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In 1857, when Mansfield was one of the poorest towns in the county with fewer than 300 people (and hardly any trees), the first building was erected where the current South Hall sits. It is a common misconception that North Hall, the oldest campus structure still standing, is the original school building. Not so. Four buildings have stood at the summit of College Avenue, formerly called Normal Avenue. The first Seminary building (the school was The Mansfield Classical Seminary) stood there only four months.
The Board of Trustees, in their first meeting on February 15, 1855, adopted plans for “a structure of brick four stories high, one hundred feet front with two wings each running back seventy-eight feet,” according to Simon B. Elliott’s “History of the Mansfield Normal School.” It included an ornate observatory with a spire that may have been copper. Construction began that spring, with “the foundation walls partly erected” before winter came. On January 7, 1857, 105 students “presented themselves” on the doorsteps (there were 3 front entrances). In that building they would sleep (both men and women), eat, study, worship, and attend classes. The only necessity not contained in the building was of course, the outhouse. The dug well for the school’s water supply was also in the rear of the building.
The second term began April 16, 1857 with 150 students. But at 10 am on April 22 a fire claimed the building. No one was injured, and all worked to save what they could, throwing furniture and doors out onto the white ground. A nor’easter had blown in and there was a foot of snow. Wood stoves not yet cleaned out from their winter use may have accumulated too much creosote, or there may have been a defective chimney. Whatever the source, the fire burned through that night as “friends and promoters” of the Seminary met and resolved to rebuild.
The building had been insured for $12,000, though it and the furnishings had amounted to $20,000. Immediately plans were again adopted, this time designed by Elliott, a 26 year old trustee, and all was going well till September. With a large part of the first story erected, insurance companies caught in the Panic of 1857 did not make good on the policy. Still in debt from the first building and unable to pay the contractors, construction halted until August 1858.
The story of how money was raised where there was none, and how a community pledged their “labor, board, grain, provisions, sewing, lumber, [and] cattle” is almost too sweet for Disney. Trustees William Hollands and Elliott made up the Building Committee— that is, Hollands made the brick and Elliott, a bricklayer, took some inexperienced young men and went to work. Elliott describes the scene:
"With so little help and so large a building one could hardly see at a week’s end that anything had been accomplished. But the walls grew, and by the time cold weather had set in the remainder of the first, all of the second, and a goodly portion of the third story was completed."
The second Seminary building was only partially complete when school reopened November 23, 1859. There were 30 students. In fact, construction was not completed until Fall 1862 when it opened with 200 students, and a few months thereafter the Seminary became the State Normal School of the Fifth District. Elliott recorded that “the extreme length of the building [was] one hundred and fifty-one feet, and its extreme width fifty-three feet. The central portion [was] fifty-one feet square: and four full stories in height, besides the attic. The wings [were] each fifty feet long and forty-seven feet wide, and three stories in height.” The fourth floor attic area with sky lights was the dormitory, with women on one side and men on the other. Sometimes a professor slept in the center doorway.
In 1865 there was another fire due to a dropped kerosene lamp, but catastrophe was narrowly averted by Mary Briggs, a student who severely burned herself while smothering the flames. She later taught at the school. By 1875 a covered walkway connected what were now called North Hall and South Hall. And in 1889 South Hall was renovated and enlarged, becoming exclusively a men’s dormitory. This structure lasted till 1951, when brick on wooden—rather than steel—beams posed too extreme a fire hazard.
Inspired by the modern architectural style of Frank Lloyd Wright, this South Hall again provided accommodations for men. The campus newspaper, The Flashlight, in May of 1951 described the new building thus:
It will be of fire-proof construction and brick faced to harmonize with the other buildings on campus. It will stand four stories high with a basement and will have a capacity of two hundred. The basement will house a laundry and pressing room, recreation rooms and facilities for men day students. The first floor will provide offices and a modern apartment for the Dean of Men, a Post Office, kitchenette, and a lounge. The building will be newly furnished with built-in wardrobes and modern dormitory furniture.
Sometime in the late 1970’s South Hall ceased being a dormitory and was turned into office and classroom space for the psychology and philosophy departments, counseling services, and other student services. During the time of demolition and rebuilding—the summer of 2006 to the summer of 2008—these operations were relocated to Hemlock. Folks in town would go out of their way to drive by the construction site to see the big cranes and watch as the newest of South Halls took shape on the hill.
Though only once did it literally rise from ashes, South Hall can surely be considered a Phoenix. Not only is it both the oldest and newest building on campus, with its revamped approach to Enrollment Services it renews the University’s commitment to put students first.