Council of Independent Colleges Historic Campus Architecture Project


Main Building

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Institution Name: Vassar College
Original/Historic Place Name: The College; Old Main
Location on Campus: facing the main entrance gate
Date(s) of Construction:
1861-1865original construction Renwick, James Jr.
Designer: James Renwick, Jr.
Type of Place: Individual building
Style: Other (Glossary)
Significance: architecture, culture, education, history
Narrative: see below
References: see below
Foundation: stone masonry
Walls: brick
Roof: slate
ca. 1865administration
ca. 1865classrooms
ca. 1865old main (classrooms, administration, etc.)
ca. 1865-present (2006)other (offices)
ca. 1865-present (2006)administration
ca. 1865-present (2006)residence hall
ca. 1865-present (2006)other (social meeting places)
ca. 1865-present (2006)other ("The College Center")

Erected between 1861 and 1865 and designed by James Renwick, Jr., Main Building was listed on the Federal Register in 1974 and placed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks in 1986. Designed to provide accommodations for academic and residential life for women students, the building constituted amenities for the community of faculty, officers of the college, and students. All lived together in Main and the academic life of the college took place in Main's classrooms. The central pavilion of the building provided living quarters for the president and the lady principal; the connecting transverse links housed students in suites. The system of the college was that the faculty and administration served in loco parentis, and the students were closely regulated. Main Building had a chapel, an art gallery, classrooms, wide corridors for exercise in inclement weather, a dining room, parlors, and an infirmary.

Main Building is significant in the field of higher education in that it was the community building in a pioneering endowed college for women that was intended by its founder Matthew Vassar to offer women an opportunity for education equivalent to that received by men at such colleges as Yale and Harvard. Matthew Vassar was inspired to build "the college" as a building of monumental dimensions, a building which would memorialize the Vassar family and at the same time make an important and lasting contribution to education and to the cause of women. Vassar believed that women were intellectually able and that appropriate opportunities should be offered for their enhancement. Vassar, a native of England, modeled his building on the Tuileries, and on Guy's Hospital in London, erected by his ancestor Sir Thomas Guy in the eighteenth century.


Brackett, Anna. "Vassar College." Harper's New Monthly Magazine 52 (February 1876).

Brooke, Cornelia E. Main Building, Vassar College. National Register of Historic Places designation report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior/National Park Service, 1973.

Collens, Charles. "Vassar College." Architectural Review 123, no. 2411 (January 17, 1923).

Daniels, Elizabeth A. Main to Mudd and More. Poughkeepsie, NY: Vassar College, 1996.

Daniels, Elizabeth A. Bridges to the World: Henry Noble MacCracken and Vassar College. Clinton Corners, NY: College Avenue Press, 1994.

Gaines, Thomas A. The Campus as a Work of Art. New York: Praeger, 1991.

Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women's Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.

Lewis, Dio. The New Gymnastics. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1862.

Linner, Edward R. Vassar: The Remarkable Growth of a Man and His College. Elizabeth A. Daniels, ed. Poughkeepsie, NY: Vassar College, 1984.

Lloyd, Harriet Raymond. Life and Letters of John Howard Raymond. New York: Fords, Howard and Hulbert, 1881.

Lossing, Benson J. Historical Sketch of Vassar College. New York: S. W. Green 1876.

Lossing, Benson J.. Vassar College and Its Founder. New York: C. A. Alvord, 1867.

MacCracken, Henry Noble. The Hickory Limb. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950.
Main Building [Vassar College]. National Historic Landmark designation report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior/National Park Service, [n.d.].

Miscellany News. Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY.

Plum, Dorothy A., and George B. Dowell. The Great Experiment, A Chronicle of Vassar. Poughkeepsie, NY: Vassar College, 1961.

Schuyler, Montgomery. "The Architecture of American Colleges: X. Three Women's Colleges: Vassar, Wellesley & Smith." Architectural Record 31 (May 1912).

Swan, Frances W. et al., eds. Communications to the Board of Trustees of Vassar College by Its Founder. New York: Vassar College, 1886.

Turner, Paul Venable. Campus: An American Planning Tradition. New York: Architectural History Foundation; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984.

Van Lengen, Karen, and Lisa Reilly. Vassar College: An Architectural Tour. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004.

Vassar Quarterly. Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY.

Vassar Views, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY.

Vassarion. Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY.


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