University Green Area Heritage Study

Historic Burlington Research Project - HP 206


Old Mill

94 University Place

The façade of the University of Vermont’s Old Mill has been an ever-changing landmark on the University Green. Both the original structure and the reconstruction in 1824 were built in the Federal Style. The 1883 remodel updated the building to a High Victorian Gothic style in which it has remained for the past 130 years.

On June 18, 1801, David Russell, an agent of the Vermont Centinel, reported, “Information is hereby given that the foundation of the University of Vermont is completed; which is 160 feet in length, 40 feet in breadth.” [1] Russell goes on to say how pleased the people of Burlington will be with the placement of the significant structure, in its, “delightful situation of the ground on which it is laid, having such a commanding view of lake Champlain and the landscape it naturally forms.” [2] In August of the same year, the University of Vermont signed a contract with Burlington gentleman architect and master

builder, John Johnson, to complete the structure, which would be the sole academic building on campus. [3] Johnson and his men were  paid in cash, lodging, meat cattle, good pork, merchantable grain and rum. [4] The Vermont Centinel reported on September 9, 1802, “The first brick of the walls of the University of Vermont was laid on the 21 day of July, 1801. The laft brick thereof is laid this day. The building, erected after the model of Nassau Hall in Newjersy, is four stories in height, 160 feet in length, the center, with the projections 75 feet wide and the wings 45 feet.” [5] In early October of 1802, the roof and tower were raised during what was described as, “five days of most laborious exercise, in rearing to such a height and placing the quantities of heavy timber contained in said roof and tower.” [6] The main building appears to be finished shortly after, references in the Vermont Centinel after 1802 are to activities at the University, not the main College Building’s             

 construction. The image to the left is the invitation to the 1806 Commencement Ball and shows a rare look at the original 1801 College Building, courtesy of the University of Vermont’s Special Collections.    

Once the main college building was constructed, it was left alone for ten years until the conflict broke out between the United States and Great Britain. According to W.S. Rann’s, History of Chittenden County, Vermont, on March 24, 1814 the University of Vermont leased the main College Building to the United States government for $5,000 a year. Once war had been declared between the United States and Great Britain, troops were ordered up to Burlington and it became one of the headquarters of military operations so troops had been present in the city for a few years before the building was occupied. Classes were suspended, seniors were awarded their degrees and underclassman were directed to complete their educations at other institutions. [7] The University reopened its doors in the summer of 1815 [8] and at that time Rev. Samuel Austin, D.D. was appointed the new president of the University. [9]

The main College Building stood as the symbol of the University until May 24, 1824, when it burned to the ground. In an interview with the Burlington Free Press in June of 1887, a survivor of the class of 1827 described the night of the fire. A student on a lower floor had put shavings in his stove and the sparks from the shavings had fallen onto the roof from one of the chimneys and started the fire. The fire spread due to the dry building materials and within an hour the building was reduced to ashes. [10] Little time was wasted in rebuilding the symbol of the University. On April 26, 1825, Governor Van Ness laid the corner stone of what would become the North College of the Old Mill row. [11] On the 29th of June of the same year, General Lafayette laid the corer stone of the South College. [12] This corner stone has been relocated to the southwestern corner of the central portion of the present day Old Mill. [13] When asked to place the stone by the University President, Rev. Willard Preston, Lafayette responded, “I am sure that the young sons of Vermont will ever evince in their study, the same ardour and perseverance which at all times and on every occasion have characterized the spirited inhabitants of the Green Mountains.” [14] Having General Lafayette finally visit was of great importance to the people of Vermont. His arrival in Burlington was announced with artillery shots and he was greeted by Governor Van Ness and paraded around town. [15]

            It took roughly a year to complete the North and South Colleges, each were 75 feet long and 36 feet wide. They were three stories high with tin roofs and according to Julian Ira Lindsay, 300,000 of the brick from the original college building were reused in the North and South buildings. [16]

The Middle College was nearly completed by 1829 and cost around $9,000. George W. Benedict, a professor at the University, designed the dome, which sat atop the building. [17] W.S. Rann described the importance of the dome, “which for more than fifty years served as a beacon for the wide region of country between the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks.” [18] The North and South structures were built as dormitories and the Middle College building contained a

chapel, library, museum, lecture rooms and debating rooms. The three structures were united into one in 1846 but there were no interior connecting halls. The eight-foot firebreaks between the buildings forced students and faculty outside to go between them. [19] The image to the left depicts the College Building in 1869, after the three buildings had been united to create a single, mill like complex, courtesy of the University of Vermont’s Special Collections.

            1881 brought more changes for the main College Building. In November of 1881 the Burlington Free Press & Times reported that John P. Howard had made a donation of $50,000 to the University of Vermont and enlisted the help of Mr. J.J.R. Randall to draw up plans for a new front façade for the main College Building. Many changes were made to the iconic Vermont structure. The main building expanded by twenty feet, ten to the west and ten to the east. An additional story was added to the structure, which changed it from three to four stories. The roof and wings were remodeled and the George Benedict dome was removed and replaced with “a central tower of stately and elegant proportions.” [20] The work began May 1, 1882 and was supposed to be finished by September. The newspaper said the project would, “transform the old building into a harmonious and elegant modern structure.” [21] Though the structure was

 considered dingy and in need of a remodel, not everyone was pleased with the removal of the original dome, which had long been a symbol of the University, shining on the hill above Lake Champlain. [22] The whole building was remodeled in the 1880’s and the scars of the renovation can still be seen on the eastern face of Old Mill, where the difference in brick is visible where the fourth floor was added and where the windows were moved up from their 1820’s placement. However, the interior renovations were considered a success. [23] The fourth floor was made into dormitories during the summer of 1884. Twenty three rooms were created, including two suites, one at each end of the building. The rooms were “well-lighted, high and airy and most of them large enough to accommodate two students with perfect comfort.” It cost $23 to rent a suite and $18 for a regular dorm room. [24]

The 1880’s renovations were brought to a close in 1885 with the dedication of the Benedict Memorial Window in the University Chapel in the main College Building. The window was given to the University by the George Wyllys Benedict sons and depicted the dome that Benedict had designed for the middle college building [25] and “dominated the Burlington skyline until it was replaced by the present spire in the 1880’s.” [26] The Benedict Window was joined by the Goodrich Memorial Window in 1917. [27] The window was designed by Tiffany and was a gift of the alumnae of the window in honor of Reverend John Ellsworth Goodrich, who was a champion of women’s higher education. [28]                           

The 1897 U.V.M. Ariel described the main College Building, “popularly know as the Old Mill,” [29] which showed the verbal transformation of the building. It showed building had place in the hearts of the students that attend the University. The Burlington Free Press says the name dates as far back as 1846, when the three college buildings were connected. The students thought it looked like a mill so began calling it that and as the building grew older it became “Old Mill”, a name it has over one hundred years later. [30] The image on the left is a postcard of Old Mill postmarked in October of 1907, courtesy of the University of Vermont’s Special Collections.

            Old Mill was never left alone for long and on May 21, 1918 it once again was the subject of a fire. Lightning struck one of the electrical wires in the building during a heavy thunderstorm around 7 pm, but that fire was extinguished. Shortly after 10 pm the same night, the top floor was in flames that started at the tower and then spread south. The rafters caught on fire and the slate slowly started to fall off the roof. By 1:30 am the fire was all out and the roof had fallen but the walls were in good condition. On the first and second floor there was only considerable water damage. [31] The building was once again restored; renovations following the fire were completed in the summer of 1919, when the military units, which had been occupying the space during the First World War, left. [32] It was also during these renovations that the students became aware that the Old Mill bell, which rang out across the campus to announce athletic victories, was removed from the belfry. When the renovations were complete, there was no hole though which the bell could be rung. [33] Also, the fourth floor was closed up and the dormers were removed and the top floor remained closed off until the renovations to the Old Mill Building in the 1990s.

            The eastern side of Old Mill was transformed once again in the 1950s with the addition of Lafayette Hall, which was positioned directly behind the main block. The two were connected by a second story-enclosed bridge, which united the two structures until the construction of the Old Mill Annex in 1995. Mrs. Laura Morse Bayley laid the cornerstone of the new addition in late October of 1957. [34] Renovations to the southern part of Old Mill were also part of the Lafayette Hall construction project. [35] Old Mill was occupied during the construction so while work took place behind the structure and in the southern wing, students continued their work in the central and northern areas of the building.

            When the University reached its 200th anniversary in 1991, it seemed only natural that Old Mill be commemorated in a United States postcard as a symbol of the University. After 200 years, two fires, and many renovations Old Mill still stands on its original foundation, a symbol of perseverance and change. [36]

           The 1990s brought more change to the campuses oldest building, as another round of renovations took place to help restore Old Mill to its 1880s appearance. Smith Alvarez and Sienkiewycz Architects of Burlington created a plan for the Old Mill Annex, which took the place of the second-story enclosed bridge. The Annex had the difficult job of connecting Old Mill, a High Victorian building constructed of masonry, and Lafayette Hall, an International Style building with a glass exterior skin. Both Old Mill and Lafayette were renovated and the Annex was constructed connecting the two buildings both physically and visually. Lafayette’s glass exterior was replaces with brick to help relate it to Old Mill and the Annex was constructed a floor higher than Lafayette to help pull the classroom building into the oldest structure on campus. Both the Annex and the renovated Lafayette were built shorter than Old Mill so they do not overshadow it. Old Mill’s interior and exterior were both renovated. The masonry, brick and roof were restored on the exterior and the interior was transformed into a modern learn environment. [37] The above image, taken by the author, is the newly renovated Old Mill, with its 1880s color scheme. Smith Alvarez Sienkiewycz Architects were given a Citation of Award from the Chittenden County Historical Society for the Old Mill project for their commitment to architectural excellence when renovating both Old Mill and Lafayette Hall. According to the Chittenden County Historical Society, “the design finds its success through its scale, its sensitivity of detail, materials and forms, which recall and emphasize the importance and integrity of the old historic structure.” [38]

           The image below is the Old Mill Annex from the fourth floor of Williams Hall, taken by the author. The new Lafayette Hall is to the left and there is a thin strip of Old Mill to the right.  Due to the extensive renovations of Lafayette Hall during the 1996 renovation, it is not eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. Old Mill was nominated and placed on the National Register in 1975 as part of the University Green District.  The Old Mill Annex now houses Holocaust Studies and the main building of Old Mill is home to the Geography Department, African Studies, the Economics Department, the Women and Gender Studies Program, the Center for Teaching and Learning, the English Department and the Political Science Department.















Text and photos by Jenna Lapachinski



[1] David Russell, Vermont Centinel, June 18, 1801.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Contract between the University of Vermont and John Johnson, August 18, 180l, John Johnson Collection, Special Collections, University of Vermont Library.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Vermont Centinel, September 9, 1802.

[6] David Russell, Vermont Centinel, October 7, 1802.

[7] W.S. Rann, ed., History of Chittenden County, Vermont (Syracuse, New York: D. Mason & Co., 1886), 198.

[8] Marty Chittenden, Northern Centinel, August 4, 1815.

[9] Northern Centinel, July 28, 1815.

[10] Burlington Free Press, June 27, 1883.

[11] Northern Centinel, April 29, 1825.

[12] Northern Centinel, July 1, 1825.

[13] Rann, History of Chittenden County, 199.

[14] Compte-rendu du discours de la fayette, Lafayette Files, Special Collections, University of Vermont Library.  

[15] Northern Centinel, July 8, 1825.

[16] Julian Ira Lindsay, Tradition Looks Forward: The University of Vermont: A History 1791-1904 (Burlington, VT: University of Vermont and State Agricultural School, 1954), 127-8.

[17] Rann, History of Chittenden, 206.

[18] Ibid.

[19] G. Poole, The Vermont Alumni Weekly, February 8, 1928, 231.

[20] Burlington Free Press and Times, November 24, 1881.

[21] Ibid.

[22] The Vermont Cynic, June 6, 1883.

[23] The Vermont Cynic, February 8, 1928.

[24] Burlington Free Press and Times, September 5, 1884.

[25] John Dewey Memorial Lounge Pamphlet, May 18, 1968, Special Collections, University of Vermont Library.

[26] Ibid.

[27] The University of Vermont, Burlington VT, Exercises Dedicating the John Ellsworth Goodrich Memorial Window, Presented by the Alumnae of the University, in the University Chapel Monday the Twenty-fifth of June Nineteen Hundred and Seventeen Two O’clock in the Afternoon, Old Mill File, Special Collections, University of Vermont Library.

[28] John Dewey Pamphlet, 1968.

[29] The 1897 University of Vermont Ariel (Burlington, VT: Free Press Association, 1897), 169.

[30] Burlington Free Press, September 5, 1967.

[31] Burlington Free Press, May 21, 1918.

[32] The Vermont Alumni Weekly, February 8, 1928, 235.

[33] The Vermont Cynic, November 30, 1918.

[34] Burlington Free Press, October 28, 1957.

[35] Burlington Free Press, December 21, 1956.

[36] Old Mill Postcard, 1991, Old Mill Image File, Special Collections, University of Vermont Library.

[37] Smith Alvarez Sienkiewycz, “Arts and Science Complex,” (accessed October 25, 2011).

[38] Ibid.