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The distinctive design and location of the Nott Memorial have always drawn attention to the building, which has become an icon of the campus itself. The original campus plans, drawn by Joseph-Jacques Ramée, included a round building as the centerpiece of the campus. Eliphalet Nott, president of the College from 1802-1866, initiated the construction of the building in 1858; however, lack of funds, the Civil War, and Eliphalet Nott's death in 1866 stymied the construction. The project lay dormant and uncompleted for a number of years until Nott's grandson, Eliphalet Nott Potter, then president of the College, resumed efforts to construct the building. Potter was able to see the completion of the project in 1877. In 1902 the renovation and completion of unfinished aspects of the building was made possible by an Andrew Carnegie grant. At this time, William Appleton Potter (the brother of Edward Tuckerman Potter, the original architect) supervised the conversion of the second balcony to a second floor, installing arched steel trusses which greatly add to the structural interest of the building. The result, combining the Venetian Gothic style popular in the 1870's with the technique of cast-iron construction, is a contrasting but harmonious combination of two different aspects of nineteenth-century architectural practice.
The unique and nearly round building is aesthetically pleasing, but prohibits economical or efficient use of the interior space. The College has attempted to use the space in varying capacities, including as the College Library, bookstore, museum, banquet hall, studio space, campus police station, and college theatre. The inability to use the space effectively has led to periods of inactivity and neglect. Eventually the Nott Memorial fell into a state of dilapidation during the mid-twentieth century. A full restoration project commenced in 1993 and was completed in 1995. The Nott Memorial is once again the focal point of the campus and currently houses the Mandeville Art Gallery (2nd floor), student study space (3rd floor), and a public function area (1st floor).
The significance of the Nott Memorial lies not in any pragmatic application of the space but rather as purely aesthetic and symbolic imperative. The Nott Memorial is also the only example of a sixteen-sided polygon structure in North America. Yet, the Nott Memorial is more than an example of aesthetic architecture; it is a tangible manifestation of Union's rich history.