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Willis Hall was the first permanent college building on the campus. Construction began in 1868, and when it was completed in 1872, the hall was dedicated to Susan Willis of Charlestown, Massachusetts, who had cleared the building's debt. Originally, the building housed all of the functions of the college, including dormitories on the third floor, classrooms, offices, and a small chapel. It was the equivalent of the "old mains" at many college campuses. Designed by prominent Minneapolis architects Alden and Howe, Willis is in the Second Empire style, contrasting with the more prevalent Gothic Revival style favored by colleges through much of the mid-nineteenth century. Comparable prototypes would be the early buildings of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, designed in the Second Empire style by James Renwick.
The building was gutted by fire on December 23, 1879, leaving only the walls. The rebuilt structure had a larger chapel on the second floor, a new classroom for prayer and literary society meetings, and a furnace to replace the original stoves. In 1954, the addition had new stairways, an automatic freight elevator, first floor lounge and grill, a TV room, a radio broadcasting studio, post office, record library, game room, photographic darkroom, and classrooms which had been phased out as inadequate. Willis Hall served as the student union between 1954-1979.