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Fridays with Fred: Evolution of a 19th-century residence hall

Take a look at the evolution of one of the earliest residential houses on campus.

After the Civil War, as soldiers returned to college and as an increasing number of Midwesterners sought higher education, Beloit College needed to accommodate them. In the mid-19th century, students roomed in Middle College and North College (Campbell Hall), but many more stayed in local boarding houses and private residences. President Chapin and the college faculty felt that it would be better to have more of those students, especially the youngest, nearer at hand.

On August 21, 1868, the Board of Trustees Executive Committee opened their meeting with prayer and then settled down to business, “the main object…being to consider the expediency of erecting a cheap building for the accommodation of students,” according to Dexter Clary in the committee’s minutes. After closing with another prayer, the meeting adjourned without a decision, but the group gathered again three days later and resolved to construct “a plain building of wood to cost from four to five thousand dollars.”

Lucas Bradley, architect of Middle College and President Chapin’s house, drew up plans; construction began in September, at approximately the same location as the future Wright Museum of Art. Although the college wanted to keep expenses down, the trustees couldn’t resist adding a touch of elegance—a pediment in the roof above each front door, at a cost of $125.

The November issue of Beloit College Monthly reported that the new building would house 32 students for the winter term: “A partition through the center cuts off all communication between the north and south ends except from without. Three rooms of each end have attached to them small alcoves for sleeping apartments, but the remaining five are nearly square, serving the purpose of both study and roost.” The college named the dormitory South College at a time when today’s South College featured the college chapel and preparatory department.

Below, South College, which no longer exists on campus (though we do have a different building that now goes by that name):

Although a few upperclassmen lived in South College at first, it became a haven for freshmen and “preps.” A wag reporting for the Beloit College Monthly described “the air” as “vexed with the minstrelsy of uncultivated preps and the troubled eloquence of night-marauding upper-classmen.” Alumnus John N. Davidson remembered South College as “so noisy the rats were seen leaving it one Sunday morning for the Burrall House in search of a quiet place in which to spend the Sabbath.”

By 1878, as the curriculum began to evolve and modernize, the college hoped to expand its inadequate facilities for the teaching of science. They installed a new “Natural History Room” on the second floor of South College, described by the Round Table as having “all the necessary furniture, including tables upon which it is a delight to take notes even about Crystal Rows and Clino-rhombic Systems.”

Two years later, renovations began in earnest and by 1881, with the addition of a chemical laboratory, storage areas for chemicals and mineralogical specimens, and a spacious lecture room, the college had its first building dedicated to the sciences. “If a high-sounding name is desirable,” commented the Round Table, “let us dub it Science Hall.”

Alas, in its new incarnation, unloved, undistinguished South College survived only another decade. In 1892, D.K. Pearsons’ magnificent gift allowed the college to build the massive, up-to-date, Pearsons Hall of Science. South College lingered a few more years, briefly serving as a music hall. Sometime in the mid-1890s an enterprising soul moved South College to the 400 block of Central Avenue, where, with a little remodeling, the structure became two private residences side by side. One came down in 1963. The other still stands with its original roof-line pediment, a ghostly echo of prankster laughter, a whiff of 19th-century chemical on the breeze.

Below, a chemistry class taught by Professor Erastus G. Smith poses in front of the building in spring 1889.


Fred Burwell ’86
September 22, 2011

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