Roberts Hall is one of the oldest and most interesting buildings on Bucknell University’s campus. The building was designed by Thomas U. Walter, who was also the architect of the National Capital dome and wings in Washington, D.C. Construction on Roberts Hall began in 1849, with the West Wing completed first, followed by the East Wing and the center. The building was entirely completed in 1858 and had a facade of 320 feet with the design based on Greek architecture.
First called the Main Building, what is today known as Roberts Hall was fondly referred to as “Old Main” as time passed. Considered one of the largest college buildings of its time, Old Main contained recitation rooms, a library, meeting rooms for literacy societies, study rooms, dormitories, a museum, and Commencement Hall on the third floor, which was the site of early commencements. Unfortunately, on August 27, 1932, the central portion of Old Main burned. According to a New York Times report the next morning, the fire alarms were first heard at 4:40am and, minutes later, a general alarm went out bringing fire trucks from Milton, Sunbury, Northumberland, and Mifflinburg. The blaze was fought for five hours before it was under complete control, however, the source of the fire was never determined. Most collections from the museum were lost, as well as parts of the library, some dorms, and much of the recitation space. Losses from the Old Main fire were felt throughout the campus. Since the fire destroyed 85% of the classroom space in the building, and there was no additional satisfactory space available to hold classes, every available square foot of the wings was partitioned off and made into classrooms. There was an immediate need for recitation rooms.
To rebuild Old Main cost around $350,000. The amount the insurance realized from the fire was approximately $165,000. At the time of dire need for classrooms, it was impossible to raise in funds the difference between $350,000 and $165,000, so the Board of Trustees approved the construction of a new building with classrooms using the insurance money. This is how the Vaughn Literature Building was built. Another immediate problem was providing dormitory and living space for students at a time when enrollment was at an all-time high. As a result, there was a great desire among the students, faculty, and staff to rebuild Old Main despite the cost and in June of 1935, reconstruction commenced. Funding the reconstruction was challenging; however, in 1937, Daniel C. Roberts, who served as a Trustee between 1935 and 1940, made a generous donation of over $300,000 which funded the rebuilding of Old Main. In November 1937, the central portion of the building was dedicated and renamed Roberts Hall to honor Daniel C. Roberts for the important part he played in supporting the rebuilding of Old Main. In 1978, Roberts Hall was added to the Pennsylvania Inventory of Historic Places.
Through the years, Roberts Hall has continued to be a housing source for students, mostly sophomores, as well as students in coeducational living. Over time, the central portion of Roberts Hall and its basement has housed many offices and organizations, including the Writing Center; the Women’s Resource Center; LGBT offices; the Toni Morrison Society; The Bucknellian; and WVBU Radio.
In 2016, Roberts Hall underwent a $15 million renovation that included exterior changes and a complete remodeling of the interior. The renovated space was transformed into in two-, three- and four-person suites, each with a private bathroom and shower. The main entrance became a lounge space, with a kitchen and conference room, and an elevator was installed. The Writing Center, Women’s Resource Center, LGBT Offices, Tony Morrison Society, The Bucknellian, and WVBU were relocated to other areas on campus. The remodeling was complete by the 2016 fall semester, ready to accept the incoming sophomores who would live there. I was fortunate enough to be one of those sophomores who had the opportunity to be one of the first students to live in the newly renovated Roberts Hall. I can honestly say it is an exceptional housing opportunity for Bucknell students. If you would like learn more about Roberts Hall, or “Old Main”, visit the Special Collections/University Archives on Lower Level 1 of the library.