The Oldest University Buildings in America


David Austin Walsh is the editor of the History News Network.

With Labor Day behind us and autumn in the air (okay, it's in the 70s and 80s in most parts of the country today, but bear with me), college students everywhere are returning to campuses. While schools in the United States cannot compete with European universities when it comes to the ancientness of their campuses (Oxford University's oldest building dates back to 1320 -- it is now, oddly enough, a cafe), the oldest American universities boast halls and dormitories that easily pre-date independence.

What follows is a list of some of the oldest university buildings in the United States. Only one building per campus, and, since otherwise we'd never leave the Eastern seaboard, the oldest university building west of the Mississippi is included.

#1: Wren Building, College of William and Mary. Constructed 1700. Finished a scant eight years after the College of William and Mary was founded, the Wren Building is the oldest university building in the United States. Named after English architect Christopher Wren, it was restored by John D. Rockefeller in the 1920s to its eighteenth-century appearance.

#2: Massachusetts Hall, Harvard University. Constructed 1722. Though Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the U.S., founded in 1636, its oldest existing building was finished twenty-two years after William and Mary's. Massachusetts Hall has the distinction, however, of being the oldest dormitory in the country, and was home to many of the Founding Fathers during their college years, including John and Samuel Adams. Presumably, then as now, beer was involved in the college experience.

#3: Connecticut Hall, Yale University. Constructed in 1752. Yale's Connecticut Hall also served as a student dormitory in its early years, housing notables including Nathan Hale, Noah Webster, and Eli Whitney. Largely rebuilt after World War II, it now serves as a home for faculty offices and a computer lab. (If Oxford's oldest building can be a cafe, why not?)

#4: Nassau Hall, Princeton University. Constructed in 1754. Nassau Hall has a special place in American history wholly separate from its status as Princeton's oldest building: for four months in 1783, it served as the meeting place for the Continental Congress, effectively making Nassau Hall one of the former capitol buildings of the United States.

#5: University Hall, Brown University. Constructed in 1770. Like its older sibling at Princeton, Brown's University Hall played an important, if somewhat less illustrious, role in the Revolutionary War as a barracks for French troops. Oddly enough, the building was briefly re-militarized in 1853 in response to the Dorr Rebellion. It is now home to administrative offices.

#6: Old East, University of North Carolina. Constructed in 1793. Old East is the oldest university building originally constructed for a public university (UNC was founded as a public university in 1789; the College of William and Mary was a private institution until 1906). It was built as a dormitory (see a theme here?), a function it continues to serve to this very day.

#7: Old College, University of Georgia. Constructed in 1806. Reputedly based on Yale's Connecticut Hall and like that building originally constructed as a dormitory, the Old College is now home to the offices of the Dean of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

#8: Old North, Georgetown University. Constructed in 1809. Now home to the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, Old North was at the time of its construction one of the most magnificent buildings in Washington, D.C., but fell into obscurity after the construction of the massive Healy Hall in the 1870s.

#9: Old Queens, Rutgers University. Constructed in 1809. Built seventeen years before Queen's College was renamed after Revolutionary War colonel Henry Rutgers, Old Queens has never served as a student dormitory, though when it was built it had living quarters for faculty as well as classrooms. It is now home to various university administrative offices.

#10: Waller Hall, Willamette University. Constructed in 1867. Compiling a list of the oldest university buildings in America presents an interesting challenge, because the oldest buildings are invariably found at the oldest colleges, which (not coincidentally) tend to have been founded before such minor milestones as, say, American independence. In order to provide some regional balance, Willamette University's Waller Hall rounds out our list of the oldest university buildings in America -- built in 1867 is the oldest university building west of the Mississippi still in use as such. (Willamette University, again not coincidentally, is the oldest university west of the Mississippi, founded in 1842.)

* * * * *

Correction: An earlier version of this article omitted Georgetown University's Old North Building and stated that Willamette University was founded in 1846 -- the school was actually founded in 1842. We regret the errors.

comments powered by Disqus