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Situated in the heart of Union College in Schenectady, the Nott Memorial is the centerpiece for an architecturally intriguing campus. Proposed as a way to celebrate the life of former Union College president, Eliphalet Nott, the building was designed by his grandson and Union College alumnus, Edward Tuckerman Potter, who is best known as the architect of the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut.
Union College is recognized as having one of the first architecturally planned campuses in the United States. It was envisioned by the French landscape designer and architect Joseph Jacques Ramée in 1813. The plan, supported by Nott and the Board of Trustees, involved the creation of a large central courtyard bounded by academic buildings that were linked together via an extended arcade, a form that was later, and memorably, employed by Thomas Jefferson in his design for the University of Virginia. Ramée’s plan also called for a rotunda in the center of the quad, a specification that would subsequently be fulfilled with the construction of the Nott Memorial, albeit in a radically different style.
Potter’s first designs in 1858–1859 reveal a more classical approach, in line with Ramée’s original scheme and consistent with the early buildings on the campus. After a long delay, when he revisited the scheme in 1872, he dramatically changed the design to reflect his own mature interpretation of the Gothic. Potter had trained in the office of Richard Upjohn, the leading Gothic Revival architect in the nation. While Potter remained a devoted Gothicist, he rejected his employer’s preference for “Pointed Gothic” in favor of the more recent polychromatic or “Venetian Gothic” championed by John Ruskin. While the former focused on the articulation of form, materials, and structure (through ornament), the latter focused on the dramatic visual interplay of light, color, and materials. Potter’s design for the Nott Memorial incorporates an impressive spectrum of colors, utilizing dark Schenectady bluestone and light Ohio sandstone to create displays of polychromatic masonry. It also features more than 250 stained glass windows that paint its red and blue interior with multicolored light.
Nott Memorial has a central, 16-sided plan that has often been compared to that of late-Gothic baptisteries, such as in St. Peter and Paul Church in Saxony, Germany. Each side is decorated with stacked arches, both rounded and pointed, supported by piers of alternating colored stone. Inside, thin, metal columns provide an airy quality to the space while supporting the building's three floors. The combination of a massive, historical exterior facade, and an open, iron-columned interior space became increasingly common in institutional and commercial buildings in the late nineteenth century, with the Oxford Museum of Natural History (1861) being an important precedent for the Nott Memorial.
Rising above the brickwork is the 16-segmented, slate-clad decorative dome, resting on a drum of clerestory windows. The dome is punctured by over 200 tiny holes, producing a starry effect on its underside—one intended to mimic the heavens. The artful combination of dome, the rounded arches on the second level, the geometric plan, and the use of iron has earned it the reputation as one of the finest examples of High Victorian Gothic architecture in the United States.
Much of the interest surrounding Nott Memorial concerns the building's long-lasting search for a function. Ramée's plan suggested that the rotunda be used as a chapel. A similar purpose was proposed for Nott Memorial but it never took hold. As a result, the building was initially used intermittently as a ceremonial space. In 1903, the bottom floors were repurposed to house a portion of the campus library. Later, in 1961, a stage was introduced for theater-in-the-round performances. During these changes, the center of the space, which was originally open to the top, was closed with partition floors. The upper levels gradually fell into disuse and disrepair in part due to the radial organization of the space and its limited uses for on-campus activities. Its most consistent function has been experiential rather than utilitarian. For most buildings, this alone would not have been enough to save it; indeed, proposals were made to demolish the building. In the later 1980s, Union College students led the charge to save it.
The building was restored in 1993 by Finegold Alexander and Associates with contractor A.J. Martini, Inc. following fundraising efforts by then president Roger Hull. As part of the restoration, the partitions that had been set up between floors over the years were removed. The facade, stained glass panels, and the entire interior were cleaned, and the building was structurally reinforced with concrete columns inserted into the original stonework, preserving the building's outward image while ensuring its continued structural integrity. When the library and theater were moved to separate campus locations, the space was again left without functional direction.
Currently, the Nott Memorial houses student activities and encourages frequent visits from the student body. The bottom floor is a lecture hall, the mezzanine has been repurposed as a gallery, and the balcony is a study area. The gallery (Mandeville Gallery) is free, open to the public, and offers changing exhibits of science, history, and contemporary art.
“College Plans to Restore Ailing Nott Memorial.” Preservation News, August 1, 1990.
Landau, Sarah Bradford. Edward T. and Willam A. Potter: American Victorian Architects. New York: Garland, 1979.
Mays, Vernon. “What nott? The problem for Union College in Schenectady, New York, was not whether to restore the Nott Memorial, but what to restore it as.” Historic Preservation47 no. 4 (1995).
Olenick, Andy, and Richard O. Reisem. Historic New York: Architectural Journeys in the Empire State. Rochester, NY: Landmark Society of Western New York , in Conjunction with Preservation League of New York State and New York State Council on the Arts, 2006.
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