Rhode Island Hall was built in 1840. At the Corporation meeting on September 8, 1836, a committee was appointed to “devise means for erecting a building for lecture rooms and rooms for the reception of geological and physiological specimens.” This effort progressed slowly. In 1838 $2500 had been raised from several contributors. The needed impetus came in the form of a letter from Nicholas Brown, on March 18, 1839, presenting two lots of land on Waterman Street for a president’s house and a lot on George Street for “another College edifice for the accommodation of the Departments of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Geology, and Natural History.” He also pledged $7,000 for the president’s house and $3,000 for the edifice, provided others would subscribe a like amount by the first of May. The subscription was a success. Almost all the funds came from Rhode Islanders and the name “Rhode Island Hall” was chosen for the new classroom building. It was opened for public inspection on September 3, 1840 and dedicated on the following day, with an address written by Professor William G. Goddard, but read by Nathan B. Crocker because of Goddard’s illness, entitled “The Social Influence of the Higher Institutions of Learning.” Tallman and Bucklin were the builders of the cement covered stone building which measured 70 by 42 feet with a projection of 12 by 26 feet. The first floor had two lecture rooms for the professor of chemistry and the professor of natural philosophy. The second story contained a hall for the collections of minerals and other objects. There was a chemical laboratory in the cellar.
In 1857 a collection of portraits of prominent Rhode Islanders painted at the expense of friends of the University through the efforts of John Russell Bartlett was placed in Rhode Island Hall. An addition was constructed on the east side of the building in 1874. In 1875 the portraits were moved to the second story of the addition, new glass cases were installed in the old building and the first floor of the addition, and the basement of the addition was given over to Professor J. W. P. Jenks’s weekly voluntary class in taxidermy. In his report for 1877-78, Jenks was happy to report that “the recent introduction of Pawtuxet water to the skeletonizing Laboratory in the attic of Rhode Island Hall removes a hitherto insurmountable obstacle to efficient work in the osteological department of the Museum.” In 1882 a biological laboratory was installed in the basement. In 1885 Professor Alpheus Packard reported the laboratory facilities much improved by the acquisition of the room at the rear of the Museum, from which the portraits had been removed to Sayles Hall. Eventually the display cases in the museum obstructed the windows, and skylights were installed in the summer of 1886. At the beginning of the century, Rhode Island Hall was even more crowded. To make more space, a laboratory was installed on the basement, and some of the cases were moved out of the museum, which became a recitation room. The specimens in the cases were moved to the attic or cellar or given to Roger Williams Park, and the osteological collection was placed in the attic, where the professors had to climb whenever bones were needed in the classroom.
In 1904 a small addition on the south side of the building replaced the lean-to where live animals were kept. The three-story addition provided a place for the animals on the ground floor, an aquarium on the second floor, and a room for preparing skeletons on the third. When Biology moved to Arnold Laboratory in 1915, Rhode Island Hall was remodeled, and the Philosophy Department was installed on the first floor, while the Geology Department moved to the basement and the second floor from the basement of Sayles. Geology remained in the building until 1982, when it was renovated for office and classroom space.