During commencement exercises in 1898, plans for a college library building were announced. Until that time, sections of Pardee Hall, together with a reading room in South College, had served as the college’s library. Money for the new library was donated by Augustus S. Van Wickle, son-in- law of Ario Pardee. The design for Van Wickle Memorial Library was executed by John McArthur Harris of Wilson Brothers and Company, a large Philadelphia engineering and architectural firm. The original building was completed in 1900 and named for its benefactor.
An additional stack room was added to the north side of Van Wickle in 1913. In 1938, this area was further expanded with an entire wing, and the Victorian library of Lafayette benefactor Fred Kirby, which had been removed from his home, was reconstructed and added to the western end. In 1963, with the construction of the David Bishop Skillman Library, Van Wickle became home to the geology department. The original Van Wickle was built in the Romanesque Revival style, to which all the additions have adhered.
The later 1870s and 1880s in American architecture were dominated by a single individual–Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-86). Richardson developed a style of architecture subsequently called Romanesque Revival. While studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the 1860s, Richardson had traveled to Southern France and had been particularly impressed by the Romanesque architecture built about the year 1000. Upon returning to America and setting up practice in Boston and New York, Richardson adapted this style to such projects as Trinity Church (1872-77). His buildings took on a heaviness and ruggedness that echoed the original Romanesque.
Specifically, Romanesque Revival featured low solid buildings with asymmetrically balanced wings. The stone masonry was roughly cut, emphasizing the organic nature of the structure. Horizontal bands of windows were simply arranged. Cavernous entrances formed by round Romanesque arches emphasized the solidity and security represented by the buildings. Romanesque Revival buildings were definitively capped by single sweeping roof lines.
Richardson’s architectural discoveries were ideally suited to the mood of America after the upheaval of the Civil War and during the difficult period of industrialization. The country sought security following the post-war euphoria of the Grant years, and this architecture seemed to say, “I will be here forever and I will shelter and protect you.” While Romanesque Revival relied for its construction on money from the industrial barons who made their fortunes in the wake of the war, it decried industry. It used traditional materials, made historical references and relied on Old World craftsmanship. In addition, its organic appearance called forth references to nature more than to technology, and expressed ambivalence about our rapid transformation from an agrarian to an industrial society.
One of the most important types of Romanesque Revival buildings was the small-town public library. Major examples by Richardson include the Ames Memorial Library (1877-79, North Easton, Massachusetts) and the Crane Library (1880-83, Quincy, Massachusetts). These town libraries embraced an American democratic ideal: self-betterment through learning. It is this specific tradition in which Van Wickle Hall participates. Before additions, the building consisted of a single longitudinal mass bisected by the gabled entrance. The entrance clearly expresses its location and purpose. The gabled roof makes it a commanding introduction to the lobby of the original library, and the heavy round Richardsonian arch proclaims the security to be found within. To either side of the entrance the high, horizontal bands of windows express the function of those areas as stack and reading rooms. They allow adequate light from overhead and reflect the linear ordering of library books.
Van Wickle Hall is organic, although by no means as rugged as Richardson’s buildings. Its foundation of buff rough-cut stone extends, connecting it to the ground like a man-made mountain. The walls of Pompeian brick are more refined, as perhaps suits a collegiate building, but also natural in their warm, tawny color. The beautiful terra-cotta decoration also contains intertwined floral patterns as well as such symbols of learning as open books. The heavy roof caps the building like a mountain top. The roof originally contained Richardson’s signature eyebrow dormers, which gave the impression that massive organic forces were pushing up sections of the roof. Someday these important features of the building may be restored.
The additions to Van Wickle Hall are hidden from the main facade and have not harmed its original appearance. The interior still contains handsome round arches with gargoyles in the lobby and oak wainscot and paneling. A lavish stained glass window, perhaps designed by Tiffany and Company and originally the focus of the west wing, is now nearly concealed amid offices in the east wing. In Van Wickle “Memorial Library” we may read many of the value judgments about nature and culture, as well as about history and modernity, that were being made in late 19th-century America.
From “Lafayette College Architecture: In Context” by Robert Saltonstall Mattison. Easton, PA: Friends of Skillman Library, 1991.