aids by subject or title. You may also e-mail us at speccoll@gmu.edu or call 703-993-2220 if you would like to schedule an appointment, request materials, or if you have questions.

 

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