University Hall was built in 1770. The first building of the College, it was originally called the “College Edifice.” The first mention of a college building is found in Hezekiah Smith’s diary in which he reports on September 5, 1765, on the second annual meeting of the Corporation, “I was with the Corporation at Newport which sat upon the College business, and was elected one of the Fellows of the College. Although but part of the Corporation, we subscribed nineteen hundred and ninety-two dollars for the BUILDING, and for endowing the College.” At subsequent meetings committees were appointed to determine the location for the college and to draft instructions and prepare a model of the proposed building. The latter committee, composed of Stephen Hopkins, Joseph Brown, and John Davis, in a report on September 8, 1769, recommended that “the building do not exceed sixty-six feet long, and thirty-six feet wide, and three stories high; – that it be a plain building, the walls of best bricks and lime, the door and window frames of red cedar; – that there be a cupola for a bell; – that the first building be so situated as to be one wing of the whole College edifice, when completed.” That was the first plan. More committees were appointed and instructed to “ascertain the model and bigness of the College edifice” and also the house for the president. Lawrence C. Wroth, in his unpublished manuscript, The Construction of the College Edifice, 1770-1772, described the ensuing plans:
“Plan 2. Circa Jan. 9, 1770. A building of four stories measuring 150 feet in length by 44 in width, with facade unbroken by a central projection.Plan 3 with its central projection bears a resemblance to Princeton’s Nassau Hall, and it is possible that President James Manning, who had been educated there, may have offered suggestions at this point when Silas Downer was employed to draw the plans. The final plan was adopted at the Corporation meeting on February 9, 1770, when it was determined that “the College edifice be built according to the following plan, viz.: That the house be one hundred and fifty feet long and forty-six feet wide, with a projection of ten feet on each side, (ten by thirty,) and that it be four stories high.” A chapter in Wroth’s manuscript, entitled “Who Was the Architect of the College Edifice?” arrives at no definite conclusion. There is a tradition that Robert Smith, designer of Nassau Hall, might have been the architect, but no mention of communication with him has been found. A letter from Joseph Horatio Anderson offered his services, but is dated March 14, 1770 and was received after the ground-breaking for the building had been held. Another tradition is that the architect was Joseph Brown. As a member of the committee on the building, he was certainly involved, but Wroth concludes that Brown did not himself design the building or superintend its construction, and that “an architectural commission and not Joseph Brown alone was responsible for the choice of a design and the planning of the College Edifice.” On February 17 the building committee placed a notice in the Providence Gazette asking for donations of timber and other materials. On March 26 Solomon Drowne 1773 wrote in his diary, “This day the Committee for settling the spot for the College, met at the New-Brick School House, when it was determined it should be set on ye Hill opposite Mr. John Jenkes; up the Presbyterian Lane.” The next day he added, “This day they began to dig the Cellar for the College.” Nicholas Brown and Company took charge of the construction. The itemized account of the cost of the edifice included, in addition to lumber and nails, rum and sugar for making punch for the workmen as each stage of building was completed, from the cornerstone to the occasion of “raising the roof” on October 13, 1770. The edifice was built on grounds originally owned by Chad Brown, George Rickard, and Daniel Abbott at the head of Presbyterian Lane (now College Street). Morgan Edwards, describing this location as “Commanding a prospect of ... an extensive country, variegated with hills and dales, woods, and plains,” was moved to write, “Surely, this spot was made for a seat for the Muses.” The Boston Gazette for July 27, 1772 was not so impressed, and reported that the Corporation has built “a College near as large as Babel; sufficient to contain ten Times the Number of Students that ever have, or ever will, oblige the Tutors of that popular University with Opportunity of educating, or instructing them.” The arrival of British troops in Newport on December 1776 changed the history of the College Edifice, which served as barracks for American troops and a hospital for French soldiers. James Manning’s draft of a petition to the General Assembly recounted the details:
“Plan 3. Undated. The floor plan of a building of smaller size, measuring 108 feet long by 44 deep but with a central pavilion 34 feet in width, projecting ten feet from each longitudinal wall.”
“That the College edifice was first taken in December, 1776, for the use of barracks and an hospital for the American troops, and retained for that use until the Fall before the arrival of his most Christian Majesty’s fleets and armies in this State; – that, by our direction, the President resumed the course of education in said College, and took possession of the edifice on the 10th of May, 1780; and continued so to occupy it until the authority of this State, in a short time after, granted it to the French army as an hospital, who continued to hold and use it for said purpose until the last week, when the Commissary of War of the French army delivered it up, with the keys, to his Honor the Deputy Governor; they having previously permitted the officers of the French ships in this State to place their sick in it, who still continue there; – that the building was in good repair, and occupied by upwards of thirty students when first taken for the public service; – that great injury hath been done to every part of it since taken out of the hands of the Corporation; especially by two buildings adjoining it, one an house of offal at the north end, with a vault fifteen feet deep under it, 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; and the other an horse stable, built from the east projection to the north end, by which the house is greatly weakened; many of the windows are also taken entirely out of the house, and others so broken, as well as the slate on the roof, that the storms naturally beat into it. ... “
The edifice was restored and the Corporation, after much effort was able to collect in 1800 a very inadequate settlement of $2,779.13 for the damages inflicted by the troops. In 1822, when Hope College was built, the “College Edifice” was renamed “University Hall.” When Manning Hall was built in 1834, the classic revival style was much admired, and University Hall, no longer fashionable and in an unfortunate state of decay which would have required replacing bricks and mortar, was covered with a coat of cement to match Manning Hall. The balustrade around the roof was removed at that time and the old bell replaced. In 1843 University Hall was again turned over to the military, but this time only for several days beginning on June 25, 1843 during the Dorr Rebellion. In 1850 a floor was laid in place of the balcony in the former chapel in University Hall to provide more classroom space and the large Commons Room opposite the chapel was also converted into classrooms. Social life in University Hall in the mid-nineteenth century was somewhat hampered by the installation of partitions in the corridors. Edward H. Cutler 1857 wrote in Memories of Brown:
“In University Hall above the first story the corridors ran the full length of the building with staircases at either end, so that if any officer of discipline ascended one it was easy for a culprit to descend at the other end and escape. The upper story was called Pandemonium and not infrequently deserved the name. Amusement was sometimes found in rolling paving-stones the whole length of the corridors at midnight or later. On coming back after vacation about the year 1855 we found the corridors divided in the middle by partitions. This made calling on one’s neighbors inconvenient. An occupant of a room in the top story could not get to a neighbor’s room in the other half of it except by descending three flights at one end and ascending three flights at the other. The general impression was that these partitions would not stand very long, but it was found that they were constructed of boiler plate, and too firmly braced to give way to ordinary violence. The only relief was found for a short time in inviting men up to sign “the petition” for some favor or the abatement of some grievance; but the victim on reaching the upper floor was led up to the partition to inscribe his name.”It is likely that the partitions were installed at an earlier date than that remembered by Cutler, as James DeMille 1854 includes an allusion to them in his “Class Poem” written in 1854, with an illustration of students lined up before a “partition” under a sign reading “Sign the Petition,” above these lines:
Yet amid all the troubles that tortured the mind
’Mid studies and longings for some intermission
By the use of our wits we were able to find
A notable method to sign a petition.
In 1883 the interior of the building was renovated with the help of the funds left over from the building of Slater Hall. Not everyone was in favor of the renovation. The Brunonian of February 10, 1883 came out against the expenditure of $45,000 for this purpose when “it would be far better to expend this sum in the erection of a new hall than in repairing the present dilapidated structure. ... The fact that it is a relic of the past, and endeared by many pleasant associations may be an argument for allowing it to stand, in the opinion of antiquarians and graduates of fifty years ago, but can have but little weight to the rising generation of students who know the discomfort of rooming within its hoary walls.” The plans for the renovation were drawn by Gould & Angell and were modified by J. H. Brown of Worcester. The contractors for the job were Messrs. Cutting and Bishop of Worcester. The funds for the project came from $8399.37 left over from the building of Slater Hall and subscriptions sufficient to bring the total to over $47,000. All of the old red oak woodwork was removed and from it were made canes, picture frames, and other objects. The canes were sold to alumni for one dollar each on the campus, or two dollars through the mail. Small carved acorns from the wood attached by a brown ribbon to a printed poem were popular souvenirs, as were round buttons hollowed out to contain a small picture of the building.
The effects of the restoration were to return the areas of the old chapel and commons to two-story rooms with galleries. The central portions of the long hallways which ran the length of the building were taken out of the hallways and used to enlarge the public rooms. The long stairs in the hallways were replaced by stairways with landings in either end of the building. The center of the fourth story was made into a large drafting room with a skylight. The two corner rooms at the north end of the first floor were made into a reading room. There were offices for the president, registrar, and steward, but the steward’s living quarters were abolished. The number of students’ rooms increased from 38 to 44. Gas light and steam heat were introduced into the building, and two registers were installed in each room for ventilation. The small-paned windows which were appropriate to the building were replaced by “modern” windows which were not. Students were allowed to install blinds and shutters of varying styles, and, to add insult to injury, the cement covering of the building was painted olive green. A balustrade was once again replaced on the roof, the chimneys were rebuilt to resemble those of Slater Hall, and the bell was returned from its temporary quarters on Hope College to the cupola of University Hall.
With the renovation a new contraption was introduced to both University Hall and Hope College. Previous to that time there were no fire-escapes other than the strong ropes students were accustomed to keep at hand in their rooms. The new “fire-escape” consisted of a canvas chute about ninety feet long and two feet wide, mounted on a small cart. Its operation was effected by a gun which shot an arrow with a line attached so that the line would fall opposite a window, where a person could pull up the line attached to the canvas chute, secure the line to the iron bar across the window sash, and descend rapidly on the chute, which was held at its other end by two men. Plumbing was introduced into the basement at this time. In 1884 the Advisory and Executive Committee of the Corporation decreed “that tickets be sold to students wishing to use the bathing tubs in the basement of University Hall at the rate of 50 cents for five tickets.”
The administrative offices of the University were removed to the newly constructed Van Wickle Hall in 1902. The United States Weather Bureau installed its Providence station on the fourth floor in October 1904, and remained for several years before moving to the Bannigan Building. In 1905 the exterior of the building was renovated through the generosity of Marsden J. Perry. Fifteen men worked two months to remove the stucco covering and replace 5,000 bricks, about one-twentieth of the number in the whole structure. When the stucco was removed, the brick was discovered to be bright red, having been cleaned by the lime in the plaster. The appearance of the bricks was aged by the application of a mixture of a pound of lamp-black and a pail of muriatic acid in a barrel of water. The green woodwork was painted white and the large paned windows were replaced by new ones with 24 small panes. The belfry was raised 22 inches and given arches to conform to its appearance in old engravings. Public exercises were held in Sayles Hall to celebrate the restoration. The all-purpose use of University Hall continued. When office space was badly needed in 1925, the dormitory rooms on the second floor were taken over, and offices of the Departments of English and History moved in. On May 11, 1927, a tablet placed on University Hall was dedicated to the memory of General Nathanael Greene, who had received an honorary degree in 1776, by the First Light Infantry Regiment of Rhode Island.
In 1938 an anonymous donor, not a Brown graduate, gave $100,000 toward the fifth major reconstruction of University Hall and a year later added a similar amount. Architects Perry, Shaw and Hepburn were in charge of the work, which was begun in July 1939. The exterior walls had been restored in 1905, but now the crumbling foundation was replaced by a new foundation of steel and concrete hidden by materials suitable to the age of the building. New windows with small panes were installed, as were new chimneys, exact copies made of hand-moulded brick to simulate the chimneys shown in the print of the College Edifice which was produced in the 1790s from a drawing by David Leonard 1792. The design of the original cupola was a matter of discussion, some being of the opinion that it was hexagonal and Norman Isham 1886, architectural consultant, sure that it was octagonal. When the modern cupola was removed, remnants of the eight-sided original cupola were revealed, with the names of two former students and their classes, “Amos Hopkins 1792” and “Henry D’Wolfe 1803,” carved on one of its uprights. In renovating the interior the architects were guided by studies of the John Nicholas Brown House and the Avis Brown House in Providence and the Caleb Clapp House in Boston. Ellen D. Sharpe contributed $30,000 for appropriate furnishings for the restored building. The president’s office was placed on the first floor in the central front projection where the two-story chapel had first been, and was separated from the vice-president’s office, facing the middle campus in space first occupied by the Commons, by the central rotunda reception room. Deans’ offices and the registrar’s and admission offices occupied the second floor. Graduate School offices were on the third floor, where there was also a large meeting room for faculty and Corporation meetings, fifty feet long and two-stories high, adorned by tapestries lent by R. Foster Reynolds and furnished with a Sheraton table and arm chairs of English design. At the rededication of University Hall on May 4, 1940, French ambassador Comte Rene Doynel de Saint-Quentin and Princeton president Harold W. Dodds took part in the ceremonies recalling the University’s early associations with France and Princeton. University Hall was designated a National Historic Landmark at ceremonies held on May 5, 1963, as part of Rhode Island Heritage Week.