Laying the foundations: The story of Georgetown’s architecture

February 6, 2014

Christina Libre and Noah Buyon

In 1894, Rev. J. Harvey Richards sat at his desk and took pen to paper. He was editing a fundraising speech he was set to give to a group of Georgetown alumni. “Professors from other institutions, seeing our immense buildings and grounds, our numerous”—here he scratched out “professors” and put “instructors” above it in spidery handwriting—“and students, do enquire, ‘What is your endowment? It must be very great!

“They are incredulous to the assertion that we can succeed in carrying on and developing so vast an institution by means of the fees of the students alone,” Richards continued writing.

Even on the eve of its centennial, Georgetown was struggling. University President Fr. Patrick Healy had travelled as far as California to attempt to raise money for the construction of Healy Hall, which ultimately cost the school about $450,000, an equivalent of around $12 million today. Despite the arduous journey, he returned with only about $55,000 and resigned as president shortly after in 1882.

Healy’s was an ambitious project meant to bolster the University’s image. As Georgetown Professor Elizabeth Prelinger writes in her essay, “From Her Spires and Steeples Gleaming,” in the book Georgetown at 200, “It was becoming clear … that it was necessary to establish the legitimacy of Georgetown as the preeminent Catholic university in the country … Healy deliberately reoriented his building to face the city and not the river, effectively signalling Georgetown’s wish to view itself as an educational institution of national importance and altering the direction of expansion on the campus for years to come.” Healy hired the same architectural firm that would later design the Thomas Jefferson building for the Library of Congress.

These financial difficulties are neither unusual for a university nor a thing of the past at Georgetown. With a comparatively small endowment, operating costs and expansion are in a battle for the University’s limited resources—and this is evident through the various architectural styles on campus. From Healy Hall to the designs for the Northeast Triangle dorm, Georgetown’s campus is peppered with an eclectic selection of types of buildings. There are many reasons behind the various styles on Georgetown’s campus, but it’s been clear from the beginning that finances and land have been major constraints on Georgetown’s ability to build and design. Now limited to the original 104-acre footprint, Georgetown has continued to try to find innovative ways to grow despite the constraints of the 2010 Campus Plan.

Healy Hall was designed to attract more students, as well as to increase living and academic space, but the debt incurred by the construction was overwhelming. At the time, Georgetown was a small, local liberal arts college, meant for the surrounding American Catholic community. Although the Jesuits had amassed a fair portion of land in nearby Maryland, specifically tobacco fields, the violence of the American Revolution ruined them, according to John Glavin, a longtime professor of English at the University, and now the Potomac’s lovely daughter struggled to keep her head above water.

Riggs Library was only completed when banker E. Francis Riggs donated $10,000 in honor of his father, and Gaston Hall was not completed until 1909, lying as an empty space for twenty years. The construction of Healy left a massive pile of dirt at Georgetown—both literally and figuratively. Georgetown’s debt was so steep after construction that it could not even afford to immediately remove the mountain of dirt amassed from the hole where Healy’s foundation had been laid. The Washington Post ran the headline, “Its Centennial Pile” in 1877, in reference to Healy. In order to pay off the debt, the Jesuits sold a large portion of land north of what is now Reservoir Rd., including several acres and a villa in Tenleytown.

Part of the problem arises from the fact that Catholic donors were not generous throughout the early stages of Georgetown’s history. American Catholics were not the wealthiest community to begin with, but also lacked a culture of donating, according to Professor Emmett Curran, a prominent Georgetown historian. Therefore, Georgetown largely relied on students to pay the bills.

Well into the twentieth century, Georgetown banked on tuition hikes to stay solvent. In Nov. 1964, The Hoya reported that tuition would be raised by $200. According to then-President Edward J. Bunn, S.J., it was a “substantial operating deficit” that led to this raise. Tuition was raised again in 1967, and again in 1969. As part of the plans for fiscal years 2014 and 2015, an additional tuition raise has been mandated in order to keep the University in the black. Georgetown continued to operate on a substantial deficit for decades, and continues to do so today. The lack of funds makes expansion difficult.

Although Healy is the landmark building on campus, Georgetown’s first large architectural undertaking was Old North in 1797, modeled after Princeton’s Nassau Hall. “When Old North was built, it was surely one of the grandest works in Washington, after the Capitol Building,” Prelinger writes in her essay. With enrollment increasing, so did the number of building projects, with Gervase, an infirmary at the time, and Mulledy being constructed shortly thereafter.

Georgetown’s small size may be an explanation for the University’s main focus on functionality in its buildings. “I would say that Georgetown’s building is almost entirely functional, and at times aesthetics enters into that. … We’ve got …. much too small a footprint for a university, so we’ve got to build to make the maximum use of the space,” Glavin said. The number of multi-functional buildings—the Leavey Center and White Gravenor, for instance—suggests that Georgetown’s designs have been largely dependent on access to capital, often compromising aesthetics in order to construct new buildings.

“We’ve long had a tension between what our vision might be and our ability to actually make things happen, so we compromise,” O’Neill said.

“Georgetown has had to settle for whatever was cheapest and most expedient, valuing function over appearance, with too little consideration for the fact that, in principle, it was building for posterity,” Prelinger writes. This issue was especially evident once the University began to accept federal funding. The Intercultural Center, for instance, was built with federal funds on the condition that Georgetown would partake in an experiment: the ICC’s roof would be covered in photovoltaic cells. It was the world’s largest solar roof at the time.

There was a similar case with the construction of New South. According to the book Georgetown University by Paul O’Neill (COL ‘86), after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, the federal government decided to invest in higher education to try be competitive in the space race. Georgetown was granted funds for a new dormitory on the stipulation that it be a “no frills” building. The aesthetics of certain buildings are clearly informed by the source of funding. “Federal Loans Bolster Deteriorating Finances,” a headline from The Hoya read in Dec. 1967.

The largest question on many student’s minds when it comes to aesthetics, however, is Lauinger Library. The dark concrete stands out in stark contrast to the three other buildings surrounding the lawns on the front of campus—Healy, Copley, and White Gravenor, each with its stone façade and sweeping steps. While the original plan was to complete an aesthetically cohesive quadrangle, due to limited funding, the designs for Lau had to be modified. “Fr. [Coleman] Nevil’s vision for greater Georgetown, to have a quadrangle … never got finished because we ran out of money,” O’Neill said.

According to Glavin, the original design for Lau was meant to be entirely different. Healy Lawn was to extend into the third floor, which would be framed with slender columns with a view of the Potomac, symbolizing the connection between the school and the city. “It was to be clad in the same stone as Healy,” Glavin said. There remains a tenuous connection between the two buildings—Lau, especially from the south and the west, is a striking, Brutalist rendition of Healy, and the concrete of the exterior was mixed with stones from the same quarry as the stones Healy was built from.

The library cost $6.6 million to build. This expense, along with a spate of other construction projects, meant that there had to be an increase in revenue—a major determinant in the admission of women to the College in 1969,  according to Susan Poulson (GRAD ‘90) in Going Coed: Women’s Experiences in Formerly Men’s Colleges and Universities, 1950-2000.

Dahlgren Chapel, on the other hand, was the first building to be entirely funded by outside sources. John and Elizabeth Dahlgren, his wife, donated the funds to build the chapel in memory of their infant son who died of pneumonia, according to O’Neill’s book. Elizabeth Dahlgren personally oversaw the creation of the stained glass panels, and the chapel was consecrated in June of 1893. Dahlgren marked a new era of philanthropic projects on Georgetown’s campus, including Ryan Hall, which was also built using external funds.

Georgetown has seen a steady increase in philanthropic funding for architectural projects in recent years. The Hariri Building, for instance, was helped to completion by a gift of $20 million from Lebanese Prime Minister and Georgetown alum Saad R. Hariri, in honor of his father. “It was very thoughtfully planned,” O’Neill said of Hariri. “When I first came to Georgetown, barely any buildings were named, or they were named after Jesuits. Now we have Hariri, and Regents.”

The Southwest Quadrangle was a modern project that was funded largely by the University. “The development of the Southwest Quadrangle has been very much an architectural project,” Glavin said. The Southwest Quad was projected to cost $168.5 million, but ended up costing $188 million. It was largely financed by a $340 million bond sale in January 2001, after undergoing scrutiny by the Zoning Commission.

“We hired architects that would hopefully provide us with a final design for a complex of buildings that would feel, when they were completed, as though they had always been a present on Georgetown’s campus,” Alan Brangman, former head architect of the university, wrote in an email to the Voice.

Brangman now sits on the Old Georgetown Board, one of many administrative hurdles Georgetown has to jump in order to even break ground on new projects. The Northeast Triangle project in particular has crystallized many of the warring interests at play when a new project arises.


“If you think about all the entities, you’ve got the administration that is interested in providing a quality learning and living experience, and then how do you do that within the resources that we have. Then you got the students who want a particular type of building to serve their needs, then you have the city, the Old Georgetown Board … so it’s really a challenge to get all of the stakeholders together,” said Robin Morey, vice president for planning and facilities management. “At the end of the day, you the students are paying the bill, you are the client. So we’re trying to satisfy all the stakeholders and ultimately provide a quality place for you.”

Alan Brangman disagrees that campus is as wildly disparate as it may appear at first glance.  “There are some general aspects to the material selection for the buildings in the last 50 years that helps to neat the architecture of GU together. All the buildings interior to the campus with the exception of the Hariri building are red brick. That decision was a conscience one which was a standard. … And it still adhered to the precedent that was set by Healy, Copley, and White-Gravenor Halls. … Stone front facade with a brick rear facade,” he wrote in an email to the Voice.

The eclectic architecture is not necessarily a negative aspect of campus. “There [are] lots of different schools with different architecture. If you go to a Virginia Tech they’re all the same exact building. Other campuses try to reflect the nature of the time, so I think Georgetown has been more of that,” said Morey.

From Healy Hall onward, Georgetown’s architecture has subtly articulated a public image. Morey, for instance, explained a clear design vision for the Northeast Triangle dorm. “When you look at the way the Northeast Triangle reads, the first floor is very transparent and that means ‘come on in,’ we want collaboration. … Then you go above that and it’s more solid, which means it reads as private, natural private residence space, So we want to be able to have the buildings read correctly,” he said. “If we could make a certain standard, and then go back and renovate our older buildings in the future to that kind of standard where the students have more quality collaboration space, that’s what we’re trying to project.”

The Master Planning effort is the next phase in Georgetown’s architectural development and curating an image of Georgetown. With the Northeast Triangle in development and the Healey Family Center and new athletics facility under construction, it is a period of architectural transition for the University. “This is a moment in which there is a considerable amount of thought about the future,” Glavin said. “We’re also having to make a lot of make-do decisions because of the pressure on us to make facilities for our students and our programs.”

O’Neill agrees with this sentiment. “We want our physical campus to reflect our place among the very best institutions of higher education,” he said.

“I believe that one of GU’s public images is that of a global leading institution.  I believe that that reality is rooted in the classic architectural image that Georgetown presents to the world on Healy and Copley Lawn with its classic buildings as well as with the state-of-the-facilities that have been erected in the heart of the campus,” Brangman wrote.

Of course, Georgetown still has to be resourceful, considering its comparatively small endowment. Despite the successful capital campaign, Georgetown’s endowment hardly competes with those of Harvard or Yale. “I think that Georgetown is still finding creative ways to use and reuse assets to best meet its current programmatic needs,” Brangman wrote.

“Speaking as an alum,” O’Neill said, “I can’t help but think about how much I loved the campus. It’s not the most cohesive, sure, but I loved it.”

Julia Tanaka
Julia Tanaka doesn't do anything for the Voice anymore. She is sad about it.

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Brangman has got to be kidding about “as well as with the state-of-the-facilities that have been erected in the heart of the campus.” Georgetown’s facilities are disgraceful and do not even compare to other elite institutions or state schools (so this shouldn’t be as much as a surprise given their state funding). Schools with comparable or lesser tuition as well as comparable endowment manage to have better facilities. $61,000 is already absurd. facilities are poor. An increase in tuition is insane. What will that possibly provide? Georgetown is already down in acceptance this year. Wouldn’t be surprising to see that trend continue as tuition increases limiting the students that can afford to come here, as well as decreasing socioeconomic diversity

[…] these men, women and children, now known as the GU272, was the only reason Healy Hall could even be constructed in […]