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Old Main

By Matt McNally

On this page you will find a summary of the history of  Washington & Jefferson College's Old Main, a professor's stories about Old Main, and links to pictures and information about Old Main. The complete history of Old Main can be found by clicking the link to the "Official History of Old Main."

Old Main is the face of Washington & Jefferson College. Its picture is on all of the pamphlets and recruiting materials sent home to potential students, and its likeness has become the official emblem of the college. Just take a walk around the bookstore and you will see sweatshirts, pens, hats, notebooks, jackets, and almost anything else with the representation of Old Main's two towers.

Old Main is not the oldest building on campus---McMillan Hall is. So what is so special about Old Main? How is it more than some big, old, red-brick building that you have your Math, History, Sociology, Political Science, Philosophy or English classes in?

Old Main is full of history---and not just because the history department teaches there. Old Main has been the heart of the college for nearly two centuries. A little bit of everything from coffee shops to commencement ceremonies has happened here over the years.

The Construction of Old Main (1834-1836)

  • According to the Official History of Old Main, the construction of the building was ordered in 1834 and this building - referred to as the "New College" - was used for the the commencement ceremony of 1836.
  • At this time, Old Main was the "New College" building for Washington College, as Washington and Jefferson Colleges had not yet merged.
  • Old Main has undergone many significant changes throughout its history.
  • The original construction of Old Main looked nothing like it does today.
  • The first building was a rather plain three story building with a chapel on the first floor, a bathroom in the basement, and classrooms on the upper two floors.
  • The original Old Main consisted of only the back center part of the current building.

The First Addition (1847-1850)

  •  At this time "two wings and a dome were added" to Old Main, as well as "a colonial facade similar to that of McMillan Hall."
  • This added more room to the original building and provided space for what now makes up the Edward Sell Pre-Law Library, various classrooms, and offices on the far-rear sides of Old Main.

Completely Remodeled (1875)

  • A fourth floor was added on top of the older, original three story building.
  • A new, four story, front building was built with one set of oak stairs.
  • This front building is where the current lobby, stairs, and everything above it are now located.
  • This renovation is when the two towers were added.
  • The towers symbolize the union of Washington College and Jefferson College on March 4, 1865. 

At this time Old Main was a hub of activity, housing a little bit of everything:

  • A Y.M.C.A room
  • A music room
  • Rooms for the two literary societies
  • Classrooms and laboratories
  • Private faculty rooms
  • Storage

Major Renovations (1926)

  • In 1926, Old Main was in bad shape; the floors, walls, and ceilings were in need of much repair.  
  • The plumbing was reworked and bathrooms were added to every floor, saving students and faculty inconvenient trips to the basement.
  • A locker room and a new heating system were added.
  • New clocks connected to the bell tower now adorned the rooms.
  • The single oak staircase were replaced with the twin current marble staircases. They were constructed specifically to match the floors.
  • The current bronze doors at the entrance of Old Main were added during this renovation. 
  • A patio was built outside of the front entrance.
  • A driveway with large iron gates on either side was also built.
  • The exterior of the building "was sandblasted and remortared," and lights were added to the twin towers.

Post-War Influx (1946-1952) 

  • After WWII, W&J admitted a large number of veteran students and the student population swelled to more than 1300.
  • The chapel was converted into a dining room, and the area that is now protection services was constructed to serve as a kitchen.  
  • In 1952 student enrollment dropped back to normal levels and the dining services were moved back to Hays Hall---an interesting old building that sat on the corner of Beau and College streets, where New Residence Hall is currently located.
  • The kitchen was turned into a storage area, and the wartime cafeteria was switched back into a chapel

Change From the Bottom Up (1970-Present)

  • In 1970 Old Main receives its second sandblasting.
  • As a result of insurance problems and fire codes, the maintenance department was forced to move to the old gym---the Swanson Wellness Center.
  • In 1971 an old carpentry room in the basement of Old Main was converted into a coffee shop.
  • This coffee house was sponsored by the Student Government and was fittingly called 'The Pipe Room'---likely because of the array of visible hanging pipes in the basement.
  • The Pipe Room was open weekly and featured live entertainment. It was the 1970's equivalent of Monticello's---the free weekend snack bar currently located in the basement of the Hub.
  • Other improvements included adding skylights and new windows, and refurbishing the interior of the lower level the building.
  • In 1998 the roofs of the building were replaced, and in the Summer of 2008 the second floor was refurbished to accommodate the Sociology department after the demolition of McIlvaine Hall.

The Chapel: A True Multipurpose Room

The large auditorium room on the ground floor of Old Main has served a variety of purposes throughout its history.Constructed as part of the original Old Main building, this large back room was used for the Commencement ceremony for the class of 1836.

It continued to be used as a chapel and for Commencement ceremonies. In 1909 the benches in the chapel were replaced with "fine new opera chairs."

After World War II - as a result of the G.I. Bill - college populations were rising, and W&J was no different. The campus population rose to unprecedented levels that more than doubled the traditional student level. Hays Hall was no longer a feasible dining option; a change had to be made.

A decision was made to convert the chapel into a dining hall. The dining services were moved from Hays Hall to the chapel in Old Main. A kitchen was constructed off to the side of the chapel, and the students dining needs were satisfied.

This lasted from 1946 until 1952, when student enrollment dropped back down closer to 550.

As quickly as dining in Old Main began, it ended:

  • Dining was shifted back to Hays Hall, and the back room of Old Main was restored as the chapel.
  • The kitchen was converted to a storage room, and recently it has become the headquarters for campus security. 
  • The dining tables were taken away in favor of the old opera seats, which remain in the chapel today.
  • The room served as a chapel and auditorium through the end of the 20th century. The present chapel room has been restored to look as it may have looked in the early 1900's.

Sadly, the chapel today seems far removed from its history of importance. 

The chapel currently serves as a multipurpose room for clubs and activities, but spends the majority of its time vacant.

First Person Interview: Dr. Dodge

In my thirty-eight years at W&J I've had my office and 98% of my classes held right here in Old Main. I came here as a graduate student from Syracuse in May of 1970. I was hired by President Boyd Patterson right before he retired and Howard Burnett took over. I had my office on the second floor, where Dr. Disarro's office is now. And Dr. Walter Sanderlin - the head of the History Department at the time - had his office right here on the first floor where I have my office now.

One day, a year or so after I came here, I wasn't watching where I was walking and I stepped on the college seal in the main lobby. Walter Sanderlin saw me and yelled at me. He told me that the seal was not to be walked on or walked over, and that you should make an effort to walk around the seal---not to touch it. I have never walked on the seal again.

1970 was my first year, President Howard Burnett's first year, the first year W&J was coed, and the first year of the 4-1-4 curriculum. People used to tell me a lot of stories about what happened in Old Main when W&J was an all male school, but these where tales from before my time and I'm not sure I believe them. They would tell me that students brought a cow into the building one night, got it up to the fourth floor and left it there. Another story is that students brought tractor pieces up to the fourth floor, assembled them piece by piece, and then left the tractor there too.

In the 1970's and 80's Old Main was the most active classroom building on campus. Art was here when I moved in, so was psychology and foreign language. Some of the art supplies were rather heavy so they used a pulley system to raise supplies to the fourth floor. I would step out of my office and see art students and professors loading paint and clay in baskets to be raised up to the fourth floor. And, I remember they kept the rats for psychology experiments in what is now John Mark Scott's office---the middle room on the fourth floor.

Another thing about this building is the students would have a lot of guest speakers in the Chapel. Williams Mitchell - that's W-I-LL-I-A-M-S - was the chair of the Lecture Arts Committee. He brought in Henry Kissinger - a Secretary of State - and Alex Haley, the author of Roots and The Autobiography of Malcom X.

I also remember a few things about the towers. The students also used to go up into the towers and paint the glass in the towers red. After Finals in December one year - or maybe we did it a couple of times - the Old Main faculty would take some bottles of wine go up to the bell tower in Old Main and have a wine and chips party.

Now, I don't remember exactly when this was but, for a couple of years when W&J didn't have enough housing, some of the students were housed on the top floor of the Washington Hotel. I had a few students that lived up there for my classes. And they would tell me that at night they would get some large surgical bands and use them as slingshots. They would try to sling bags of water to knock out the glass in the towers of Old Main.

More recently - and this might be interesting - a stray cat got into the storage room through one of the windows on the Lincoln street side and it began to live there. Well, one of the maintenance workers started to feed it. It had kittens and those cats were fed too. So, we had feral cats here for the better part of three or four years. We didn't have any mice, but pretty soon we had a flea infestation in the basement. When people from other buildings would go down there to get supplies they would come back with fleas bites. And the fleas weren't just limited to the basement. They were everywhere, but especially bad in the basement. The cats had to go, and we had to call in an exterminator.

I'm not much for nostalgia, but I am comfortable here in Old Main. It's more out of familiarity than anything, but it is enjoyable to look back upon all the things that have happened here.

                                                                                                                                                                                            Dr. Dodge is a Professor of History at W&J.

Information based on interview by Matt McNally with Dr. Dodge in November 2008.

How to Locate Old Main

When you arrive on the campus of Washington & Jefferson College, follow these steps to locate Old Main:

  1. Stop walking.
  2. Look toward The Sky.
  3. Turn until you spot a large brick building with two towers.
  4. You have found Old Main!

Related Links

The Official History of Old Main
Pictures from inside of Old Main
Pictures of the outside of Old Main

                                                                                            Pictures courtesy of Washington and Jefferson College