Union’s campus turns 200: Joseph Ramée and the creation of this historic campus


By Matt Olson

Union can in part owe its campus to the War of 1812, Napoleon’s rule in Europe and to David Parish, a wealthy financial banker.

Joseph Ramée, the designer of the historic Union campus, was born in France in 1764.  Architect Francois Belanger trained him in the 1780s, but  was forced to move often due to many conflicts arising in France during the Revolution of 1789.  He moved around most of Europe, while continuing his architectual practice for several years until receiving word from David Parish.

In 1810, Ramée spent his last years in France before leaving for the United States in 1812.  Parish was a financial businessman who had purchased a large amount of land along the St. Lawrence River.

However, the War of 1812 severely altered Parish’s plans, which left Ramee in America with little work.  In January of 1813, Ramee travelled to Schenectady and was introduced to President Eliphalet Nott.

Ramée would travel to Schenectady a few more times to overview the construction of North and South Colleges.  The original plans of the design are on display in Schaffer Library, where they have been since 1932.

Ramée did not succeed in finding other work in Schenectady after Union, but did enter his idea for a Washington Monument, which was rejected on the basis of having an American designer instead.

Ramée’s plans called for the current North and South College, as well as an open space for the “center” of campus.  This, of course, would later be filled with the Nott Memorial, initially named “Graduates’ Hall.”  The Plan also called for a spacious garden, which would in turn be named after professor Isaac Jackson.  The Garden was completed some thrity years after the initial plans for the College.

The Nott Memorial was always intended as having a domed rotunda, but never to become the magnificent symbol of college architecture that it has become today.  Eliphalet Nott designated Edward Tuckerman Potter with the design and construction of the building.  After Nott’s death in 1866, Potter diverted from Nott’s original plans and made the Memorial his own creation.

The Nott Memorial, as many people do not know, was designed as a chapel to interconnect all major faiths—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  However, the unusual design of the building made this purpose impractical, and the building idly stood as no practical purpose for it could be found.

After the death of both Nott and Ramée, the College began creating new buildings that did not necessarily fit the vision of the campus.  Silliman Hall was erected in 1900, followed by ten buildings for fraternities on campus.

Although the College has added many buildings to accommodate the increasing number of students attending Union, the initial plan of North and South College still exist, in the form of four Minerva houses (Wold, Messa, Sorum and Green) as well as the Taylor Music Center, Visual Arts center and Hale House.

These neoclassical structures have served as the foundation for the creation of Lippman Hall, Humanities, Schaffer Library, Wold Science Center and almost every other building on campus.

The banners hanging around campus are a signal of the historical significance of the campus.  The campus was the first one architectually planned in the history of the United States, and the original designs have remained relatively unchanged during those 200 years.

Beginning in 2013, tour guides will be giving special tours focusing on the history of the campus, as well as its significance to the development of Union College.The Ramée Plans will be the foundation of the College throughout its existence as an institution of higher learning.  Without them, perhaps the College never would have blossomed into the liberal arts powerhouse it is today.

And for that, French architect Joseph Jacques-Ramée, Eliphalet Nott, and the War of 1812 will forever be linked to this campus.




Leave a Reply