Penn State History Lessons: Old Main
Aside from the Nittany Lion Shrine and Beaver Stadium, one of the most recognizable places on campus is Old Main. It’s the quad where students gather on warm days and the site of many student-organized protests and riots. It’s also one of the oldest buildings on campus.
The tale of Old Main started way back in 1867 when the University was still called the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania. The state Legislature allocated $50,000 to the building of Old Main, but even with this large sum of money, funding for the project fell short. Thankfully Hugh McAllister — a local attorney, farmer, and trustee –helped fund the construction of the building with thousands of dollars from his own pocket, along with donations from other trustees. Arguably, without McAllister’s generous donations, the construction of Old Main would have never come to fruition.
McAllister not only played a major part in funding construction, but he also played a key role in planning the layout of the building. According to the original design, rooms would be set aside to house laboratories, offices, classrooms, residential halls, and even a chapel.
The original structure was built with limestone, which was quarried from the land directly in front of it. Interestingly, this limestone was literally carried on the back of the institution’s original mascot, Old Coaly — a mule and superstar construction worker.
Unfortunately, by the 1920s the original Old Main structure was deemed unsound and bulldozed a couple of years later in 1929. Renovations for the new building totaled to an astounding $837,000, but thanks to state appropriations and an emergency building fund campaign, the reconstruction of the building went off without a hitch. The Old Main that we all know and love today was christened and re-opened in 1930, but renovations to its interior have yet to cease — many of which came as class gifts over the years.
For example, financial aid from the graduating class of 1932 gave Old Main its classic frescoes, which are located on the second floor of the structure. Professors of art and architectural history hired Henry Varnum Poor, a well-respected fresco artist, to design and create the frescoes. The beautiful artwork is still on display and pays homage to the establishment of the University as a land grant institution. And a gift from the class of 1904 gave the tower its bell, which was cast by William Blake and Co. in Boston.
Sadly, the chimes that ring clearly throughout campus today have changed forms over the years and no longer come from the tolls of an Old Main bell. Originally, Westminster chimes were added as a gift from the class of 1937 to the tower to give the bell a bit more oomph. The Westminster chimes remained in use until the late 1970s when they were replaced with a mix of mechanical and electronic bells, before once again (and for the last time) giving way to today’s digital chimes.If you’re wondering what happened to the original bell, it was taken out and refurbished as a gift from the class of 2009. Now the bell can be found on display outdoors at ground level near Old Main’s southwest corner.
So perhaps the next time you walk to class and you hear those infamous chimes ringing, maybe it’ll make you think a bit about just how those chimes and the building that houses them came to be in the first place. After all, the more you know, the better!