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Penn State History Lesson: On-Campus Building Names

After a few weeks, months, or years on campus, Penn State’s building names become pretty run-of-the-mill. But have you ever stopped to think about the history behind their names?

Some buildings have played an integral role in Penn State’s history, while others have some pretty cool backstories. To learn more about their origins, we dusted off our magnifying glasses and cracked open the archives.

Schwab Auditorium

Schwab Auditorium was the first building on campus financed by outside donors. In 1903, Charles M. Schwab, president of Bethlehem Steel, made the donation due to “the College’s lack of a proper chapel,” according to the Penn State University Library archives. However, President George Atherton decided to make it an auditorium because he believed the use of it would be more secular.

Carnegie Building

Two years after Schwab Auditorium popped into existence, world-famous industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie created the second donor-funded building on campus, which also happened to be the first library on campus outside of Old Main. Carnegie was well known throughout the country for donating libraries to universities and other areas of learning. His only request was that the legislature pay for the books.

When Pattee Library was built, the books were taken from Carnegie and moved into Pattee, allowing it to become home to what’s now the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications.

Thomas Building/Bryce Jordan Center/Sparks Building/Burrowes Building/Eisenhower Auditorium

It might seem like we are shoehorning a lot in this one section, but all of these buildings have something in common: They are all named after former Penn State presidents! Some are obvious, like Bryce Jordan and Joab Thomas, who have their whole names on the side of their respective buildings.

Burrowes and Sparks, however, are based on some of the older presidents of the university. Thomas Henry Burrowes was president for three years, starting in 1868 when the college was still an agricultural school. Edwin Erle Sparks was president for 12 years starting in 1908 and led Penn State through World War I.

We can’t forget about Milton Eisenhower, younger brother of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. He contributed a lot to the university, including getting the campus a separate ZIP code from State College proper.

Beaver Stadium

Now you may wonder why James Beaver, a president who followed George Atherton and only lasted two years in his position, gets his own spot when other presidents did not? That’s because Beaver’s life is extremely compelling.

He was a lieutenant-colonel in the Civil War and saw action in many key battles. He was a leader in the Battle of Chancellorsville, where he was wounded. Unfortunately, Beaver hadn’t healed from his wound enough to command his men in the Battle of Gettysburg, but he was on-site at the very least. When healthy, he was able to lead successful attacks in the Wilderness Campaign and an assault on the Spotsylvania Court House.

Unfortunately for him, he got wounded three more times during the war: once at the Battle of Cold Harbor and twice at Petersburg. His fourth wound was his most costly, as a round shattered his right leg, forcing it to be amputated and ending his military career.

But that isn’t all of what is notable about this guy! He ran for vice president of the United States under James Garfield’s Republican ticket. He lost, but instead of wallowing in that sadness, became governor of Pennsylvania. It’s no wonder why he gets the greatest college football stadium in the country named after him.

Atherton Hall

Now you make think this dorm, now home to the Schreyer Honors College, is named after President George Atherton. However, you would be sorely mistaken. It was actually named after his wife, Frances Washburn Atherton.

It wasn’t a posthumous naming either. Both Washburn Atherton and Atherton were alive when the hall was created and named. We can only assume it was an act of love. Who said chivalry was dead in the early 20th century?

Kern Graduate Building

Kern was named after Frank Dunn Kern, a plant pathologist that spent most of his career at Penn State as the Head of the Department of Botany as well as the Dean of the new Graduate school. He spent most of his career focused on researching Pucciniales, or rust fungi.

Interestingly enough, Kern even has two different fungi named after him. He spent a lot of his time researching in Puerto Rico but eventually retired and lived in State College until his death in 1973.

Willard Building

The Willard Building was named after Joseph Willard, who was a math professor at Penn State.

In order for the Willard Building to be built, officials needed to tear down the existing Armory Building. That was met with a lot of resistance and students and faculty alike put pressure on the university to let it be. After all, it was used for training during both World Wars and had huge historical relevance to the college. But eventually, people caved, and Willard was born.

Sackett Building

The Sackett Building was named after Robert Sackett, dean of the College of Engineering and Architecture from 1915 to 1937. This building was actually a replacement building, as the old Engineering Building burned down in a fire in 1918. The building remain a staple for architecture students to this very day.

The Streets!

While they aren’t buildings per se, many streets on campus and downtown all are named after Penn State presidents. Pugh, Allen, Calder, Shortlidge, Atherton, and Beaver are all named after notable presidents from the university’s history. Most of these presidents fall on the older side, as Evan Pugh and William Henry Allen were the first two presidents in Penn State history.

James Calder and Joseph Shortlidge were also early presidents, having back-to-back terms as the heads of Penn State. Atherton made a lot of contributions to the university and State College area, so it’s only fitting his name describes one of the major roads in the area. Beaver’s street name isn’t how most people recognize him, but it’s still a nice touch for his memory.

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About the Author

Owen Abbey

Owen Abbey was a Secondary Education major before he graduated from the wonderful institution known as Penn State. When he was not writing for the blog, he enjoyed rooting for the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens, supporting Penn State basketball and softball, dreaming of all of the ways he would win the TV show "Survivor," and yes mom, actually doing school work. All of this work prepared him to teach his own class of students, which was always his true passion. He still can be found on Twitter @theowenabbey and can be reached for questions and comments at [email protected]

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