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Central Hall after the Great Fire of 1874. Col­legian

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.