Buildings and places tell stories. Their narratives reflect the forces that produced them and the values of the people within. They articulate ideas, providing a visual manifestation of history and shifting cultures.
However, there is not just one history of Georgetown, but three: a history of the construction, a history of theaesthetics and an unfinished history into which today’s students enter, add meaning and further the tale that began in 1789.
After the opening of the Rafik B. Hariri Building, on the eve of the completion of the new science center and as renovations to New South Hall and construction of a new athletic center approach, it is worth revisiting the narratives that have defined the halls and spires of Georgetown University so far.
If Healy Hall is the face of the university, then Old North is the heart.
From its founding to World War II, Georgetown saw the construction of buildings such as Old North and Healy and more contemporary buildings like Copley and White-Gravenor, which were built in the Collegiate Gothic style. During these formative years, the university worked to establish a reputation of excellence and symbolic prestige, an effort that was reflected in its architecture.
“When Old North was built, it was surely one of the grandest works in Washington, after the Capitol Building,” Elizabeth Prelinger, a professor in the Georgetown University art department, wrote in an essay titled “From Her Spires and Steeples Beaming: Mission and Image in Bricks and Stone.”
Construction on Old North began in 1795 with a $400 donation and was completed in 1809 thanks to the help of students, administrators and faculty who all aided in the effort. The building, designed in the Georgian style, originally housed multiple facilities in order to address the university’s land and monetary constraints.
General George Washington visited Old North after the revolutionary war, becoming the first of 13U.S. presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton, to speak from its steps. Decades later during the Civil War, enrollment dropped to an all-time low of 17 students, and many of Old North’s rooms were used as temporary hospitals for soldiers.
According to John Glavin, a professor of English and an expert on Georgetown architecture, Old North was replaced as the university’s flagship building when Healy Hall was constructed. Though he says that the university has tried to undo the overpowering effect of Healy through building a grand staircase and redecorating the interior of Old North and refurbishing Dahlgren Quadrangle, the building no longer retains its former prominence.
Glavin lived in Old North as an undergraduate during the building’s time as a dorm and laments that because of the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, Old North no longer plays an important role in student life.
“[Old North] is no longer easily accessible to the public. … [It is] not part of a student’s ordinaryexperience.”
Few buildings are as synonymous with American higher education as Healy Hall.
The story of Healy can be traced back to University President Patrick Healy, S.J., who served as the first African-American president of a predominately white college from 1873 to 1882. Healy designed the building to face the Capitol and to reflect the Jesuit foundation and presence at the university. The construction of Healy Hall, more than any other building, epitomizes the university’s quest to establish itself.
“Healy is announcing that Georgetown is, or aspires at least to be, a university in the capitol city in the United States. It squarely belongs here, and it is very much a part of the culture of the capitol of the United States,” Georgetown historian Fr. Emmet Curran, S.J., says.
Using bluestone from a Virginia quarry, construction on Healy Hall began in December of 1877. The grand building was designed to house classrooms, offices, a library, a student dormitory and an assembly hall. According to Curran, the architects who designed Healy, J.L. Smithmeyer and Paul J.Pelz, went on to work on the Library of Congress and the Canadian Parliament. The exterior of Healy was completed by 1879, but the interior wasn’t finished for another 20 years.
A constant lack of financial support threatened construction throughout its duration, and as the landmark went up, monetary battles sapped President Healy’s health.
“Patrick Healy broke his health trying to raise the more than $400,000 that it cost. He never came close to raising that,” Curran says.
The debt that the university incurred from the construction also contributed to Georgetown’s consistent financial misfortunes.
“[Healy’s] successor, [Fr. James A. Doonan, S.J.], was left with enormous debt, which he paid off by selling off some property. … There was a debt for decades,” Curran said.
Though Healy lived into the next century, he never recovered from the stress, as if he had transposed his soul into his grand achievement.
“Healy Hall in many ways physically embodies the soul of the school. Its grandeur signaled a new era in both the architectural and the general history of Georgetown, and it has become a visual symbol of the campus and a material embodiment of the ideals of the college,” Prelinger wrote.
By his death in 1910, Healy was already hailed as “the second founder of Georgetown.”
Today, Healy Hall is a National Historical Landmark and still the flagship building of the university. It now houses Gaston Hall, Riggs Library and the Philodemic Room along with classrooms and the office of the university president.
From the clock tower that paces the day to the mosaic seal that affirms students’ reverence for Georgetown, Healy Hall, though not the first building, is the grandest one.
The Jesuit Cemetery
Not all centers of Georgetown history reside within the walls of buildings, and beyond the towering heights of Healy and the elegance of Old North lies the Jesuit cemetery, the burial ground of 350 Jesuit priests.
Fr. Ryan Maher, S.J., associate dean of Georgetown College, said he has fond memories of the cemetery from his time as an undergraduate.
“Even then, and even more now, I loved it,” he said. “I loved it. I think it is because of the Catholic instinct that the dead are not dead.”
University records indicate that on Aug. 16, 1808, the burial of Father Thomas Kelly near the southeast corner of Healy Hall marked the first grave in the cemetery. In 1854, the cemetery was moved to its current location next to the Intercultural Center in order to accommodate the construction of Maguire Hall.
Today, the cemetery remains exclusive to Jesuits and is the final resting place of 16 university presidents.
Even for those who do not share his Catholic imagination, Father Maher recommends the cemetery as a place of contemplation.
“Each gravestone represents a life in service to people and to Georgetown. … It is the perfect place to be quiet and ask as our starting point, ‘What is the point of this university?'” Maher said.
As a dean, he enjoys the cemetery as a place to pray, visits the Jesuits who were most significant in his life and reflects on the idea that we build on what we have inherited.
Looking Towards the Future
After World War II, the university entered a new phase: expansionism.
“[This period] was characterized by the functional, expedient building as Georgetown rapidly expanded the hospital facilities and increased student housing to provide for veterans in search of a college education and the rising number of women on campus,” Prelinger wrote.
At this time of rapid expansion, the university prioritized efficiency, both of speed and cost, in order to accommodate the changing campus. Along with the growth of the student body, the 1950s and 1960ssaw a boom in scientific and research fields.
The combination of a growing student body and research capabilities saw a rise of over a dozen new buildings on campus, including McDonough Arena (1951), New South (1959), Harbin Hall (1965),Lauinger Library (1970), with its much-criticized Brutalism architecture, Villages A through C (1980 – 1986) and the Intercultural Center (1982).
The rapid expansion of the campus sacrificed aesthetic in order to increase cost and building efficiency.
“New South obviously represents the cheapest kind of construction available,” Prelinger wrote. “Harbin Hall was Georgetown’s first high-rise dormitory, reflecting the contemporary hegemony of the skyscraper in American culture. … The building was evidently thought to be sensible in terms ofspace-saving.”
The three narratives of Healy Hall, Old North and the Jesuit cemetery hardly begin to scratch the surface of Georgetown’s storied tradition, and even so, they are still in flux.
Prelinger’s essay on Georgetown’s architecture includes the letter William Gaston, Georgetown’s first student, wrote to his mother after visiting the school for the first time. Gaston remarks, “A more beautiful situation than this in which the [Georgetown] College is, could not be imagined. … Everything that could make it either beautiful or useful, it stands as if it were made on purpose for the erecting of some building.”