Skip to:Main Content

Washington and Lee University

Washington and Lee University

A Powerful Unity: The Story of the Colonnade

from The Bridge: Fall 2010 issue

An Extraordinary BeginningAn Extraordinary Beginning

The story of the front campus begins in 1803, after Liberty Hall burned down. The trustees of Washington Academy abandoned the entire campus, traded it for vacant land on the ridge closer to town, and started from scratch. In 1804, the school erected two, two-story, brick buildings, Graham (pictured) and Union Halls. The matched pair stood on either side of a not-yet-built Center Building, which the school had planned but could not yet afford. A steward's house was also added, below the hill in front of them. In 1813, the school was designated a college.

Classical IdealsClassical Ideals
In 1821, John "Jockey John" Robinson pledged his entire estate to Washington College. Thanks to him, the trustees were finally able to build the Center Building (left), which opened in 1824. The building, in the form of a Roman temple, would have been considered an up-to-date example of the new Classical style. Builders John Jordan and Samuel Darst had earlier supplied brick for Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Their building did not fit all the contemporary academic standards. Its Tuscan portico was too tall, the pediment lacked the proper proportions, and it had a balcony on the second floor. Nonetheless, it was still considered an attractive addition to campus.

Drawn to Symmetry
In 1830, still lacking an overall plan, the college added an academic building called the Lyceum, or science building. Although the college never had a plan to unite or connect these buildings, the planners were drawn to symmetry, and the buildings aligned. That arrangement made possible the later stylistic unification of the buildings. Graham and Union Halls were in deteriorating condition by 1834, so the trustees tore them down and used the materials to build a pair of one-story brick dormitories that student residents called "Cat" and "Slide." In 1840, the college added a finer dormitory, Robinson Hall, as a balance to the Lyceum.

A Stunning TransformationA Stunning Transformation
Between 1840 and 1844, a stunning transformation pulled together all of these disparate buildings. The Lyceum and Robinson were connected to the Center Building with one-story hyphens, and the roof of the Center Building was taken apart, raised and rebuilt-just to make the classical proportions more correct. The balcony, site of many a student prank, had been removed in 1834. The college also added the cupola, modeled on the Athenian Temple of the Winds, with the statue of George Washington-Old George. The Lyceum and Robinson were given square pier porticoes, and the new hyphen wings, pilasters. Four new, matching houses flanked the Colonnade. Today we know them as the Lee-Jackson House, the Morris House, the Reeves Center and the Gilliam Admissions House. As one student said at the time, "It made the old hill look quite classical."

In_Lees_ViewIn Lee's View
Here's the result of the early 1840s transformation. In this photograph taken after 1855, the buildings are magnificent, but they seem to have landed in a farmyard. Robert E. Lee would have seen a similar view as he approached Washington College on Sept. 18, 1865. The college did not own the land down to the street then, and so roaming cattle and chickens held the day in front of the emerging Colonnade. President Lee transformed this farmyard into the campus we have today. He was as much an amateur landscaper as Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman architect. Lee laid out the first paths of crushed gravel and planted the first trees some of them still alive.

Newcomb and TuckerNewcomb and Tucker
The fine architectural unity of the Colonnade was again interrupted in 1881, when the University received a gift to build a library from Josephine Newcomb, the widow of Warren Newcomb, a New York businessman who had wanted to help the sons of his Southern friends who had been impoverished by the Civil War. The portico and columns of Newcomb Hall (left) were not added until 1909. As useful as the building was, it sat alone on the side of the Colonnade until 1899, when the University added a balancing building to the other end. But this one hardly fit with the character of the others. Built of stone, Tucker Hall was in the then-current Romanesque Revival mode. It housed the Law School in what people of the time considered a modern, beautiful structure. Opinion would soon change. Meanwhile, laboratory wings were pinned to the back of Robinson and the Lyceum.

Out of the AshesOut of the Ashes
On Dec. 16, 1934, Tucker Hall was destroyed by a fire. The University replaced Tucker with a temple fronted building that matched Newcomb's façade, finally bringing an architectural unity to the whole Colonnade. Moreover, concerned about the danger of fire, the University renovated, modernized and fireproofed the other buildings. They were gutted from top to bottom and rebuilt with modern materials. After the renovation, the Lyceum was renamed Payne Hall, and the Center Building was renamed Washington Hall. All the central buildings were painted the same color of red.