Willamette University’s Waller Hall turns 150

Kaylyn F. Mabey, Special to the Statesman Journal
Published 1:32 p.m. PT Oct. 12, 2017

Building named after missionary who raised money over a decade for its construction.

There’s an old historic temple rising grandly through the years

Where the oaken hearted fathers drew their strength for strong careers;

In 1864, due in large part to the Herculean efforts of the Rev. Alvan Waller, a pioneer missionary, a grand building was begun on the campus of what would become Willamette University.

Originally named University Hall, the building was more affectionately known on campus as the historic temple.

Long before the first shovel of dirt was overturned, Rev. Waller was scouring the countryside to secure donations for its construction.

Waller had come to the Willamette Valley with the Great Reinforcement of Methodist missionaries in 1839 on the ship Lausanne. After his initial assignment to the Oregon City area, he was relocated to Salem where he was tasked with the duty to support and further education at the Oregon Institute, fore-runner of Willamette University. While serving as an agent for the school, he took upon himself the fundraising and oversight of the University Hall building project.

His days were spent as a circuit rider, driving his one-horse buggy throughout the Willamette Valley preaching and conducting weddings and funerals. Mostly though, he had his hand out for donations to finance what at the time was considered a rather grand building project. So devoted was he to this task that he sold books to support himself while traveling so that each donation received for the new building went untouched. After more than a decade of collecting funds, Waller had raised close to $40,000 to aid in construction costs. He would continue to raise money for the university until his death in December 1872.

Construction on the building began with a basement, dug by the hands of many laborers. Then a solid stone foundation was set in place. The clay soil removed from the basement produced 500,000 bricks, which were molded by hand and fired in a kiln built on site. The building was designed in the form of a Greek cross at the suggestion of Bishop E.S. Janes of the Methodist Episcopal church. The two parts of the cross measured at 84 feet long and 44 feet wide and cross each other exactly in the center. Its height measured 100 feet, five stories from basement to attic.

The strong brick walls were built to a depth of 30 inches on the first floor and decreased slightly with each level. Material was abundant, labor inexpensive, and Waller “was a builder for a thousand years” according to Willamette president Carl G. Doney who would later oversee the restoration of the building after a devastating fire in 1921 gutted the interior yet left the massive foundation and brick walls standing.

In its earliest days, University Hall housed the entire university. The building held a chapel, lecture halls, classrooms, an apparatus or chemistry room, medical and surgical departments, library, dining room, a parlor and ladies reception room, dormitory and dressing rooms. Calisthenics and gymnastics were carried out in the spacious attic.

Dear old School! How strong we love thee! ‘Round thy mem’ries how we cling!

Glad some hearts beneath thy shadows, loyal hearts to thee we bring.

The building officially was dedicated in October 1867, making it 150 years old this month. Angie Grubbe Engle, a member of the class of 1868 described the proceedings that included a procession of students to the chapel: “We were ushered into the large chapel, where, on the rostrum at the farther end of the hall, sat the Faculty, Trustees, and many friends of the University, who, in kind words, gave us a hearty welcome.”

It must have been a proud moment for Waller to see his dream of the grand building come to fruition.

MORE: Find past Salem history stories. 

In 1883, student James T. Matthews was persuaded to apply to Willamette in part because of the enticing prints of University Hall in the 1882-1883 catalog. His first view of the building did not disappoint. Upon stepping off the train from Portland, he walked the length of the five-board fence surrounding campus looking for a gate. He described his experience in these words: “Only one building on campus, the tall stately edifice that we now call Waller Hall. You see I was used to plain and humble fare. This was the first college or university hall I had ever seen, and for all I knew, the gods and goddesses of science and classics might hold sacred carnival there, drinking nectar and eating the ambrosia that confers immortality.”

In 1912, the building was renamed Waller Hall in appreciation for Alvan Waller, whose vision, oversight and fundraising efforts brought it to life. It was a huge undertaking for the pioneer town at the time, and for nearly a half century after it was built, it dominated not only the Willamette campus, but the Salem skyline.

Next time you drive by the beautiful old building on State Street across from the State Capitol, wish it a happy 150th birthday. With Willamette University’s tender care, perhaps it will last the thousand years it was built for.

Sing, oh sing of Dear Willamette, Sign while hearts are young and true,

Sea to sea the chorus swelling, Dear Old School of our W.U.

Kaylyn Mabey is the curatorial assistant at the Willamette Heritage Center, a non-profit, 5-acre museum in Salem that preserves and interprets the history of the Mid-Willamette Valley. For more information visitwww.willametteheritage.org.

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