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McDowell Hall at St. John's College was begun in 1742 as the mansion for the Maryland colonial governor, Thomas Bladen. The original design was the work of architect Simon Duff and local builder Patrick Creagh. Factionalism in the General Assembly disrupted funding for the project, and the unfenestrated structure fell into disrepair. By 1784, the house, which had become known as "Bladen's Folly," was granted by the provincial government as the future site of St. John's College. The all-male college, chartered in 1784, completed the construction of the building. Joseph Clarke, who designed the dome of the State House, was responsible for the design and construction of the roof and cupola. In 1789, classes were held in the first two rooms to be finished.
McDowell Hall was named in honor of St. John's first principal, John McDowell. The prominent Georgian style brick building was the only structure on the original four-acre campus until 1835, when Humphrey's Hall was constructed. The building has been used as dormitories, classroom/lecture halls, offices, and banquet/ballroom, by the now co-educational college. During the Civil War, it served as the headquarters of the Union Army Medical Corps. The structure was severely damaged by fire on February 20th, 1909, and again in November, 1952. Each time it was rebuilt to the original configuration. The centerpiece of St. John's College campus for over 200 years, McDowell Hall is one of the oldest academic buildings in continuous use in the United States. The building is significant for its association with education in colonial Maryland, Governor Thomas Bladen, and the enduring and innovative St. John's College. McDowell Hall is also significant architecturally as a well-developed, large-scale example of the Georgian style.
McDowell Hall is characterized by its cube-like massing and bold central pavilion. The three-story building is set upon a raised brick foundation, has brick walls laid in both English and Flemish bond, and is covered with a hipped roof. Slab brick end chimneys and a prominent central cupola punctuate the skyline. The building is divided horizontally into three principal levels by prominent brick belt courses, and vertically into nine equal bays of symmetrical window openings. The brick wall surfaces, though substantially rebuilt in areas, offer finely detailed brickwork and mortar joints, elegant brown sandstone quoining on the principal facade, brick belt courses, and a stone watertable at the basement level.