Harriman Hall: A Wesleyan Architectural History, Part One

Wesleyan University Library, Special Collections & Archives

As our minds turn back to all matters campus-y, many of us, especially in History, Sociology, Gov, and CSS, will no doubt be getting reacquainted with good ol’ PAC. Have you ever looked up at the letters “Harriman Hall” chiseled into the side of the building, or the cornerstone set into the wall on the first floor, and wondered about its past life—including its brief stint as a women’s residence hall, even though its name sounds like “Hairy Man Hall”? PAC’s history hearkens back to a time when academic and residential life at Wesleyan were more intertwined, an era that has gotten even further away from us as COL moved out of the Butts this year. The building is now 85 years old, and the site on which it sits has an even more richly storied history, beginning in an era that pre-dated Wesleyan.

From 1833 until 1927, the same basic site was home to a (to put it politely) “austere” building known as Boarding Hall. Being generally in favor of historical preservation, I usually think of old buildings as beautiful. The old Observatory Hall drives this home to me: that the old buildings we see now are there because they stood out and were beautiful. Man, this thing was a clunker. It was not built by Wesleyan, however; it was bought in 1833 from Captain Alden Partridge’s American Literary, Scientific, & Military Academy, which built South College and has a checkered history of its own.

observatory hall 4

Special Collections & Archives

In 1836, President Fisk bought a telescope at Houghton and Simms in London, and once he got the thing back into the States, it took up a residence on Cross Street inside a freestanding, octagonal white building. Over the next thirty years, that small building found itself put to a variety of bizzarre uses around campus.  By 1868, the structure had moved to behind Rich Hall (today the ’92 Theater) and began its slow creep toward Boarding Hall, which it ended up on top of, transforming it into Observatory Hall. The octagonal housing found a peculiar second life: “A certain Mr. Tuit used it as a henhouse.” President Fisk’s telescope was the second best in the country in 1869; perhaps this little shed was simply not worthy of its greatness.

The architectural turmoil of Wesleyan in the mid-19th century seems to have inspired a faux-proposal on the part of an early humor publication, who in 1856 imagined an observatory hall with “an emblematic ornamental cornice, imitative of small potatoes, and having the walls frescoed with designs representing the discovery of the fixed stars by Galileo, the discover of the (flag) Pole, and other great astronomical events.” They also mentioned that this hall would have a splendid library, and “For obvious reasons, the Library will, like that of the College, consist principally of works in Low Dutch.”

Observatory Hall, from a postcard.

Special Collections & Archives

While all this was happening, the university, with its limited land and money, got as much use out of Boarding/Observatory Hall as it possibly could.

Originally an academic building, the hall was occupied by the Philorhetorian and Peithologian literary societies in 1842, who rented out the hall for $300, or $8,333 in today’s money. In 1854, it began to be used as one of the less expensive dormitories on campus. The building merged these social uses with the academic demands of other departments, even offering a program in electrical engineering in 1893 where “some of the latest experiments of Elihu Thompson and Nikola Tesla [were] repeated,” according to the Electrical Engineer. While the program was small, it filled an important gap, as “The colleges of the eastern and middle states, as a rule, [had] been slow to provide the increased facilities for instruction in electricity for which there is a growing demand.”

The Van Vleck observatory was built in 1916, making the older telescope on the Observatory Hall’s roof obsolete. Though many happy memories were made by the students that spent time in its halls, the building’s life cycle came to an end in the Roaring Twenties, when it was decided that Harriman Hall would be built on the same spot. The history of the building that stands on the spot today will be covered in the next post in this series.

Special Collections & Archives

Check Wesleying tomorrow for Part Two of this architectural history of Harriman Hall.

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6 thoughts on “Harriman Hall: A Wesleyan Architectural History, Part One

  1. H Smith

    Nice article. It is perhaps worth noting that it was not Fisk’s telescope (still on display at the Van Vleck Observatory, and made by M. Lerebours in Paris) that was housed in Observatory Hall for most of its existence. In 1869 a larger 12-inch aperture telescope, donated by Professor Van Vleck, replaced Fisk’s 6-inch aperture instrument. It in turn would be replaced by an even larger telescope when the Van Vleck Observatory went into full operation. The cylindrical “dome” atop observatory hall was apparently not the
    same structure that earlier had housed the Fisk telescope.

  2. Pingback: Harriman Hall: A Wesleyan Architectural History, Part Two | Wesleying

  3. Anonymous

    great article! where exactly was this building located? I can’t tell if it’s on college row or not.

  4. Son Tran

    I always wondered about the history of Harriman Hall (how it came to be, who it was named after) and how it morphed into the PAC. Thanks for the well-researched and entertaining article!

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