A Plan Ahead of Its Time
In 1795, Union College became the first college chartered by the Board of Regents of the State of New York. The name Union reflected the founders’ desire to create a welcoming, unified academic community open to all the diverse religious and national groups in the region. Today, Union remains one of the oldest non-denominational colleges in the country with a rich history that blends respect for tradition with an emphasis on continuous innovation.
In the beginning
When Eliphalet Nott assumed the presidency in 1804, Union College occupied a single stone building on the eastern edge of Schenectady. Enrollment at the young, vigorous college grew very quickly, and Nott decided that Union should move to new, spacious location. In 1806, he began acquiring land on Nistiquona Hill, about a half mile east of town.
Construction began on 1812 on what College diarist Jonathan Pearson later described as "some horrible plan..." Fortunately, winter interrupted the work. In January 1813, Nott met French architect Joseph Ramée and promptly charged him "with the building of a new college and laying out seventy acres of lands in pleasure grounds..."
Ramée began work immediately. The first drawings of his grand plan arrived in the spring of 1813. The "horrible plan" was forgotten as work started on the first unified group of college buildings in America.
While it would be many years before nearly all elements of Ramée’s original design were actually constructed, the plan itself broke new ground in college campus planning.
On the terrace already prepared, the buildings were to be arranged to form a large, open courtyard, facing the west and the Mohawk River Valley. The parallel buildings were 600 feet (180 m) apart, to be linked by arcades, one of which formed a semicircle at the upper end of the courtyard. In the center of the space a rotunda was planned, possibly intended to be the College chapel.
A phased plan
Development of the Union College campus, officially known as the College Grounds, has come in three principal phases. These include the period from 1813 to 1850, when the older buildings in the central campus were constructed; the first two decades of the 20th Century, when several science buildings were erected along North Lane; and the years since World War II.
At the center of the grounds, on the spot originally designated by Ramée for his pantheon, now stands Union's most unusual building, the distinctive Nott Memorial.
A National Historic Landmark and one of America's most dramatic Victorian buildings, the Nott is a beloved symbol of the College. Construction began on the building in 1858, based on designs by Edward Tuckerman Potter, grandson of President Nott. Tucker’s design for the 16-sided structure incorporated many diverse elements from both the religious and secular realms, making it a fitting symbol for a college named "Union." It was completed in 1875 and restored for Union's bicentennial in 1995.
Facing the Nott is Memorial Chapel, built in 1925 as a monument to the Union College graduates who lost their lives in World War I. Also near the center of campus is Schaffer Library, which houses more than 600,000 volumes and 1,600 current periodical subscriptions. North of the central campus lie the eight acres of formal gardens and woodland known as Jackson’s Garden.
20th century renovations
More recently, the College has renovated most of its older buildings and added six residence halls; Memorial Field House, the Humanities and Social Sciences buildings; Schaffer Library; the Science and Engineering Center; Messa Rink at Achilles Center; and a multipurpose, all-weather athletic field.
In 2009, Union began construction on the Peter Irving Wold Center. With its curved, arched façade and stucco exterior, the center mirrors the architectural style of the historic campus, furthering Ramée’s plan. The most significant modern-day addition to Union's historic campus, the 35,000-square-foot building is emblematic of the College's innovative role in defining the liberal arts. With its emphasis on interdisciplinary study and on the intersections between science, engineering, arts, social sciences and humanities, it is a true microcosm of Union.
The Wold Center houses state-of-the-art teaching and research space where students and faculty can collaborate and pursue the integration of science and engineering with the social sciences and humanities. The center’s public spaces are intended to facilitate the free flow of people and ideas, promote collaboration among disciplines and between teaching and research.
Lippman Hall, which opened in September 2011, serves as one of the cornerstones of the liberal arts tradition at Union. The building originally opened in 1967 as the Social Sciences building, housing faculty offices and classrooms. Since then, it has been home to students and faculty members engaged in understanding and exploring the social sciences and their intersections with the humanities, arts, sciences and engineering.