As you trudge up the steep path of College Hill from downtown Providence, the Van Wickle Gates and University Hall welcome you to the main campus of Brown University. University Hall’s administrative offices, bell tower and timeless colonial style has assured its place as the center of Brown’s campus. University Hall started out as the only building on Rhode Island College’s campus. It was built in 1770, modeled after Nassau Hall at Princeton, although it ended up being slightly simpler than its New Jersey counterpart. Robert Smith designed Nassau Hall in 1756 in the Georgian-Colonial style and – just like Brown’s University Hall – Nassau Hall was designed to house the entirety of New Jersey College at that time.
The architecture of University Hall, although modest, is very beautiful. This central building has a more practical character, plain and simple, which resembles the textile mills that were around Rhode Island (Tolles, 42). The building has “evenly spaced, segmental-arched, double-sash windows” and central projections that are four stories in height (Tolles, 42). There are string courses at the floor levels on both the wings and the central projections on either side (Tolles, 42). The roof is a low-hipped roof with a molded wooden cornice above it and has eight tall brick chimneys. The original bell tower is an octagonal open bell cupola that is “gracefully proportioned” according to Bryant Tolles, author of Architecture & Academe: College Buildings in New England Before 1860.
Moses Brown fought hard for Rhode Island College to reside in Providence – and he eventually won. There is some debate centered on the design of the College Edifice (now called University Hall). It is usually accredited to Moses’ brother, Joseph Brown, but there are some that believe Robert S. Smith, who designed Nassau Hall, contributed sketches and was possibly at Rhode Island College during the planning stage (Tolles, 41). The College Edifice was described by President Manning, Brown’s First President, as “…an elegant brick Building, 4 stories high, 150 by 46 feet besides a Projection on each side of 33 by 10 feet” (Bronson, 55). Nicholas Brown was entrusted by the Building Committee to do the material acquisition and building construction and soon the cornerstone was laid down on May 14th, 1770 (Tolles, 42). The College Edifice was oriented facing towards Prospect Street. Approximately 20 men were hired to help with the construction and were apparently treated very well to rum or “punch” by Moses Brown (Bronson, 56). The walls of the building were built very fast, within a month, which was thought to be due to the ease of hiring workers from Boston since, at this time, Boston was in disorder because of the Boston Massacre.
The American Revolution delayed the construction of the College Edifice—people were able to live in the first two floors in 1771-1772, the third floor was finished in 1785 and the fourth and last floor was done in 1788 (Philips, 18). By the end, the cost of total construction of the College Edifice and the President’s house was about $9480 (Bronson, 58). Soon, Providence was overrun with about 3,000 troops that were fighting in the American Revolution. The two-dozen students had to be thrown out of the college in 1776 so that the building could be used as barracks for some of these soldiers (Rappleye, 179). This building would remain closed to students until April 1780.
Soon after the soldiers left, President Manning tried to reopen the College Edifice again to students, but a month after he announced the opening of Rhode Island College, the Rhode Island Governor commandeered the building to be used as a hospital for the French soldiers that fought in the war (Bronson, 71). It was after two years that the French finally left and once again Manning took back the building for the college. Unfortunately, the College Edifice was in disarray, Manning described in a letter, “…at the North End… having broken down the Wall of the College to facilitate the Passage of the Invalids from the Edifice into it; from which Addition, the intolerable Stench renders all the northern Part uninhabitable…” (Bronson, 72). The Commissary at Boston ordered the French soldiers to take out all the windows out of the building and sell them (Bronson, 73). The Corporation was forced to find funding in order to fix the building and put it back into operation.
In 1804, Rhode Island College became Brown University after Nicholas Brown donated $5,000 (Phillips, 37). Soon after, in 1823, the College Edifice was renamed University Hall. During the year 1834, after the construction of Manning Hall, University Hall was covered in cement. This was done for two reasons. First, University Hall was in poor condition and, second, the cement exterior would make it match Manning Hall, which resides right next to it (Tolles, 43).
In the early 1880’s, after Sayles Hall was built, the Brown Corporation decided it was time to conquer the project of restoring the “eyesore” that was University Hall. This reconstruction was recounted by the Corporation’s report. The construction was restrained to the interior and roof since no cracking or damage was seen on the exterior brick—this was finished in the fall of 1883. The old College Edifice had a hallway running the entire length and through the middle of the building (150ft). The gallery in the center of the building was kept and added on to by taking some of the central hallway and repurposing it (www.brown.edu). On the eastern side of the building, the old Commons Hall was changed into a room that was similar to the chapel, with a gallery attached. These two rooms were used for lectures and student meetings (www.brown.edu). A large drafting room was added to the fourth story with a skylight and a reading room was added on the first floor at the north end (www.brown.edu). The apartment for the steward’s family was moved outside the building and the building itself was heated with steam (www.brown.edu). The stucco that had been put on the exterior wall in 1834 was painted a neutral olive tint (Bronson, 396).
This deviation from University Hall’s colonial look was corrected in 1905 when the cement on the exterior wall was finally taken down and 5,000 bricks were replaced. The bricks were found to be bright red after all that time under the plaster, so lamp-black and muriatic acid were used to give the bricks the appearance of being aged (www.brown.edu). Its chimneys were restored to the original look and the windows were replaced with more colonial styled ones. In 1925 the second floor dorm rooms were remodeled into administrative offices. After an anonymous donor gave Brown money, reconstruction of University Hall continued in 1939. Architects Perry, Shaw and Hepburn were hired and the work began in July of 1939. The foundation was replaced by one made of steel and concrete (www.brown.edu). The windows were replaced with smaller paned ones, the chimneys were replaced with mimics of the first chimneys on the “College Edifice” and the cupola was replaced as well. The President’s office was moved to the first floor, the dean’s offices and registrar and admissions were on the second floor, graduate school offices and a large two floor, fifty feet long meeting room were on the third floor. (www.brown.edu).
Ever since the 1940’s, University Hall has been primarily administrative offices. There has yet to be a major construction project done on the building; only small, interior updates have been done. University is a symbolic, timeless and classic building that will always be apart of Brown and was officially recognized as such in 1963 when it became a registered national historic landmark—a plaque can be found on the north exterior wall.
Bronson, Walter C. The History of Brown University 1764-1914. Vol. 3. Boston: Merrymount, 1914.
Phillips, Janet M. Brown University: A Short History. Providence, RI: Office of University Relations, Brown University, 1992.
Rappleye, Charles. Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.
Tolles, Bryant F., Jr. Architecture & Academe: College Buildings in New England Before 1860. Lebanon NH: University of New England, 2011.
“A Brief History of Nassau Hall.” Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library: FAQ A Brief History of Nassau Hall. Princeton University, 08 May 2013. Web. 28 Sept. 2013. <http://www.princeton.edu/mudd/news/faq/topics/nassau.shtml>.
“Encyclopedia Brunoniana | University Hall.” Encyclopedia Brunoniana | University Hall. Brown University, n.d. Web. 29 Sept. 2013.