Architectural Essays

From “Lafayette College Architecture: In Context” by Robert Saltonstall Mattison. Easton, PA: Friends of Skillman Library, 1991.


In 1909, the celebrated landscape architects Olmsted Brothers were commissioned to do a report on Lafayette College. After praising the college’s topography and grounds, their report continued:

The general aspect of the group of College buildings is, unfortunately, not so admirable. Like most other American colleges which have had a gradual growth, there is a regrettable lack of architectural harmony between most buildings. Surely no reputable architect employed to design these buildings at one time, or during a brief period, would have for a moment considered it desirable or good art to design almost every building in a different style and of several different exterior materials and colors.

Their fame not withstanding, the Olmsted Brothers are wrong. It is variety that makes Lafayette College’s architecture interesting. In fairness to the Olmsteds, it must be said that a great deal more college planning has taken place since their report. The scale, orientation and materials of individual buildings have often been carefully coordinated with those of neighboring structures. The college has established the central campus as its core, with many of its most important buildings surrounding that expanse. Clusters of related buildings, such as the Gates Hall-McKeen Hall complex, have been installed.

At the same time, Lafayette has never sought a dominant architectural manner. The buildings of each period reflect the style and values of that era. This organic development may be contrasted to that of colleges and universities that were planned and built in a short time and to those that deliberately subsume their architectural growth to a single dominant style. Great examples of the former include Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia (1804-17) and, more recently, Meis Van der Rohe’s Illinois Institute of Technology (1939-56). Each campus is the fascinating representation of a single great idea. Campuses that successfully employ historicism as a unifying principle are much less frequent.

Compared to the single-idea campus, Lafayette presents a series of vignettes. Yet these vignettes should not be underestimated. As surely as the books and lectures in our American history classes, they communicate the interests and beliefs of their individual periods. The purpose of this essay is to examine a few of our more distinguished buildings in their historical contexts.

Architectural essays are available for the following buildings:

Colton Chapel
Farinon College Center
Hogg Hall
Kirby Hall
McKelvy House
Pardee Hall
Skillman Library, Simon Wing
Van Wickle Hall