The atypical twin towers of Old Main at Washington and Jefferson College represent the merger of two schools from which it takes its name. Scott Beveridge photo
By Barbara S. Miller
WASHINGTON, Pa. – Many a person has probably returned to their old school years later and remarked, “I wouldn’t have recognized the place.”
While this could be said about parts of Washington and East Washington after Washington & Jefferson College’s more recent building booms, it doesn’t apply to the school’s landmark, Old Main.
Every campus has an Old Main, but W&J’s is atypical because of its twin towers, symbolizing the union of Washington College and Jefferson College.
I don’t believe a single semester of my four years passed without schlepping to a class somewhere on one of its four floors.
Driving past the college every workday, I venture inside any building on the campus only occasionally and when reporting news.
I hadn’t been inside W&J’s Old Main for decades. Serving for a few years on a committee awarding the Vira I. Heinz scholarship for study abroad brought me back to its august halls after graduation, but even that was quite a while ago.
I went back inside Old Main at the end of May to show my daughter around before she attended a June math class.
After the end of a semester and commencement, Old Main was deserted, and I couldn’t believe how little the place had changed after all those years.
The long, narrow classrooms still have soaring ceilings, expansive slate chalkboards and antique-looking glass-front wooden bookcases. I swear some of the student desks were the same ones in which I sat for four years worth of history lessons, economics, art history, French and psychology and a single semester of Russian.
In one classroom stood an overhead projector, a long-necked, audio-visual equipment dinosaur in a world where professors and students had packed away their Powerpoint presentations and laptops for the summer.
Twin staircases spiral snail-like on either side of the building, and the gigantic visage of Thomas Jefferson still looks out onto the second floor. The only change I noticed was the addition of a cozy seating area on the third floor with an oriental-looking rug.
The college chapel was locked, so I could merely peer through the skinniest of openings between two doors. It still can’t be redolent of the pipe smoke of Dr. Carl Laun, a regular at the Tuesday night classic film series, can it?
In preparation for writing this column, I checked the W&J Web site for background information on Old Main. Matt McNally, a junior English-psychology major, compiled a definitive Web page on Old Main for a professional writing course. He did a fine job, informing his readers that a single-towered Old Main looking “nothing like it does today” was constructed between 1834 and 1836. “The original Old Main consisted of only the back center part of the current building,” McNally wrote.
It was in 1875, after the merger of the two colleges, that the aforementioned twin towers were added. Rounding out McNally’s piece was an interview with none other than my history adviser, Dr. Robert Dodge. Who better to discuss the topic than a great historian?
As luck would have it, I ran into the professor on our visit and caught up on some recent history.
As it turned out, Old Main’s lack of air conditioning deems it impractical for summer classes.
No matter. I was glad to see the inside of Old Main for an hour – traveling back in time.
A view down one of two spiral stairways inside Old Main. Scott Beveridge photo
(This story originally appeared in Living in Washington County, a publication of the Observer-Reporter. It was reprinted with permission.)