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Founded by the sisters of the Order of St. Ursula in 1871, Ursuline College received its charter from the state of Ohio and is acknowledged as the first women's college in the state. Situated on a 112-acre campus in a rural suburb east of Cleveland, the Pepper Pike site is the fifth home of the college. Previously located at four urban sites in Cleveland, the opening of the campus in 1966 ushered in a new era.
The campus and its buildings were designed by Peter van Dijk, a well-known architect whose designs in northern Ohio include the Blossom Music Center, the Akron Art Museum, the E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall, and the newest addition to the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Van Dijk is a modernist who studied with Buckminster Fuller and worked under Eero Saarinen before coming to Cleveland. His belief that modern architecture "must absorb and give meaning to modern materials and give form and meaning to a contemporary situation" is illustrated in the design of the buildings on the Ursuline College campus. Mindful of the college's history and its mission to educate women, Van Dijk held that a modern campus with 'honest' buildings would facilitate the creation of new traditions. He and his firm designed all the buildings on campus with the exception of the most recently completed Pilla Student Center.
Four units of the first building phase opened in 1966 and included the three-story brick Mullen Academic Building, the Dauby Science Center, Grace Residence Hall, and Fritzsche Student Center. The buildings in the quad were designed and sited to take advantage of the natural views in the landscape. Fitting purposefully within the topography of the land, the U-shape of the quadrangle opens to the lake, and the buildings adjust to the slope of the ground through varying heights. In 1968, the Mullen building received an Award of Merit from the Architects Society of Ohio and the American Institute of Architects in the category of administration and classroom buildings; the following year it won the Architectural Award of Excellence.
The quadrangle as originally envisioned by the architect was completed with the addition of the Besse Library in 1988. It is constructed with "Ursuline blend" brick, a local blend that complements the original building materials of buff Indiana limestone and Black Canadian granite used in the Ursuline Educational Center (the Ursuline Mother house). The Besse Library received the Cleveland Chapter of the American Institute of Architects Honor Award for achievement of excellence in architectural design in 1985 and the Award for Excellence in Masonry Design from the Ohio Masonry Council and the Architects Society of Ohio in 1986.