Sunday Feature: Trinity College and the Old Campus

Garrett Kirk ’24

News Editor

When many think of Trinity College, they think of areas on campus such as Vernon Street, the Long Walk, and Summit Street. However, there are some who may be surprised to learn that the College was previously located on different grounds than it currently rests today.

Motivated by ensuring that religion was not a factor in admission (at the time, Yale’s dominant Congregationalism presented religious conflict), the Rev. Thomas Church Brownell drafted a proposal for the College in 1823. At the time of its founding, it was known as “Washington College.” As Glenn Weaver notes, Brownell was weary of the fact that an Episcopalian institution might be established in another state, and wanted to make certain “that the State of Connecticut shall have the benefit of its location.”

The location for which the College would be located was largely dependent on which area of the state could provide the best financing. New Haven, New London, Middletown, and Hartford were all considered. Hartford was able to secure the vote of the board of trustees after donating a sum of $20,000. The committee appointed by the Board of Trustees decided on a location in downtown Hartford, which is where the site of the Connecticut State Capitol is presently located.

While construction began in 1823, courses began in a building known as the Baptist Meeting House, and the nine students of the first class were met with meager rented surroundings at the corner of Market and Temple streets in Hartford. The College had a tentative goal of erecting the chapel as well as their College infrastructure for May of 1825, but this objective was stalled and did not meet its initial deadline. When initial construction finished, the Chapel and College architecture was impressive in comparison to other structures of the time, with the chapel standing at three stories and the primary College building at four stories. Construction continued as funds were continuously allocated to the College’s architecture, and the resulting structures on the Old Campus included Jarvis Hall, Seabury Hall, and Brownell Hall.

At the old campus, a small river, the “Hog,” flowed by campus, and boating was a regular diversion among the student body. Likewise, notes Weaver, the College as it grew had considerable space. Brownell Hall included “thirty-eight student rooms, a recitation hall, and an apartment to be occupied by a Professor and his family.” The total frontage of the new buildings, Weaver added, had “extended to 450 feet.”

That spaciousness lasted briefly, however, for as the College grew, new needs were found. The College had “made no provision for dining, and the boarding houses were still patronized by most of the students,” according to Weaver. Among them, the Franklin Club, grew to be a popular place for Trinity students until 1845. The library on the Old Campus, the Athenaeum, was also a frequent gathering place for students.

In the early 1870s, the State of Connecticut proposed the idea of Trinity changing its location so that the state could use the area to house a new Capitol building, moving from their quarters in the Old State House on Main Street. When the proposal was heard by the Trustees, it was first voted down, as they could not fathom parting with the land that had been a staple of the College’s history for so many years. Despite this initial dismissal, the Trustees eventually came around to the idea. Upon hearing the staggering offer of $600,000 from the state, the proposal was accepted by a twelve-to-four majority.

Thus, in 1872, the College agreed to sell the land to the state of Connecticut, but the transaction was not finalized until 1878. After moving into new quarters in the new Seabury Hall and Jarvis Hall, the College rebuilt and grew at its new home. With the College also moved the statue of its founder, Bishop Brownell, which was installed on the Old Campus in his memory in November 1869. The College flourished at its new location in Frog Hollow, with enrollment numbers steadily climbing, and alumni have grown to cherish those first buildings completed in the design of the master plan laid out by William Burges

This change eventually occurred in the realm of faith as well. Despite the religious strife that had led to the College’s genesis, the College became increasingly secular, slowly shifting away from its Episcopalian roots. The first domino in this change came with the dissolution of the College’s relationship with Connecticut’s Diocese. In 1892, the College President at the time, George William Smith, began the canonical journey of secular transformation, and by 1894, “Trinity College had been legally secularized.” Even so, the original Chapel at the new campus (in Seabury Hall) was well-attended, and the College later saw the construction of the gothic new Chapel in the 1930s.

Today, the Old Campus is but a memory to the denizens of Trinity. Adjacent to the State Capitol, “Trinity Street” reminds us of the College’s old location overlooking what would later become Bushnell Park. Likewise, an original stone from Brownell Hall was incorporated into the construction of the Downes Memorial Clocktower. Still, we can remember fondly that with the growth of Hartford so, too, was the growth of our small College, changing and adapting with the tides of history.

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