You are here
University of Alabama
The Main Quadrangle and Woods Quadrangle directly behind it are the heart of the University of Alabama campus. Officially established in 1820, it was not until 1827 that the university’s board of trustees raised sufficient funds to construct a campus. By then, the trustees had considered thirteen different locations before choosing Tuscaloosa, the recently designated state capital with a population of only 1,500 inhabitants. The board hired state architect William Nichols, who was living in Tuscaloosa while supervising the construction of the new capitol building. Nichols had previously served as the state architect of North Carolina, where he had remodeled that state’s capitol and governor’s mansion in Raleigh and had designed and several buildings for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His University of Alabama campus was based in part on his previous work at the University of North Carolina, but differed in that he borrowed from Thomas Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia campus at Charlottesville (VA-01-CH28).
Nichols’s plan provided for a campus on Huntsville Road (now University Boulevard), over a mile from downtown Tuscaloosa—the aim was to reduce the temptations and distractions of town. Buildings for classrooms and for housing students and faculty members and their families were arranged around the sides of a parklike green or common. As in Jefferson’s plan, a rotunda library was the focal point of the campus.
In 1860 the board of trustees inaugurated a military form of governance in an attempt to solve discipline problems in the university’s all male student body. The change was successful and was popular with students and faculty alike, but it had dire consequences; when war was declared the following year the school remained open and supplied officers and enlisted men to the Confederacy, thus making the university a military target. The antebellum campus, with the exception of Nichols’s steward’s hall (1828; now known as the Gorgas House), the President’s Mansion (1839–1841), and the Observatory (1844, 1858), was destroyed by Federal troops at the close of the Civil War.
Plans to reopen the devastated university began almost immediately after the 1865 attack. The board of trustees determined to continue the military organization and, after reviewing about eighteen plans for college campuses, settled on the one submitted by Alexander Jackson Davis of New York, based on his 1840s scheme for a main building at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI; VA-02-RB18) in Lexington, which was designed in the Gothic Revival style. James T. Murfee, the University of Alabama’s commandant of cadets, served as the architect of the proposed new building. A graduate of VMI, he knew the advantages and disadvantages of the Davis building and modified the plan to better meet the needs of the University of Alabama. Murfee’s building was so large that only a portion of it, Woods Hall (1867–1868), was initially built. For seventeen years it was used for all university functions.
In the 1880s the University of Alabama’s financial situation improved after it secured Congressional funds to recompense the school for wartime destruction. It was now possible to complete Murfee’s building. After reviewing plans from several architects, the building committee selected those of William Alfred Freret of New Orleans, who had recently restored the Louisiana State Capitol (LA-01-EB19) in Baton Rouge, which had also been burned during the war. Freret kept the basic footprint of Murfee’s modified VMI plan, but he separated the unbuilt portions of the massive building into three new structures built in front of Woods Hall. These buildings (Manly, Clark, and Garland halls) were designed in the High Victorian Gothic style, and along with Woods Hall, form what is now referred to as the “Old Quad” or Woods Quadrangle.
As part of a celebration of its seventy-fifth anniversary in 1906, the university adopted the “Greater University Plan,” a comprehensive master plan developed by the New York firm Samuel Parsons and Company. The scheme for the campus was a product of Beaux-Arts planning—a system that consisted of symmetry, focal points, and geometric clarity. Alabama state architect Frank Lockwood designed and built several structures, including Morgan Hall, but the plan was never completely implemented and the layout of the campus as built was considerably different. Nevertheless, the plan set a precedent for a campus in the Classical Revival style with buildings located in formal Beaux-Arts configurations.
During the 1920s the University adopted a new master plan that became known as the Million Dollar Plan (based on its estimated cost). Birmingham landscape architects Kessler and Schillinger designed a plan in 1925 that retained many of the features of the earlier Greater University Plan, but also included a women’s campus. The vast majority of the buildings erected on the University of Alabama campus in the first half of the twentieth century were designed by the Birmingham firm Miller, Martin, and Lewis. By 1952, when Hugh Martin retired from active practice, his firm was responsible for thirty-nine academic buildings and sports facilities on the campus, along with eighteen chapter houses for fraternities and sororities and ten faculty houses. Most of the buildings surrounding the Main Quadrangle, including the Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library, are the work of Martin’s firm, which also remodeled the Victorian buildings on the Old Quad.
In 1959 it became apparent that an updated master plan was needed to direct and control the growth and expansion of campus. In 1961, Olmsted Associates of Brookline, Massachusetts, completed the “General Development Plan,” which called for new clusters of buildings associated with related disciplines. Though some architects called for modernist buildings, vocal opposition from alumni and townspeople caused them to modify their designs to blend in with existing campus structures. The one notable modernist building (located on the periphery of campus) is the massive Law Center completed in 1978 by Edward Durrell Stone and Associates of New York and Pearson, Tittle, Narrows, and Associates of Montgomery.
Late in the twentieth century, several architects introduced postmodernist concepts in their campus buildings. Most buildings from this period use contemporary building techniques masked with classical design elements. The buildings located at the center of campus, surrounding Woods Quadrangle and the Main Quadrangle, have been preserved and continue to reflect the architectural evolution of the campus.
Mellown, Robert Oliver. The University of Alabama: A Guide to the Campus and its Architecture. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2013.
If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.
SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.