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Rebirth of North Hall

North Hall

A rendering of the outside renovation of North Hall from architecture firm MacLachlan, Cornelius & Filoni, which includes solar panels on the roof. Once completed (scheduled for late August 2012), the structure will be the oldest LEED Gold-certified building in the country.

Marie Wolf ’53 said, “As a freshman I lived in North, which lent itself to community living. There was a common room on each floor; it was a place where we could hang out—talk, play bridge, etc. There was no need to meet in our small rooms. Each hall was very separate. We were known as the ‘Bingle’ girls, fourteen in all. It really was a wonderful binding place…North set a tone of what Antioch is all about.”

North was the first building to be completed in time for Antioch’s opening in 1853. Horace Mann, his wife, Mary, and their three children lived crammed together in three of its rooms until they found more commodious quarters while waiting for the President’s House to be finished. When the Manns finally had a place of their own, it had no well, so President Mann and his three sons had to haul water from a cistern in North until one was dug, over a year later.

While living in North, Mann gave his inaugural address to over 3,000 people who overwhelmed Yellow Springs to attend the opening of the College. The speech was a real doozy. More than two hours long, Mann covered everything from the creation of the world to the devastating effects of licentiousness, alcohol, and tobacco. Mary Mann reported that eight to ten babies cried during the entire speech and a leading Unitarian minister, Rev. T. Starr King, said it contained enough inspiration to make a college flourish in the Sahara.

Meanwhile, Alpheus Marshall Merrifield, a leader in the Christian Connexion, the liberal Christian sect that founded the College, was feverously trying to complete the campus buildings. A builder from Massachusetts, he conned people in Ohio into believing he was an architect and was put in charge of planning, designing, and constructing the Antioch campus.

Merrifield’s original plan was to connect the main building, Antioch Hall, to the North and South dormitories by an elaborate two-story colonnade marked by a series of arched openings. The design was based on the look of Davis Hall of the Worcester Academy in Massachusetts, which in turn was based on the design of the Smithsonian Institution building in Washington, DC. However, the College ran out of money before the colonnades could be built. As it was, the campus buildings cost $120,000 instead of the $50,000 first estimated by Merrifield. The cost overrun was one of the factors that led to Antioch going bankrupt in 1858. (Merrifield unjustly blamed Horace Mann for the economic mess and almost succeeded in getting him fired—but that’s another story.)

Greek Revival Privies

In 1975, North Hall, along with South and Main, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and was cited for having strong elements of Greek Revival architecture. Maybe so, but William Boyd Alexander was blunt about the building in the February 1938 issue of the Antioch College Bulletin.

“The Antioch dormitories,” he wrote, “which are merely rectangular, gabled blocks, have no architectural pretensions.”

And truth be told, attached to North’s south-facing wall was a four-story brick privy, which was not dismantled until plumbing was installed in the early 1920s.

But never mind how North looks. What’s important is what it represented when it was built.

At a time when most American institutions of higher learning would not accept women, North Hall was built specifically to be a women’s dormitory, proof in brick and mortar that the Christian Connexion and Horace Mann all meant what they said: Antioch would be a co-educational college, along with being non-sectarian and open to all, regardless of race.

But having a building on campus symbolizing equality did not necessarily mean there was true equality on the Antioch campus.

Women’s rights

In 1852, a year before the College was to open, a committee of Christian Connexion leaders explicitly stated that Antioch would be “a non-sectarian College of high rank,” and that it would offer an excellent education “in equal opportunities for students of both sexes.”

Horace Mann seemed absolutely opposed to the generally held belief that the female brain was biologically and intellectually inferior. For example, as a condition of accepting the presidency, Mann insisted that Rebecca Pennell be on the first faculty and that she be paid a salary equal to the male professors.

Antioch received hundreds of applications from students wanting to enter the new college. Only fifteen, including three women, were able to meet Mann’s high standards for admission to the first class.

But the Antioch student body gradually swelled, in part due to the number of women students who transferred from Oberlin College to the north of Antioch. Oberlin was the first college in America to admit women, but once there they were confined to the “Ladies Department,” which offered a very limited program. The women transferees were sure that Antioch would walk the walk of offering them a truly equal education, not just talk the talk like Oberlin.

After they became Antioch students, however, the women discovered they had to fight for equal treatment.

One of the earliest female Antioch students was Olympia Brown, who later became a Universalist minister and the first woman in America to be ordained by a regularly constituted religious body. As a minister, she worked to advance women’s suffrage and equality.

As an Antioch student, she joined with others to fight for the right of female students to have physical education, to be allowed to make public speeches and presentations, and to be allowed to memorize and deliver academic papers without having to read them. She and other female students also fought for the right to wear a garment designed by Amelia Bloomer. It was comfortable, practical, and scandalous because the skirt reached only halfway down the shin and allowed great freedom of movement.

Brown wrote in her memoir that Horace Mann had “some anxiety” over co-education and that “on one occasion he sent for Rebecca Rice, one of my classmates, and asked if she thought that the education of women would lead to their wishing to enter professions. She replied that such was her opinion. He told her that if he thought as she did, he should think he was doing very wrong in remaining the head of a co-educational school.”

“Despite his beliefs [Mann] still behaved like a man of his time, and was hardly prepared to turn educated women loose upon the world,” Antioch archivist Scott Sanders said. “…the founders based the College on the premise that women had the capacity to be educated alongside men, [but] they just didn’t really believe it. But they attracted students that did.”

Instead of transferring out, as many had done in reaction to Oberlin’s policies, Antioch female students decided to stay and struggle. North Hall, because it was the women’s dorm, became a sort of “hot bed” of rebellion at Antioch, filled with residents fighting to make the College president and faculty live up to what they said were their beliefs.

Always in the forefront

From the day Antioch opened to the day North Hall was closed, it was more than just a dorm—it was a center of life at Antioch. During World War II, when Antioch suffered from a lack of students, President Algo Henderson tried to fill the College’s coffers by offering sections of North Hall to the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). He hoped that the ASTP would pay the College to house soldiers in North while they attended College classes. For three months the Army did just that, but then withdrew from the campus, citing inadequate plumbing and lack of chlorine in the water.

They seem childish now, and they were, but toilet seat raids on North by male students livened up campus life, especially in the 1940s and ‘50s. These were often carefully planned forays that required great stealth and careful timing. In the fall of 1953, pranksters carried out the most famous of all john seat raids. They managed to string toilet seats from North between the towers of Main building. It would take a psychologist or sociologist to explain exactly what such hijinks said about how males and females related to each other back then, but by all accounts the community, both men and women, enjoyed them.

North Hall has always been a place where Antioch students—both women and men—have learned lessons in living, especially about relating to people of other genders. This was true when it was an all-female dormitory and when the College policy changed to allow mixed halls (and rooms).

In 1953, a fire swept through North and almost gutted it. It did not take long, however, for the College to renovate the building, and put it back into use in better shape than it was before the fire. And a few years after that, Antioch’s enrollment grew to the highest levels in its history.

Today, North Hall is once again being renovated and it will be better than ever when the job is done. If precedents mean anything, when North Hall comes back to life, it will be a sure sign, in brick and mortar, that Antioch—the real Antioch—is here to stay.

Scott Sanders, Antioch College archivist, contributed to this article.