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Memorial Hall

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Memorial Building
1899–1900, George Babcock. 345 Boyer Ave.
  • (Photograph by Robert R. Franklin)

Memorial Hall is the oldest surviving and most prominent building on the campus of Whitman College, one of the premier private institutions in the Pacific Northwest, and the oldest institution of higher learning in Washington. Designed by local architect George W. Babcock and completed at the dawn of the twentieth century, the Richardsonian Romanesque building provided a sense of permanence for the young college and helped usher in an era of expansion in the twentieth century. The hall originally housed classrooms, a chapel, and administrative offices, and is today exclusively the college’s administrative headquarters.

The college and building are named after Marcus Whitman, a Presbyterian missionary who, along with his wife Narcissa, settled north of present-day Walla Walla in 1836 and built a mission intended to convert the Walla Walla and Cayuse Indians to Christianity. As one of the first white settlements in the area, the Whitman Mission became an important stopping point and trading post for overland migrants along the Oregon Trail. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were killed in 1847 by a band of Cayuse Indians who believed the Whitmans were responsible for a particularly devastating outbreak of smallpox.

Despite the Indian-settler tensions that led to the death of the Whitmans, European-American settlement continued to grow in the Walla Walla area, aided by the construction of Fort Walla Walla in 1856 and the Mullen Road, which connected Walla Walla to Fort Benton, Montana. In 1859, Cushing Eells, looking to establish a seminary for children in Washington Territory in memory of his former missionary colleagues, founded Whitman Seminary at the mission site. In 1862, Walla Walla—a few miles to the west—was officially incorporated. For the duration of the decade, Walla Walla became the largest town in Washington Territory.

Some years later, Walla Walla officials and boosters, looking to further establish the settlement as an important site in the territory, induced Eells to move the seminary just east of the downtown, assisted by a large land donation from banker Dorsey Baker. In 1883, the seminary (now Whitman College) became a four-year institution under the leadership of Jay Anderson, the former president of the Territorial University (now the University of Washington). Anderson hoped to model the school after New England liberal arts colleges such as Harvard, Princeton, and Brown.

In 1895, Stephen Penrose became president and established the Whitman Endowment with help of Daniel K. Pearsons, a Chicago philanthropist who gave much of his fortune away to small, liberal arts colleges that did not receive enough funding from the American College and Education Society—of which Whitman College was one. Pearsons was influential in the creation of the budgetary and administrative structure of Whitman College, while Penrose promoted the school locally by marketing the Whitman name as significant in encouraging Western settlement and establishing the Pacific Northwest as part of an American empire.

Penrose secured $50,000 from Pearsons for the construction of Memorial Hall, and work began in 1899. This was a low sum for the building, due in part to services donated by the architect and materials from a stone supplier in Tenino, Washington, west of the Cascade Mountains in Thurston County. George Babcock—who had already designed other notable buildings in the city (including the Stencel Building, the Rees-Winans Building, the Paine School, and the Baker-Boyer National Bank Building), recognized the college’s financial challenges and thus waived his architectural and supervisory fees. Thomas Russel, owner of the Tenino stone quarry, also supplied the hand-carved keystones at no cost.

Babcock designed Memorial Hall with an I-shaped plan, with the building’s long axis and long hipped, red-tile roofs parallel to Boyer Avenue and separated by a greensward. The bulk of the building is two and a half stories tall with a basement illuminated in part by natural light. The building’s interior includes two floors of administrative and classroom space with wooden floors, staircases, and balustrades. The exterior features a stone foundation with walls of cream-colored brick, trimmed with a combination of wooden moldings and gray Tenino stone. A five-story clock tower with hand-wound clocks on all four sides extends above the entrance, which itself is slightly more than one story in height and features a rounded sandstone arch springing from engaged colonnettes on either side.

The overall appearance of Memorial Hall is best characterized as Richardsonian Romanesque with its rusticated masonry, arched openings, and decorated eaves. The style, with its massive appearance, suggested stability and was commonly employed by institutions, public and private, wishing to convey a sense of permanence in late-nineteenth-century America. Memorial Hall immediately anchored the center of the Whitman College campus upon its opening, and—with its history so deeply intertwined with that of the establishment of the institution—also remains historically and emotionally at its heart.


Edwards, G. Thomas. The Triumph of Tradition: The Emergence of Whitman College 1859-1924. Walla Walla, WA: Whitman College, 1992.

Paulus Jr., Michael J. “Whitman College.” Essay 8337. The Free Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, November 19, 2007. Accessed October 20, 2014.

Hergert, Robert Wayne, “Memorial Building Whitman College,” Walla Walla County, Washington. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1974. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.

Writing Credits

Robert R. Franklin
J. Philip Gruen
Robert R. Franklin



  • 1899

    Design and construction

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Robert R. Franklin, "Memorial Hall", [Walla Walla, Washington], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

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