The first building at Wellesley College, College Hall, was built in 1875 to house students, faculty, staff, classrooms, laboratories, art, and more, all in a single monumental structure. Perched atop a steep hill above Lake Waban, the monstrous Second Empire complex was among the largest buildings in the United States when it opened.
The inspiration to build College Hall most likely came from studying two of the most well-known and highly regarded women’s colleges at the time: Mount Holyoke Seminary and Vassar College, where each of their campuses was dominated by one large building containing nearly all of the classrooms, dormitories, and administrative offices.
The Second Empire building was designed by architects Hammatt Billings and his brother, Joseph Edward Billings who together created the firm Billings & Billings. The brothers worked out of an office in Boston and designed many prominent buildings in the state, many of which are no longer extant.
On March 17, 1914 at at about 4:30 AM a fire started in the building. In only four hours, almost the entire building was reduced to rubble. Shockingly, everyone escaped the fire alive! The only part of the building that survived the blaze was a small two-story wing that housed the kitchen. It was separated from the rest of College Hall by a fire-door, which was installed to prevent fires from spreading beyond the kitchen. The cause of the fire has never been determined.
By the fall of 1915, only a year and a half after the fire, the first new building, Tower Court, had been built on the site of College Hall. Others on campus would soon follow, spread out in large part to minimize the possibility of another thoroughly devastating fire. Five columns were salvaged from the wreckage and later installed along a walkway near the steps to Tower Court’s quadrangle. They were planned with a plaque donated by the class of 1917, which reads “The last class to know the original Wellesley College”.