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Old Kenyon is considered the earliest example of Collegiate Gothic architecture in America, although it doesn't conform closely to later examples of the style. Begun in 1827 and completed in 1829, it was designed primarily by Norman Nash, an Episcopal clergyman who became a noted architect; Old Kenyon Hall is his most prominent surviving building. The great Charles Bulfinch, at the request of Philander Chase, the College's founder, contributed the design of the building's central steeple and other ornaments. The original design was also altered by Marcus Tullius Cicero Wing, a Kenyon faculty member and amateur architect, who foreshortened the building's wings when funding could not be found for their construction. The building was gutted by a 1949 fire that claimed the lives of nine students, but it was carefully rebuilt, to the 1829 specifications for the exterior, after the completion of a new interior structure of concrete and steel. The current building, completed in 1950 as a memorial to the students killed in the fire, is a reconstruction of the original, and is in good condition. The exterior was recently tuck-pointed and cleaned.
Old Kenyon was the College's first permanent building, and has remained the building most closely associated with the College. Its location on campus reinforces its prominence: due to its elevation above the surrounding countryside, its steeple is visible for miles and has long served as a local landmark. In addition, Old Kenyon is the southern terminus of Middle Path, the College walk that runs almost due north for approximately one mile to Bexley Hall and serves as the central axis of the campus, along which the other buildings are aligned.
In its earliest years, Old Kenyon housed some members of the College's faculty as well as all of its student body. However, from 1834 onward, the building has served primarily as a student residence hall, with single and double rooms and communal lounges. Three of these lounges were at one time assigned for the sole use of fraternities: one for Alpha Delta Phi, one for Delta Kappa Epsilon, and one for Sigma Pi (now known as the Peeps). Since the 1980s, Old Kenyon has housed both men and women. Rooms in three of the building's five "divisions" house both independent students and members of the three fraternities mentioned above. The five divisions are, from east to west: East Wing (Alpha Delta Phi), East Division (Peeps), Middle Kenyon, West Division, and West Wing (Delta Kappa Epsilon). The building housed a number of prominent men during their time as Kenyon students, including: Rutherford B. Hayes, president of the United States; Edwin M. Stanton, U.S. attorney general and secretary of war (Lincoln administration); David Davis, U.S. senator and Supreme Court justice; Stanley Matthews, U.S. senator and Supreme Court justice; and David Sheldon Norton, U.S. senator.