A common refrain heard on Vassar College tours is that every student passes through Main Building at least once a day. Many think of Main as the central hub of campus activities. However, there was a time when Main Building was not just the physical center of campus life but housed almost all of the campus facilities, including the library, chapel and house of the President and Lady Principal. Since Matthew Vassar had wide hallways designed so students could exercise indoors, students had no reason to leave, other than to head to the Observatory for astronomy. Main building was originally to be constructed as five interconnected sections designed by Thomas Teft. However, after his untimely death, Matthew Vassar had to look elsewhere for the designer of the building set to house the beginning of Vassar College. According to the Vassar College Encylopedia, Vassar had been impressed with the architecture of the Palais des Tuileries while on European tour. He ultimately settled on James Renwick Jr., architect of the Smithsonian, and asked him to use the Palais as inspiration for the design. Constructed over the course of four years, beginning in 1861, Main was designed in Second Empire Style, an architectural framework descended from the elements it gained from the architecture of the Second French Empire. It was constructed by William Harloe, a onetime mayor of Poughkeepsie. Outgoing Main House President Drew Leventhal ‘17 clarified a little known detail. “The building, contrary to popular belief, was not the first building built on campus, it was built after the observatory in 1861,” he explained. Containing the college to essentially one building also served other purposes. As College Historian and Professor Emeritus of English Colton Johnson noted, “A college that had all facilities was viewed as highly experimental. Nobody was sure if women could stand up to the rigors of a Harvard or a Yale and if it was a good idea for society for women to be educat
ed. Housing the entire college and all its functions in Main made it easier for outside skeptics to check in on the experiment.” As the college grew, a 500 foot width and five stories were no longer enough to contain all that Main Building, the largest interior space in the country until 1868, needed to house. The growing need led to several different expansion projects that directly altered Main’s physical structure. The first of which was an extension to the dining room and kitchen designed by James S. Post in 1872. Another designed to expand the library space in Main in 1893 was dubbed “Uncle Fred’s Nose” after its benefactor. The Frederick Ferris Thompson Annex was designed by the architect of Thompson’s mansion, Francis R. Allen. Despite acquiring an endearing nickname, the Annex was considered by many to be an architectural error, incongruent with the design of the rest of the building because it featured a marble porte-cochere that acted as the new entrance for the building. The Encyclopedia explained, porte-cocheres or carriage porches stand at the entrances to buildings, allowing vehicles to pass underneath but also protecting occupants from weather. They are mostly found on 18th and 19th century public buildings and are not typically features of buildings designed in the Second Empire architectural style. As a consequence of this contradiction of styles, funds donated by the Rockefellers in 1959 were used to remove the Annex and restore the original facade, although the added second story entrance remains. These funds were also used to remove the rear extension designed by Post in order to make room for the College Center. Since the physical alterations directly to Main did not solve the College’s space problem, residential and academic aspects began to be designated outside of the building. When funds allowed for the construction of Strong House and Rockefeller Hall, Main no longer served as the primary location for housing and educating students. The Fire of 1918 also necessitated a reconstruction of the back portion of Main Building
during which many changes to the physical layout were made. As outlined in the Vassar College Encyclopedia, “The subsequent restoration part of what had been the third floor chapel was incorporated in a dining room below, which was endowed by the Class of 1880 as ‘Underwood Hall,’ in memory of their classmate Jennie Cushing Underwood.” Another section of the third floor chapel was incorporated into the Villard Room as clerestory windows during the construction of the College Center. After these last physical alterations and the completion of the College Center in 1975, no major architectural changes have affected the stature of Main Building. In 1974 Main Building was listed as a Historic Landmark on the Federal Register and in 1986 the building received greater prestige as a National Historic Landmark, officially recognized for the place where Vassar education began. The
building stands today the same as it did in 1975. One thing that remained consistent throughout Main’s history is it’s standing with the students. As was true when it was the only building on campus, today Main is the hub of student life and activity. Explained Leventhal, “Living in Main is an all inclusive experience, making it different from houses that do not have all our amenities. Having the retreat is a big help. Having the ROC move over was a small but noticeable improvement, it’s awesome when you need to use it. And of course having all of the parlors and administrative offices downstairs makes going to rehearsals and meetings and appointments super easy.” Despite numerous changes to its physical appearance over the years and even though they no longer use the wide hallways for indoor exercise, Vassar students still consider Main Building to be the beating heart of campus.