Danielsen’s Prolific Philanthropic Legacy Largely Unknown to Students
By Toni Ann Booras
BU News Service
White-rimmed bay windows surrounded by rust-colored brick atop a trio of stone arches do not look out of place in the upscale Back Bay neighborhood. It might be surprising, however, to learn that this building is a college dorm.
Boston University wouldn’t own the building, Danielsen Hall, were it not for the generosity of philanthropist Albert V. Danielsen. But most BU students, even the ones living there, do not know anything about the man whose name is reflected in the residence name.
“I’ve never really thought about it,” said School of Management sophomore Jessica Carlson. “I just assumed it was just someone who donated a lot of money.”
The 10-floor dormitory-style residence, which houses 282 students, marks the eastern end of BU’s Charles River campus. The 512 Beacon St. location was given to Boston University in 1976 by Albert V. Danielsen and his wife, Jessie. It has served as a student residence since then.
Danielsen was a real estate investor, philanthropist and Brandeis University Fellow. The Danielsens helped found Boston University’s Albert and Jessie Danielsen Institute, which began as a pastoral counseling center but evolved into an institute incorporating spiritual development into its psychiatric services.
College of Arts and Sciences sophomore Justin Bram was the only resident who could say who Albert V. Danielsen was with any confidence.
“I know Danielsen was a BU donor and he donated this building and that medical center,” Bram said.
Referring to Danielsen Hall and the Danielsen Institute, respectively, Bram captured Danielsen’s philanthropic nature. But he didn’t know the full extent of Danielsen’s involvement at BU and other area schools, which included donations to BU, Brandeis and several southern colleges.
Danielsen also helped establish Marsh Chapel on campus as a way to honor former Boston University President Daniel Marsh, who graduated from BU’s School of Theology and served as a Methodist minister before a 25-year run as president of the university, according to a book by Abram Leon Sachar, the founding president of Brandeis University.
The Danielsens also hosted guests of the university and members of the BU community in their guesthouse. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the Danielsen’s potential guests in 1956, though King did not end up staying there, according to records at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center.
Residents of Danielsen Hall pass by a plaque in the lobby daily, a plaque dedicating the building to the Danielsens “in grateful appreciation for a quarter century of wise counsel, devoted service and generous benefaction.” Still, only one of the residents questioned knew the namesake of the building. That didn’t stop the others from guessing, however.
“It’s probably someone famous,” said College of Engineering sophomore Abesari Woldeyesus, adding he had never thought about it.
“I heard that Danielsen used to be an insane asylum,” said sophomore Corinne Plaisir. “Maybe he was either a crazy patient or the founder of the asylum.”
Plaisir quickly added another guess.
“Or maybe he gave BU a lot of money,” she said. “BU likes people who give them a lot of money.”
It is true that Danielsen was a university benefactor. He established trusts and scholarships and made sizable donations to educational facilities throughout the state. But Danielsen didn’t always have money. Born in the Virgin Islands in 1893 and orphaned at 5 years old, he lived briefly with his grandmother before moving in with an aunt in Maryland, according to a biography on BU’s website.
His aunt, however, was troubled and abusive. At age 9 he began attending the McDonogh School, a school farm for orphan boys in Maryland where he was bullied and was eventually released at age 16. He worked a series of menial jobs before finding a niche as a bond salesman and realizing his true calling: real estate investment.
Danielsen immediately saw a substantial payout from a number of property investments. Among them were a series of residential buildings in the Beacon Street area, including the building now known as Danielsen Hall.
Danielsen married Jessie Boyd in 1939 and they moved to Wellesley, Mass., where they lived for the remainder of their lives. Recognizing the need to share their wealth, they immediately began engaging in philanthropy, keeping only 10 percent of their income and donating the rest, according to a biography of Jessie Danielsen on BU’s website.
The 70,768-sqaure-foot building bearing Danielsen’s name was originally built in 1926 and stands 103 ft. tall, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority.