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Trinity’s Remarkable Architectural Story


aerial c 1920More than 100 years ago, Trinity was just Main Hall.  Michigan Avenue was unpaved, extending east toward the as-yet undeveloped land that would become the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  Main Hall’s cornerstone was laid in 1898, but the building took more than ten years to complete, with sections added over time as the Sisters of Notre Dame were able to put the money together to finance the project.

As Trinity prepares to break ground on the new Trinity Academic Center this Saturday, May 31, 2014, I’ll take a few days on this blog to pay tribute to the remarkable women (and a few good men) who created Trinity’s monumental architecture in our historic core:  Main Hall, Notre Dame Chapel, Alumnae Hall.   These buildings arose not through any grand plan but through the inspiration and sheer perseverance of the SNDs and the lay women and men who believed in their goals for Trinity College.

When Trinity opened in 1900, the only part of Main Hall that was complete was the “South Hall” that housed all 19 students, the SND convent, the classrooms, dining hall, chapel, labs and social areas.  We know that part of the building today as Admissions and Enrollment Services on the first floor, the faculty offices and some classrooms as well as the School of Professional Studies on the second floor, School of Education on the third floor, along with administrative offices.

SOUTH HALLMichigan Avenue was just a dirt road when Main Hall was under construction.

MAIN FRONT 1905 MICH AVE VIEWI have always wondered how they managed to build Main Hall.  This view of the construction of the dome shows the massive wooden beams that had to be cured and bent to specifications to form the dome.  Amazing!  Note that the north end of Main Hall did not yet exist.


DOME CONSTRUCTIONclass of 04Trinity’s first students were very hardy, progressive women.  This photo of members of the Class of 1904 in their academic regalia must have so many stories behind it!  This Red Class set the tone for all the classes that came after them.

Curiously, the second structure erected on Trinity’s campus after Main Hall was a swimming pool!  Very cool for 1920!  The pool construction actually started sometime around 1916.  In the view below you can see a skylight over the pool, and a senior in cap & gown watching the ladies in the pool.  I don’t think she was the lifeguard, but you never know….  The Science Building was eventually built on top of the pool, and we ended the old pool operations entirely in about 1990, later opening the modern pool in the Trinity Center.

swimming pool c 1920s cap and gownGroundbreaking for Notre Dame Chapel occurred in 1922 — notice all the men in bowlers.  I love the fact that a student in her cap and gown joined the bishop in turning the earth while the men watched!

DED 5DED 3Designed by Maginnis & Walsh and built by Cassidy & Associates, Notre Dame Chapel was acclaimed from the start as a gem of campus sacred spaces.  The Chapel opened in 1924 but features such as the installation of the great mosaic by Bancel LaFarge continued into the 1930’s.  In the photo above, also note the covered walkway that would later become “the cloisters” connecting Main Hall and the Chapel.

ALUMBUILD2Soon after the Chapel opened, Sr. Raphael (then the president) decided that the students needed a modern dormitory.  Alumnae Hall began in 1927, also designed by Maginnis & Walsh and built by Cassidy.

ALUMBUILD5ALUMNAE HALL FRONTBy 1929, the very elegant and modern Alumnae Hall was ready to welcome students!  Note in the photo above the patio area behind Main Hall where the Music and Arts building (today Music and Nursing) arose in 1960, and Seymour Court and the fishpond were not yet on the scene.

In the aerial photo below, Trinity’s campus in the early 1930’s clearly stands out in the neighborhood.  Looking east, we can see the white stone of CUA’s McMullan library, and across Michigan Avenue are the Dominican House and Theological College.  But the largest structure, the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, was not yet built.  Also note that Franklin Street did not exist then (Franklin was cut through in the late 1930’s) and also Lincoln Road, little more than a cart path, ran through the middle of the campus.

aerial early 1930sLooking at the amazing buildings the SNDs were able to erect from 1898 to 1929, the truly monumental nature of their achievement cannot be understated.  They created this beautiful college in what was then a remote section of Washington, and they did it with considerable fortitude and faith, having little real money and somewhat limited expertise.

If they did all of that back then, surely we can do what is necessary today to keep building essential structures on this campus, to modernize what is possible, to restore the venerable core of Main, Notre Dame and Alumnae Halls.

More in my next blog on further campus development leading up to the new Trinity Academic Center!


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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: