Penn State History Lesson: Old Botany Building
Situated in the middle of Pattee Mall is a small brick and stone structure that many students tend to pass without a second thought: Old Botany Building.
While Old Main is technically the oldest building on campus, it has undergone its fair share of renovations to keep it in pristine condition. Old Botany Building, on the other hand, is the oldest building on campus that’s exterior has never been significantly altered.
In the 1860s, when Penn State was still called Farmers’ High School, chemist Evan Pugh was the school’s first president. An incredibly young and talented scientist, Pugh’s work on nitrogen fixation would’ve almost certainly granted him the Nobel Prize today, according to scholars.
Despite being a chemist, Pugh had a love of plants and was determined for Farmers’ High School to become an agricultural hub. In his career, Pugh collected specimens from all over Pennsylvania and even purchased a collection of specimens from Germany and other European countries. Pugh brought his gathering of plants back to Penn State and donated them to the university to be used by botany students for research.
As the university grew, more buildings began to pop up on campus, and the Old Botany Building was constructed in 1887. By this time, Pugh had passed away and the construction of Old Botany was directed under President George Atherton, but Pugh lived on through what he had contributed to the botany program.
Pugh’s herbarium took up space in Old Botany for several years alongside an impressive set of features for the botany program. The exterior of the building featured an attached greenhouse containing plants from the Americas, Asia, Australia, and more for students to study and work with. In front of the building, along what is now Pollock Road, was a botanical garden that students maintained in various geometric patterns. One thing that remained constant, though, was the lyrics to the school’s fight song spelled out in white flowers.
Behind Old Botany was a pathway made of spruce and pine trees that stretched across campus, approximately to where Park Avenue is now located. Called “Ghost Walk,” the path got its name from a 19th-century legend about a student who had gotten lost on campus while making his way home and died in a blizzard. Historians suggest that the legend could have been completely fabricated and was only meant to dissuade lovers from using Ghost Walk as a way to escape the eyes of university leaders.
The botany program resided in the Old Botany Building for about 40 years. Eventually, the program outgrew the building and moved to Buckhout Laboratory in 1929 which still stands on campus today. In the move, the garden, greenhouse, and Ghost Walk were all torn down and there were even plans for the destruction of Old Botany, though it ultimately didn’t occur. The botanists at Penn State weren’t upset about moving out of the old building — only excited for the bigger and better things in their future.
After the botany program relocated, the Old Botany Building became a revolving door. The zoology department took up residency for about a decade but then moved to Frear Laboratory. The ROTC was the next group to move into the building during World War II. In 1946, the psychology department joined, providing an educational counseling center for veterans who returned to the university after serving in the war.
A few years later, the psychology clinic moved to the nearby Burrowes Building. For a few years, the spaces in Old Botany were used as all-purpose classrooms for any departments that needed them. In the 1960s, the music department moved in and stayed for a few decades. Currently, the Asian studies program calls Old Botany home.
In January 1962, the Penn State Board of Trustees wrapped up its agenda with a slate of approvals for campus landmarks to be deemed historical. The list was short and included specific areas of campus like Pattee Mall and buildings like Old Main. Realizing that the Old Botany Building was another one of the oldest buildings on campus, it was added to the list of campus landmarks at the very last minute of the meeting — almost as an afterthought.
Today, Old Botany still stands in the center of campus, a small piece of Penn State’s vast history. A single spruce tree from the Ghost Walk remains just to the side of the building, while Pugh’s collection of plants has moved and is now housed in the basement of Whitmore Laboratory.
Legend has it that the ghost of Frances Atherton resides in the second story of the building watching over her husband, who is buried just across the street.
As for the botany program, it no longer exists at Penn State. In the latter half of the 1900s, the department existed in conjunction with plant pathology, then split into its own program and joined again with zoology to form what is currently known as the Department of Biology, according to emeritus professor Carl Keener.
While botany will likely never return to Penn State or the Old Botany Building, take a moment to appreciate the little structure and everything that it’s seen the next time you pass it — Evan Pugh would appreciate it.
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