University Hall: A history of UT's oldest building

From the barrel-vaulted ceilings to water-themed motifs to the gargoyles on the tower, there is so much to appreciate about the University of Toledo’s oldest building, University Hall.


Crews started construction of the building in 1930 and finished about 11 months after they started. It is not a part of the Works Project Administration that was started to create jobs during the Great Depression. University Hall was created from the minds of architects and then-president Henry Doermann.


“It’s what we would call ‘institutional Gothic,’ which is very popular at many institutions across the country,” said Steven Bare, a graduate assistant in the Department of History. “So it’s really unique that in the first third of the 20th century, the University of Toledo would pick a really dated form of architecture for this building.”


Bare taught a public history practicum class last semester that researched University Hall and its history. The class found interesting tidbits about every part of the building, including its iconic tower and mysterious staircases.


“It’s known as the one true architectural gem on UT’s campus,” Bare said.


When Doermann created his idea for University Hall, he wanted students to be able to “reach for the sky” and thought a tower would be the perfect way to accomplish that. University Hall’s tower reaches a height of 205 feet tall and has a four gargoyles that sit on each of the corners. They are there to protect the campus and ward off evil spirits.


University Hall is a reflection of collegiate Gothic architecture, featuring a turret on the East side of the main entrance. Niches, common in Gothic architecture, can be found empty on both sides of the entrance into the building. These typically would have held a religious statue, but stand empty because UT is a state college.


The cornerstone was placed during the building’s dedication in 1930. Legend has it that there is a time capsule placed inside, containing UT student publications, a map of Toledo in 1930, the election board count, pictures of the groundbreaking ceremony, a copy of the commencement program and a copy of Doermann’s speech. But we will never know for sure, as it would surely ruin the building’s history to take a look inside.


UT’s bell tower lost its bells in 2006 when they were replaced by a speaker system. The speakers toll the time every half hour, ten minutes before the hour and on the hour. The university fight song plays at noon and the Alma Mater plays at 5 pm each day. Even though the bells are gone, the clock on the outside still tells time. The minute hand is actually eight feet long and the hour hand is five feet long.


On the back of the building, you have probably noticed the large doors that lead to nowhere. These actually lead out of the back of Doermann theatre. In the original blueprints, these doors were meant to have stairs leading up to them, but the idea was dropped. Now their only purpose is to confuse students.


In the original building, the East wing held the engineering and architectural classes, while the West wing housed the sciences. The library was on the fifth floor, located where there is now a dance studio. Before the Student Union was built, there was even a cafeteria for students below Doermann Theatre.


For 47 years, University Hall was used without air conditioning. In November of 1978, cranes were used to place air conditioning units over the roof and into their current location.


The third floor of University Hall also showcases forms of Gothic architecture, including vaulted ceilings. The main stretch of hallway is a barrel-vaulted ceiling, while the two courtyard entrances are ribbed vaults. Plaster molds of alternating mermen and sirens adorn the ceiling. Bare said Doermann commissioned these molds to represent the university’s closeness to Lake Erie.


The third floor, which contains the offices of the university president and other administrators, also showcases the seals of 55 different universities painted upon the wall. The seals represent the alma maters of faculty members in 1934. The seals were painted as part of a WPA project. In early 2000, frames were installed to protect them for future generations.


As for the staircases, floating staircases can be seen in the West and East staircases. These ramps and stairs lead to sections of the old library, mainly what used to be the Stacks and Magazine rooms.


At the main entrance to the library, there are two doorways that used to lead right into administrative offices, including the president’s office. The doors were sealed off to create more protection.


In today’s money, University Hall would cost around $35 million to build.


This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to uncover the secrets of University Hall. So go exploring with your friends or by yourself and find out what makes our university so special.

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