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Constructed between 1858 and 1871, Old Main is the major historical educational building on the Bethany College campus. It is notable as one of the earliest intact large-scale samples of collegiate Gothic architecture in the United States. Walter and Wilson of Cincinnati, Ohio, were the architects. James Key Wilson, the leading architect of Cincinnati from 1850-1870, also designed the Plum Street Temple, a National Historical Landmark in Cincinnati. When the original college building (College Proper) burned on December 10, 1857, the Bethany College Board of Trustees undertook a tour of eastern cities with a view toward seeking models for the rebuilding of the main college building. One model that appears certain to have influenced the architects was the basic plan drawn for the Smithsonian by James Renwick. James Key Wilson had studied architecture in the offices of Martin Thompson and James Renwick. He then worked with Renwick, designer of Grace Church in New York and of the Smithsonian Institution, in 1845-1847. He settled in Cincinnati in 1848 and went into partnership with William Walter, an older architect. Old Main was likely mostly Wilson's work, because his training had occurred during the increasing vogue of the Gothic style. However, William Kimbrough Pendleton, a member of the faculty and vice-president of Bethany College, also had an influence in the design of the building. Pendleton had a practical knowledge of architecture and supervised the construction of the main building. He was largely responsible for its placement on the crest of the hill and for suggesting the arcade on the back of the building. He may also have been responsible for the installation of firewalls, which permitted it to survive the 1879 fire that destroyed Society Hall. The completion of the structure was due to his perseverance.
The Old Main building includes Commencement Hall, used for concerts, convocations, lectures, dramatic presentations, special functions, dinners, and other gatherings; Kirkpatrick Hall of Life Sciences, devoted to biology, microbiology, and botany laboratories, a greenhouse, faculty offices, a student library and conference room, a psychology computer laboratory, an experimental psychology laboratory, an animal research laboratory, a cold room for experiments, classrooms relating to the life sciences, a classroom for environmental science, and a student psychology lounge; the Media Center, used for administration, use, storing and dispensing of media equipment; the Academic Parlour, used for lectures, receptions, and special gatherings; the Trustee Board Room, used for board of trustee meetings; Trustee Hall of Fame Room, used for receptions; Office of the Vice President and Dean of Faculty, a suite of rooms to the left of the main entrance; Office of the President, a suite of rooms to the right of the main entrance; seminar rooms; webmaster information technology center; and classrooms, many of which are dedicated to professors, alumni, trustees, administrators, etc.
The first completed portion of Old Main, or what college founder Alexander Campbell called the New Edifice, was Society Hall, which provided for the literary societies and their libraries, as well as a temporary chapel. Society Hall was ready for use at the opening of the 1858 session, and by the close of the year 1859, 150 feet of frontage of the New Edifice had been completed. Work continued until July 1862, when the finance committee of the Board of Trustees called a halt. The full length of the building was by then enclosed and roofed, excluding Commencement Hall, but the building was not finished inside. After the Civil War, action was taken to complete the second wing of the building, which was to be used as a chapel. This became known as Commencement Hall at the time of its dedication in 1871.
The chapel moved to the large central hall on the second floor after the central portion of the building was completed. Society Hall, comprising the east wing, burned in 1879 and was not rebuilt until 1911-1912, at which time it was renamed the Earl W. Oglebay Hall of Agriculture. It was used as classroom and laboratory space for biology, chemistry, physics, and agricultural science. It also contained the offices of the president and dean. The top story included a museum, storage rooms, and bins for hybrid seeds. Later it was used for home economics. An additional front entrance was added as a passageway between Oglebay Hall and the one-story connecting section adjoining it to the south. Students used the arcade (the Corridor), which was re-floored in 1937, for promenading and singing. Oral tradition asserts that Freshman Alley, which is located under the Corridor, was used to stable horses. Later it was used for a variety of functions, including a medical clinic, a library, and college storerooms.
The stone foundation for Commencement Hall was laid in 1860 and built between 1869 and 1871. Dedicated June 13, 1871, it was used as a gymnasium from 1890 to 1903, when it was converted into the Norman A. Phillips Dormitory for Men. In 1924, the hall was restored, and an auditorium was added on the upper level capable of seating 700 people. Thayer and Johnson were hired to be the architects on February 2, 1922. At the same time, the windows of Commencement Hall were remodeled in Gothic style.
On July 22, 1980, Browne, Eichman & Dalgliesch of Charlottesville, Virginia submitted plans for the restoration of Commencement Hall to its original design through the removal of the intervening floor added in 1924, essentially returning the building its 1871 appearance. Between 1976 and 1984, restoration included work on the roof and exterior, restoration of Commencement Hall, installation of Alumni Walk in front of the building, restoration of classrooms, restoration of the Academic Parlour on the second floor, and of the office of the President. A formal dedication took place on November 9, 1984. Oglebay Hall of Agriculture was restored in 1998-1999 and renamed Kirkpatrick Hall of Life Sciences. It was dedicated October 21, 1999. Restoration of the Tower took place in 2000-2001, at which the entire top of the tower was removed with a large crane and successfully replaced at the conclusion of the restoration.