Central Hall, the oldest and most iconic building at the heart of campus, is just an administrative building today, but its architectural design reveals it was once a hub for much more.
Dedicated in 1853, nine years after Hillsdale’s founding, Central Hall was originally built as a center for the college’s primary functions. It housed classrooms, dormitories, a dining hall, and a chapel for church services.
Although Central Hall was completed in 1855, two-thirds of the building were ravaged by the “Great Fire of 1874,” started when a furnace spark caught onto a rug. The building was reconstructed in 1875.
“There was a big debate at that time of whether or not the college should rebuild what it had lost and have one big building again, or if it should build separate buildings, so in case the fire ever happened again you wouldn’t have that,” said Linda Moore, head librarian at Mossey Library. “What they decided to do was [to] go ahead and build the separate buildings.”
The reconstructed Central Hall cost $27,157.98 and was dedicated on July 4, 1875.
Popular Detroit-area architect Henry T. Brush designed Central Hall in a trendy, 19th-century, Italian Renaissance-inspired aesthetic. Graced with Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns, Central Hall reflects the Greco-Roman tradition that forms the basis of Hillsdale’s liberal-arts education.
Richard Péwé, the chief administrative officer of Hillsdale College, said the architecture of Central Hall is symbolic of the college’s heritage and illustrates what the place stands for: faith and democracy.
“A building like this points up to the direction of the ‘higher things,” Péwé said.
Péwé said the architecture’s use of crosses reflects Article XI of the college’s founding document: “Religious culture in particular shall be conserved by the College, and by the selection of instructors and other practicable expedients, it shall be a conspicuous aim to teach by precept and example the essentials of the Christian faith and religion.”
In the bell tower, one of the most recognizable features of Central Hall, the bell chimes every quarter of an hour, keeping tradition and rejecting conformity to the standard hourly chime. Originally, someone had to ring the bell every 15 minutes, but the bell-tower chimes are now electronic.
In 1956, the bell’s steel reinforcements began to sink within the belltower of Central Hall.
“At one point, the college was talking about taking down the belltower,” Moore said. “The students did not like that idea, so they ran a campaign and raised some money. What the college did instead was remove the bell from the bell tower and make it structurally sound again.”
Below the bell tower hide the remains of an ornate art-deco ceiling. The 25-foot-tall ceiling originally opened above the third floor, where chapel services were conducted, but in recent history, the installation of a fourth-floor storage unit closed it off.
“All the buildings throughout Hillsdale’s campus are inspired by Central Hall,” said Jeffrey Rogers, associate dean of men.
From the use of brick to the Italian influences, Central Hall presents a clearly central presence of prominence and uniformity throughout the campus.
Péwé said the new Christ Chapel is meant to complement, not compete with, Central Hall.
The construction of Christ Chapel puts Central Hall’s regular renovations — previous examples include the ’70s-era installation of the elevator and regular decade exterior painting — on hold. Once the chapel is completed, Moore, Rogers, and Péwé confirmed, construction will return to future repairs for Central Hall.
Redesigning the back of Central Hall has been tentatively set for the near future, and Péwé said the plans for such changes are available. The redesigned Central Hall will feature a back entrance and set of windows mirroring its front façade, evoking “transparency,” Péwé said.
It’s a new design for an old building, pointing to the unity of the college as it lets sunlight pour in from both sides.
For more of Central Hall’s history, see Vivian Lyon Moore’s First Hundred Years of Hillsdale College at Mossey Library, or explore the Hillsdale Archive resources available online.