Some Brown students may know it as the site of the annual Midnight Halloween Organ Concert, others may recognize it as the home of the Concentration Fair, and yet still others may identify it as the building in which, this past spring, Emma Watson received her degree. The building in question is of course, Sayles Hall. A mainstay on campus since 1881, Sayles stands in stately fashion on the eastern perimeter of the Main Green, directly across from University Hall and abutted by Salomon and Wilson halls on the north and south, respectively.

Sayles Hall or Sayles Memorial Hall, as it is properly called, was built in memoriam of William Clark Sayles, a young scholar who entered Brown in 1874 and died prematurely only two years later on February 13, 1876.[i] In a letter read at the 1878 commencement ceremonies (of which Sayles would have been a graduate) his father, William Francis Sayles, offered $50,000 for the building of a memorial to “…commemorate the virtues of one, who, though dying young, had lived long enough to appreciate the value of learning…”[ii]

In response to this beneficent act, then President Ezekiel Gilman Robinson and The Corporation of the University devised a committee of five to oversee the site selection, planning, and construction of the new building.[iii] This committee commissioned architect Alpheus C. Morse to plan the memorial, that the elder Sayles, a well-known industrialist in the Providence and Pawtucket circuit, stipulated was to include lecture rooms and a hall “suitable for the service of Commencement dinner and other strictly academic occasions”.[iv] Sayles increased his initial offer of $50,000 to allow for material costs and the extensive funds required to furnish the interior of the building.[v] The final costs were more than double the original proposed sum.[vi]

Sayles Hall, 1882. (Brown University Archives)

Sayles Hall, 1882. (Brown University Archives)

On June 18, 1879, President Robinson wrote of the committee’s decision to erect the building on the “only location on the college grounds which seemed suitable”. Ground was broken for construction that year and completed two years later.[vii] Sayles was dedicated on June 4th 1881. This early photograph from the Brown University Archives, dated only a year after completion, depicts the newly erected memorial and the bare grounds surrounding it, which were products of the excavation/soil grading that took place as a result of its construction. The building of Sayles necessitated an overall grading of the college grounds, the removal of trees, and the installation of new walks across the ‘middle campus, which is today the Main Green.[viii]

Building specifications were discussed at length among the architect A. C. Morse and the contracted mason and carpenter of the city and county of Providence. The decision was made to divide Sayles Memorial Hall into east and west sections with the two-storied western section reserved for classrooms and an attic in the roof and the eastern section for a large hall just one-story above the basement that extended the entire building. Millard excavated at least four feet into the ground (below the reach of frost) and to allow for cold air ducts and furnaces in the basement. Coal shoots and a hydraulic cement fill-floor were also installed in the lower level.

Sayles Hall, Architectural Plan

This full color plan for the western façade of Sayles Hall shows the contrast of the different types of stone used. (Original drawn by architect A. C. Morse, Brown University Archives)

Externally, the building’s facing is of squared ashlar bricks of Smith Quarry red granite from Westerly, Rhode Island stacked with lime and cement mortar. The outside steps on the western facade are of dark red Westerly granite; the entrance porch and other accents are composed of contrasting dark- and light-brown sandstone, from Longmeadow, Massachusetts and the Kocher Brothers Quarry in Newark, New Jersey, respectively (Brown University archives, Masonry specifications). An inscription where the second-story meets the attic reads Filio Pater Posuit MDCCCLXXX, which is Latin for ‘his father put’ and reflects the occasion of the building.[ix]

The interior was crafted largely in pine, spruce, and hemlock timbers. The floors of the main hall are hard pine as are the roof trusses, which are reinforced with cast iron rods and joists. There have been no major renovations or expansions to the building since its initial construction. Aside from weatherproofing, updating technology/security equipment, classroom renovations, and improvements to the roof in the 1980s, Sayles remains composed largely in its original state.

Brunonians have extracted a whole gamut of use values from Sayles Hall over the years. Upon completion, the basement housed a zoological and geological laboratory.[x] The main hall on the first floor was used for lectures, alumni events, and beginning in 1906 university-wide chapel at which the attendance of all undergraduates was mandatory. The President conducted these services, which took place each weekday at 9am.[xi] This was right around the time when the yearly Cost of Attendance for the University was $393.00 ($655.50 if you lived ‘liberally’).[xii]

The main hall was the largest indoor space on campus, which made it popular for social events engaging scores of the Brown and Providence communities. A description of the 1884 Commencement Reception from The Providence Journal (dated Saturday June 14th, 1884) provides an image of Sayles as a recreational space: “the great hall shone with its myriads of gaslights. The gentleman were in full evening dress, the costumes of the ladies being exceedingly rich and beautiful… to the music of an orchestra a steady promenade was kept moving around the hall, an enlivening waltz calling scores of couples to the floor”. One can picture the hall in all its finery while a portrait of the lamented “Willie” Sayles gazes on amongst those of former presidents and benefactors, all contented sentinels overlooking the blitheness of the scene below.

During the early twentieth century the geological laboratories remained in the basement, the Germanic libraries in two of the recitation rooms, and the Romance Department Library in another of the recitation rooms. Sayles also continued to house the University’s growing collection of aforementioned portraits of notable men in the history of the University, which at that point stretched a lengthy one hundred and forty-three years.[xiii]

image3image4In 1945, one of the rooms off of the main hall on the entrance floor was designated as a space of remembrance for Brown men who died in WWII. Informally deemed “The Little Chapel”, the space became the home of a 57 x 21 inch stained-glass window dedicated to the Chaplains in the United States Armed Forces in 1946.[xiv] The window was later removed in the 1970s when an elevator was installed between the basement and first floors. Presumably the small altar that had been set up within the space was removed at the time of the elevator’s installation as well. The stained glass, however, has been preserved and is now housed in the John Hay Library.[xv] See above for a photo from the Brown University Archives of the dignitaries who attended the dedication of the stained-glass window on April 23, 1946 next to an image of the window itself.

One other interesting and highly characteristic aspect of Sayles Hall is that it houses the world’s largest Hutchings-Votey organ, which was a gift of alumnus Lucian Sharpe, of the class of 1893.[xvi] When the organ was received in Sayles in 1903 it drew large crowds to Brown; on Sunday afternoons the main hall would be filled with attendees who came to witness marvelous recitals played on the organ’s more than 3000 pipes. The organ was also used in daily chapel in Sayles, which began in 1906. Although Sayles’ purpose was not to serve as a religious center, many events that brought the community together within it happened to be of a religious nature given the historical context of the time period and considering that it was at a time when the University was still holding fast to its Baptist roots.

Today, Sayles is an anchoring edifice on the Main Green, as it has been since its construction more than one hundred and thirty years ago. It functions much as it always has with classes, public lectures, speaker panels, orchestra performances, and dance practices taking place within. Sayles remains as grand as ever, fulfilling the vision of its benefactor by bringing members of the Brown community together in gathering and conversation through academic, cultural, and artistic engagements.


[i] Encyclopedia Brunoniana, s.v. “Sayles Hall”

[ii] Brown University, Annual Report of the President to the Corporation of Brown University 1878 (Providence: J. A. & R. A. Printers, 1878), 14.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Brown University, Annual Report of the President to the Corporation of Brown University 1881 (Providence: J. A. & R. A. Printers, 1881), 13.

[v] Ibid., 13.

[vi] William Richard Cutter, ed., New England families, genealogical and memorial: a record of the achievements of her people in the making of commonwealths and the founding of a nation (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1914),2086.

[vii] Brown University, Annual Report of the President to the Corporation of Brown University 1879 (Providence: J. A. & R. A. Printers, 1879), 17.

[viii] Brown University, Annual Report of the President to the Corporation of Brown University 1880 (Providence: J. A. & R. A. Printers, 1880), 18.

[ix] (History of Higher Education in Rhode Island, Issue 18, p. 154).

[x] Brown University, Annual Report of the President to the Corporation of Brown University 1880 (Providence: J. A. & R. A. Printers, 1880), 16.

[xi] The Catalogue of Brown University 1906-1907 (Providence: Brown University, 1907), 156.

[xii] Ibid.,160.

[xiii] Ibid., 144-151.

[xiv] Encyclopedia Brunoniana, s.v. “The Little Chapel”

[xv] Liz Kelley, “Haffenreffer plans exhibit on Columbus Day switch”, The Brown Daily Herald, September 29, 2010,

[xvi]Encyclopedia Brunoniana, s.v. “Sayles Hall”

Additional Archival Materials

Architectural contracts:

  • Article of Agreement between A. C. Morse and Ellery Millard (head mason) – signed June 19th, 1879
  • Article of Agreement between A. C. Morse and A. C. Learned (head carpenter) – signed June 19th, 1879

College Scrapbook – container number SB-1E-1 vol. 3 101-200, pages