A College On A Hill: Saint Martin’s University Old Main Nears 100th Anniversary

saint martins university
This image shows the original main building on the Saint Martin’s campus under construction in 1895. It would house the school from 1895 to 1913 and continue to be used until demolition in 1923. Photo courtesy Saint Martin’s University, Ted Yearian photo.


Submitted by Jennifer Crooks, Saint Martin’s University intern to ThurstonTalk

saint martins university
This photograph depicts the 1913 building. The signature statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, designed by Seattle artist Charles Biber would be added in 1919, commissioned to commemorate the first layman’s retreat in Washington which was held at Saint Martin’s in 1918. Photo courtesy Saint Martin’s University collection, Ted Yearian photo.

“The scenery about our college is certainly superb and magnificent [with] perpetual springs surrounding it. Its position on the ‘volcanic’ hill is a commanding one—a college…on a hill that cannot be hid—and overlooking the mighty picturesque forest of fir and cedar.”

—Father Benedict Schmidt, letter to Abbot Peter, Lacey, December 1896

November 2013 marks the centennial anniversary of the construction of the first part of the main building on the Saint Martin’s University campus, fondly nicknamed “Old Main.” Such an old building is special because so few structures of that age have survived in Thurston County.

Saint Martin’s University began in 1895 after Benedictine monks from Saint John’s Abbey of Collegeville, Minnesota bought Section 16 in what is now Lacey for $6,920. They chose the name of Saint Martin’s for the school, after Saint Martin of Tours (c. 316-397).  A large building was soon constructed by Tacoma architect Joseph McCabe. This building opened for classes on September 11, 1895—however, only one student arrived and he was late. This was Angus McDonald of Shelton. Angus was the sole student for several months, but was taught all classes as if there were full attendance.

After such a rocky start, Saint Martin’s steadily expanded.  With all this growth, the school decided that they needed a new main building to better accommodate students. In 1912 a plan was approved for a structure that would be situated in front of the 1895 building. Planning and design were supervised by Tacoma architect C. Frank Mahon. Ground was broken on February 10, 1913 and construction completed in the fall. In total, the cost of construction would be around $75,000. Sunday, November 16, 1913 saw the solemn blessing and dedication of the building. Over 700 people attended the ceremonies, including the governor.

saint martins university
This image shows the original main building on the Saint Martin’s campus under construction in 1895. It would house the school from 1895 to 1913 and continue to be used until demolition in 1923. Photo courtesy Saint Martin’s University, Ted Yearian photo.

The new building was 200 by 60 feet in Collegiate Gothic style, and consisted of four stories made of brick and concrete. The basement story held science labs and lecture rooms, two social halls, private shower baths, a barbershop, stationary department and confectionary store. Restrooms and cloakrooms were accessible from the porticos on the north side of the building. The first floor held administrative offices, parlors, guestrooms and two large study halls. The second floor had eight classrooms on the south side and nineteen private rooms for boarders on the other side. The top floor had two large dormitories with toilet area, locker room, and several private rooms. The 1895 building was not abandoned and served as campus dining room, kitchen and chapel, as well as “faculty” housing.

This building would become the front wing of the current Old Main building that faces Pacific Avenue. It was touted as a “thoroughly modern” building and in many ways it was. Private rooms had hot/cold running water, steam heat, and electric lights. Old Main was equipped with a sprinkler system. The heating plant and boiler that provided heat to most buildings on campus was located outside Old Main to reduce fire risk.

By 1919 there were over 200 students at the school. This increasing enrollment called for an addition to the 1913 building. In the summer of 1919 foundations were dug for a new west wing. However, it would not be until 1923 that the addition would be completed because of the hefty $300,000 price tag. The school fundraised in various ways, such as the November 1919 “Buy a Brick” campaign, to raise money. Monks and students sold bricks showing an etching of “Greater Saint Martin’s” with the phrase “Buy a Brick” on the reverse.

On June 20, 1923 students and staff were able to move into the new west wing. Although it matched the 1913 “south wing,” the addition offered broader halls, larger rooms, and higher ceilings. No longer needed, the original 1895 building was demolished.

saint martins university
This postcard of Old Main shows the 1923 addition to the 1913 building. Although the surrounding area has changed greatly, the outside of the building has remained basically the same to the present day. Photo courtesy private collection.

Many smaller improvements were made to Old Main over time.  The Saint Martin’s Mother’s Club raised money to build the 1926 Grand Staircase in front of the building. The summer of 1926 also saw other changes. Basement corridors were painted, showers remodeled and a ventilation system added. In addition, the road to the hill had been graded to create a gentler incline.

The second half of the 20th century also brought changes as well as continuity to Old Main and the college campus. In 1965 the Student Union Building was constructed, which soon became a hub for student activity. In November 1975, the bookstore was relocated to Old Main with a “[g]rand opening sale next Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday—everything but class rings reduced on those days by 10%,” according to the weekly Pipeline newsletter. In 1976 smoking was banned in classrooms and hallways.

Extensive renovation of Old Main began in 1993 when the roof was reconstructed. Work was accelerated after a fire on November 15, 1994 in the basement kitchen’s dishwasher room caused over a million dollars in damage. Further renovation was done in 2009 when St. Gertrude’s Café, the main campus dining area, was built on the first floor. This year, on April 22, the blessing and dedication of a new elegant courtyard behind Old Main took place. This area was named for Father Alfred Hulscher, prior of Saint Martin’s Abbey.

Old Main, with all its rich history, has continued to be a vital part of Saint Martin’s University life to the present day. It remains the center of campus activity and student learning.

Further Reading

Scott, John C. This Place Called Saint Martin’s, 1895-1995: A Centennial History of Saint Martin’s College and Abbey, Lacey, Washington. (Virginia Beach, VA: Donning Co. Publishers, 1996).

Between the Years, 1894-1945 (Lacey, WA: Saint Martin’s College, 1945.)


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