Schenectady, N.Y. — Union College’s Nott Memorial is one of the great period pieces of American higher education, but it has as checkered a past as any college building anywhere.
A round building on the site the Nott occupies was first envisioned 200 years ago this spring in a pioneering series of campus plans drawn up by Joseph Ramée, a French architect, and Eliphalet Nott, Union’s president from 1804 to 1866. The plans do not describe the building’s function.
But Paul Venable Turner, an emeritus art-history professor at Stanford University and author of Campus: An American Planning Tradition, says it was probably intended as a chapel. In the margins of another sheet of the Ramée plans is a pencil sketch that appears to show what the architect intended the building to look like—essentially a recreation of Rome’s Pantheon.
Construction on the site finally began in 1856, but the money ran out before work had progressed beyond the foundations. By the time building resumed, in the 1870s, Nott was dead and his grandson, the architect Edward Tuckerman Potter, had reimagined the structure as a polychromatic, Victorian Gothic wonderment with a number of mysterious aspects, notably the 709 colored-glass “illuminators” set into the dome in a pattern that has never been fully explained.
The building features a colorful encaustic-tile main floor and two galleries supported on cast-iron columns that also hold up the copper drum beneath the dome. It seems to have served initially as an event space and art gallery, but it was difficult to heat. In 1902 it became Union’s library, and remained so for 60 years.
Its pointed arches and elaborate stonework, however, were a challenge to campus planners. Ramée had drawn a campus of brick buildings with subtle rounded arches, and half-dozen of his buildings were completed before Nott’s death. Potter, however, had more elaborate ideas, as a sketch from the 1880s reveals. Only the building directly behind the Nott was ever constructed. Known as Washburn Hall, it was demolished in the 1960s to make room for the current library.
The architects for that library project—McKim, Mead & White and its successor firm—had ideas entirely unlike Potter’s. A drawing from the 1950s shows the Nott as it would look reclad in classical garb.
Happily, that project never went anywhere but into the college’s archives. Less happy, though, were the Nott’s next few decades. The main floor was jury-rigged as a theater, while the upper floors were closed off, visited only by pigeons and the occasional itinerant architecture writer. The college seriously considered tearing down the building, though it was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
In the 1990s, Union finally began a much-needed renovation that reinforced the exterior walls, replaced the roof, added an elevator, and more. Today the Nott offers flexible event space on the main floor, exhibit space on the second-floor gallery, and study space on the third. It is well worth going out of your way to visit.
One more thing: McKim, Mead & White’s record here at Union is, to put the best possible face on it, uneven. About 1920 the firm designed a lovely chapel that is much beloved—and for which the architects borrowed a portico from Ramée. But the plan to classicize the Nott seems, at least today, surprisingly arrogant—as tone-deaf as the firm’s rebuild, after an 1895 fire, of the University of Virginia’s rotunda (which may owe its inspiration to Ramée’s original drawings for Union). In that case, McKim, Mead & White dispensed with Thomas Jefferson’s Greek Revival approach and substituted a far grander Roman interior. Similarly, other buildings by the firm closed off quadrangles at both Union and Virginia that their original architects had left open to western vistas. In both cases, the open quadrangles may have been meant to symbolize the hopeful expansion of a young nation.
Return to Top