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In the college’s first decades, Allegheny’s students lived in Bentley Hall and two flimsy wooden dormitories erected in 1833-34. The latter decayed rapidly and were razed in the early 1850s. Enrollment fell during the Civil War but expanded in ensuing decades. President Lucius Bugbee, with the aid of a handsome gift from Marcus Hulings, assured proper housing for women students, first admitted in 1870, with the construction of Hulings Hall in 1879.
Most men students, however, continued to reside in boarding houses scattered about the community. These varied in quality, both in living and dining conditions. An additional concern was that this fractioning of the student body affected the cohesiveness of the institution. The problem was especially acute for entering freshmen, unused to living away from home and susceptible to influences inappropriate for good study and good living. President William Crawford took these concerns to heart and by 1903 was expressing his wish that somehow the College could erect more dormitories and a dining commons.
In April 1904 the president announced that thanks to gifts by Colonel Samuel B. Dick and trustees, the college had acquired the remaining land in the block surrounding the gymnasium and all of the block north of it. Plans were laid for improving the athletic field and for building two small dormitories, an edifice for the preparatory school, and a commons. Funds for all of these were yet to be obtained, but Crawford was confident that the goal could be reached. Initial steps were promptly taken to build the athletic field. In time Alden Academy (now Alden Hall) would be constructed for the preparatory school. Frank A. Arter would pay for the remodeling of a wooden house behind Alden that became the first Arter Hall (also known as Arter House), a dormitory for preparatory students and later for first year male students.
The jewel of the envisioned construction was to be a magnificent commons, costing from twenty-five to thirty thousand dollars. It would hold club rooms, banqueting rooms, guest rooms, and accommodations for boarding between 150 and 200 students. At the time, students enrolled in the preparatory school numbered about 130 and in the college about 250. The student body was excited by these visions, and the Campus proclaimed that “Allegheny’s best days are to come.”
A gift of $25,000 from Andrew Carnegie, premised on a college match of that sum, ensured the building of Alden Academy and the remodeling of Ruter Hall. “Prexy” Crawford knew where to turn for additional support. Sarah B. Cochran of Dawson, Pennsylvania, had initially given to the college because it was Methodist. As she came to know President Crawford, she developed substantial liking for him and trust in him. At one point she gave him full freedom to employ her estate to do whatever he wished at Allegheny. She willingly gave sums for the building of a gymnasium annexed to Hulings Hall. In 1905 announcement came that she was donating $50,000 for the construction of a commons dormitory that was to be the “most magnificent” building of the College.
The first week of May 1905 the groundbreaking ceremony took place. After Tuesday morning chapel, the classes marched in order, seniors first, across the street to the site, all singing class and college songs. After a number of rousing college yells, the president of the senior class took charge of the proceedings. Retired professor Jonathan Hamnett ’39 turned the first spade of earth, after which each class and then the prep students took turns plowing a furrow (How many students today could do this?). At the conclusion of the ceremonies, the students took up a collection to purchase Dr. Hamnett’s spade so that it might be placed in the College museum (its current whereabouts are unknown). On 19 June 1907, Bishop William F. McDowell officially laid the hall’s cornerstone.
The dedication of the building on Thursday, 23 April 1908, was a grand affair. At 3:00 p.m. hundreds of college and local dignitaries crowded Ford Chapel. Flavia Davis Porter offered several pieces on the organ, and missionary alumnus and bishop James Mills Thoburn ’57 led the prayers. The speaker of the day was Jonathan P. Dolliver, senator from Iowa, who praised Mrs. Cochran and commented that “by this gift she makes herself a part of the work of this institution from generation to generation.” Reverend Joseph D. Brison, Mrs. Cochran’s pastor in Dawson, formally presented the keys of the hall to the college, which were in turn accepted by trustee Theodore Flood. President Crawford also spoke. After Dr. Hamnett’s benediction, the multitude proceeded to the new hall, where Mrs. Cochran unlocked its doors. In doing so, the Campus wrote, she “opened a new and vaster future for coming generations and made possible an effectiveness and scope in the work of Allegheny College hitherto a far away vision.” Her message to the students was “Tell them I think they are all perfectly lovely. I am so glad to give this nice building to such a splendid company of young men, and I want all the students to enjoy it always.”
The building was a handsome achievement. Though President Crawford’s early cost estimate was $25 to $30,000, in the end some $65,000 were spent; about $5,000 of this was for furnishings. Cochran Hall’s frontage on North Main Street required 120 feet. A superstructure of red brick, trimmed with terra cotta, stood atop five feet of range-work of Berea stone. The two floors had high ceilings, and the 12-foot-high basement was intended in effect to provide a third story. The depth of the building was 80 feet, providing 9,600 square feet on each floor, or a total of 28,800 square feet. Eight steps thirty feet long led to an entrance loggia seven feet deep with large columns sporting square brick backs and fluted terra cotta fronts. Three iron lamps of the Strozzi style from Florence lighted the entranceway, and the stone plinths at each end of the steps held electric torches.
A heavy style was predominant. Substantial terra cotta trimmings appeared above the range work. Several Roman-style arched windows, stone window sills, French plate glass, and red roof tile were utilized. The main entrance hall, 40 feet by 27 feet deep, was in the old English style. A broad fireplace stood at the back. Large support columns, archways, and deep overhead beam-work were other features. Plaster areas were done in buff. At the rear of the entrance hall were a porter’s room, a cloakroom, and a lavatory.
A splendid 40-foot wide dining room in Italian villa style occupied the south end of the building, running its entire 80-foot depth. It could accommodate fifteen tables each seating ten persons. This oak room had sidewalls of oak paneling. Oak pilasters and columns were fluted. At the east end of the room a deep fireplace was flanked by window seats. Above it ran a gallery with a handsome railing across the width of the room, to be used by spectators or an orchestra. At its south end a staircase extended to the Young Men’s Christian Association rooms in the basement and up past the gallery to the dormitory rooms on the second floor. The ceiling consisted primarily of massive, molded oak beam-work, with occasional small panels of rough plaster. Flooring was of narrow oak.
The hard floor kitchen stood behind the central entrance hall with serving doors both to the south and north. The room serviced to the north was the club dining room, spacious but smaller than the main dining room, finished like the south room but not on as massive a scale, with red ceiling panels. A lounging room occupied the northwest corner of the first floor. Finished in the oak wood style of the other rooms, all its furnishings were leather upholstered. Persian rugs covered the floor, in the middle of which stood a large reading table. The ceiling finish was heavy oak cornice, the prevailing color tone dark green.
The second floor contained rooms for thirty men. Ten rooms had private baths, and there were two general baths, one with a shower. Three suites were built each with a sleeping room, private bath, and a private study. Two guest suites were also provided. Some of the single rooms interconnected in case more suites were desired, and each had a closet, heat, hot and cold water, and connections for both gas and electric lighting. The rooms opened onto a large corridor that ran the length of the building with large windows at each end. Flooring on this level was of rift-sawed pine. From the dormitory level the kitchen could be reached by a back staircase, a circumstances that soon warranted the placement of a stout wooden door at its top to deter night-time snack raiders.
The basement held an L-shaped recreation room. A shuffle board deck crossed much of its north end, and the longer dimension housed two bowling alleys. In the center were an employees’ bath room, cold storage and furnace rooms. The south end of the basement, with its own entrance, housed the YMCA with a main hall finished like the balance of the building and a fireplace at its east end with window seats at each side. A cloakroom and a committee room were also present. Cypress was used for flooring on this level.
Throughout much attention was given to detail. Solid wood was employed and veneer avoided. Heavy plain brass was used for door locks and lighting fixtures. A steam-heat vapor system provided central heating.
It was a fine building, at the time even perhaps the finest dormitory at any American college as the local press proclaimed. The sixth major building completed under President Crawford’s leadership, Cochran Hall brought significant change to the campus and its culture, enough so that at its completion faculty and students alike began talking of the “New Allegheny.” The College was indeed changing, and its newness reflected not only new buildings but also curricular changes, including abandonment of graduate courses and concentration on undergraduate education, a separation of the preparatory function from college activities, and enhancement of the sciences. Student life was changing in other ways. The literary societies that had so long dominated the life of the college were faltering, replaced by a vibrant YMCA and growing interest in athletic teams and fraternities.
Cochran Hall with its amenities quickly brought an end to the careers of the scattered boarding clubs. Student life became increasingly focused on campus and away from the town. Non-fraternity students now had opportunity to gather together to dine and to develop wider friendships. Freshmen in particular were expected to eat at Cochran, and in so doing developed greater cohesiveness as a class. Finally, men had opportunity to enjoy special dinners and gatherings just as had College women since the completion of Hulings Hall in 1879.
Further expansion of the College in the next years would lessen some of the impact of Cochran Hall on the cohesiveness of the institution. The decline of the YMCA led to new institutions dominating the basement floor, the infamous grill and more recently the bookstore and print shop until 2003-04. Blasts of cold air into the entrance hall led to construction of an ugly wooden vestibule about the main entrance that has scarred its appearance for over four decades. The fine dining hall so fondly remembered by many alumni was abandoned and eventually fashioned into the college post office. The club room and lounge were briefly offices for the sociology department, though various attempts were made to return the lounge to its earlier purpose, either for faculty or students. The second floor became the home of the student government until it moved to Henderson Campus Center in 1971. During the 1960s the college radio station moved in as did the English Department a few years later — not always the most congenial rooming assignment. Though tattered and worse for wear, Cochran Hall as it approached its centennial, by virtue of its central location, post office, and bookstore remained a vibrant center of student life.
A gift of Patricia Bush Tippie ’56 and Henry B. Tippie to the Tradition and Transformation campaign of the first decade of the twenty-first century is now restoring luster to the old jewel while refurbishing it as an alumni center. The bookstore, post office, and radio station have moved to an expanded Campus Center, and the English Department to the former Odd Fellows Home. Work begun in 2004 will assure that much of the first floor and western exterior will replicate the building’s original appearance. Redesign of the east side of the hall provides for a columned entrance to replace the off-set, make-shift loading area. On the second floor additional offices for the alumni and development offices will fill the center of the previously U-shaped floor. The former parking lot is to return to grass and walkways. Cochran Hall is taking on new life even as it restates the beauty and significance of its early years.
J. E. Helmreich, College Historian
Excerpted from Through All the Years: A History of Allegheny College