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Old College Hall: If They Could See Her Now!

Our Past - Places

Old College Hall imageApril 17, 1850, the trustees of the newly chartered Tualatin Academy met on what is now the campus of Pacific University to decide where to construct its first academic building, one that would stand as a beacon for the state of education in the fledgling Oregon Territory. It was decided the building would sit on the intersection of the Stokes, Walker, and Clark land claims, roughly 60 feet from the west façade of the modern Marsh Hall. The community joined forces July 4, 1850, in building the structure “with all the traditional festivities of a country barn raising.” The construction continued for at least another week. Pioneer farmer and Tualatin Academy trustee Alvin T. Smith noted in his diary that after having helped lay the building’s foundation in late June, he was helping to erect it on July 8th and 9th. In time, the building, now fondly known as Old College Hall, would serve as Pacific University’s first classroom, as well as a symbol of the community working together towards an egalitarian education.

A two-story wooden structure, with octagonal cupola and two flat-roofed porches, Old College Hall is a shining example of Victorian architecture, and one of the finest adornments to grace Forest Grove’s skyline. Once known simply as the Academy building, Old College Hall is not only the oldest remaining structure in Forest Grove, it’s also the oldest school building in continuous use west of the Rockies. J. M. Keeler led the first class of roughly 30 students held in Price Chapel (south room) in October 1851, and a bell was eventually hung in 1852 that signaled to the public “all manner of school and community activities.” Rev. Sidney Harper Marsh arrived at the school in 1853, and served as its first professional educator. Marsh lived on the unfinished second floor for several years, and used a ladder to go between the classroom and his rustic sleeping quarters.

The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, and after thorough restoration under the direction of Portland architect Alfred Staehli, the building was again opened to the public in 1980. It has the honor of being one of just two Forest Grove structures (the other being the A. T. Smith House) to have been included in the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) in the 1930s, a Federal project to record historically relevant buildings throughout the country.

Old College Hall is an amazing success story; it has stood through threat of fire and three moves during its existence, its last move being in July 2003 to make way for the new library. It began its second life as the Pacific University Museum in 1949, and continues to house a vast amount of material on the foundation of both Tualatin Academy and Pacific University (always separate entities, by the way!) One visit will leave you wanting more. Each exploration of the Hall is a unique trip into Forest Grove’s past. The university docents have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Hall and the University’s founding, and they are always ready to answer any obscure question you may have regarding the history and the objects on display. It’s a must-see location in Forest Grove, and a great place to learn about the city’s history and present.

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About Skip Buhler

I have been interested in Forest Grove's history since moving here ca. 2007 (it was probably 2006, but as I spend most of the time in the nineteenth century, I'm not exactly sure when I arrived). Since then, I have been actively researching the people and places that make this region such a great place. I first got involved with FHFG in 2011 or so, and have served as Board Secretary for many years starting in 2012. I'm an independent art historian, and also have a vinyl record store in town, where my interests in art and history converge.