Some of the most amazing historical buildings in the world belong to colleges and universities. From the chapels and libraries of Europe’s oldest universities, to the earliest buildings of some of America’s founding institutions, the historical university buildings on this list have been inspiring the minds of the world for hundreds of years.
So what exactly makes a building both historical and amazing? Every building on this list is at least 100 years old, though most are much, much older. As for those elements that make a building amazing, we considered everything from architectural traits to historical significance.
Founded in 1602, Oxford University’s Bodleian Library is one of the oldest libraries in Europe. This amazing historic building is considered one of the foremost masterpieces of English Gothic architecture, though its most recognizable feature may be the Tower of the Five Orders — five ordered pairs of columns designed in the Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite styles. Inside, “The Bod” consists of the Divinity School, a gift shop, upper and lower reading rooms, and an impressive collection of works including four copies of the Magna Carta, the Song of Roland, the Huntingdon MS 17 (the oldest manuscript with a complete text of the four Gospels in Bohairic), and one of only 21 surviving copies of the Gutenberg Bible, among countless others. Today, the Bodleian Library remains the main research library of Oxford University.
Capela de San Miguel
The chapel at University of Coimbra in Portugal may not look like much from the outside, but once inside, it’s easy to see why the beautiful Capela de San Miguel is considered one of the most amazing historic university buildings in the world. Planned and built between 1517 and 1522, the chapel is mainly an example of the Manueline style, as characterized by the huge windows in the aisle and transept. Most of the carpet-like, Lisbon-made tiles are original to 1613, while other notable features include the 1684 pulpit, the 17th century ceiling painted by Francisco F. de Araujo, and the 1730s organ with its impressive painted “chinoiserie” designs. Today, the chapel is part of the university’s Old Quarter, and is used mostly for weddings and as a tourist attraction.
Few university buildings have a history as long and amazing as Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral. In the 8th century, Frideswide (the patron saint of Oxford) founded a Saxon monastic church on this spot, though nothing much remains except for the Saxon cemetery recently discovered beneath the cloister. The current Church, built between 1160 and 1200 by Augustinian monks, began its history as a popular destination for pilgrims — including Catherine of Aragon, who visited in 1518 to pray for a son.
Once the smallest cathedral in England, Christ Church is world-renowned for its unique architectural features that mirror its varied history. The nave, choir, and main tower are all characterized by the large heavy pillars typical of the Norman style, while other interior features range from Perpendicular Style, Ten-Part Botanical Style (the large rose windows), Early English style (the 12th century Lady Chapel), Gothic (the 16th century cloister), and Victorian (the St. Frideswide Window). Movie lovers may recognize the Cathedral from its many cinematic appearances, including the Harry Potter films.
Of the seven surviving colonial-era university buildings, Yale’s Connecticut Hall is the third oldest. Completed in 1757, Connecticut Hall was the first building built on what is now known as Old Brick Row. Thanks to a 1965 designation as a National Historic Landmark, the Hall will continue to stand as one of the finest examples of colonial Georgian architecture in the United States. Originally, this amazing historic building was used as a dormitory, and Nathan Hale, Eli Whitney, William Howard Taft, and Noah Webster all called it home at some point. Today, Connecticut Hall houses the Department of Philosophy, with the third story reserved for meeting rooms for faculty and graduate students.
Corpus Christi College
Founded in 1352, the College of Corpus Christi and the Blessed Virgin Mary, as it is officially known, is the sixth oldest college of historic Cambridge University. The College’s exterior is dominated by the Old Court, which dates to the 1350s and includes a number of original features including the sills and jambs used to hold oil-soaked linen in the days before glass windows. The tower of St. Bene’t’s Church, built in parts by the Norman conquerers and the Anglo-Saxons, is the oldest structure in Cambridge. But perhaps the most recognizable feature of this amazing historic building is the chapel. The third in the college’s history, the current chapel was built in 1827 and includes 16th century stained glass windows, various memorials, fellows’ stalls, and the Elizabethan Chapel.
University College at Durham University
Durham Castle, the magnificent centerpiece of University College at Durham University, dates back to the 11th century when it was built to showcase the power of the Norman king in the north of England. A fantastic example of a traditional “motte and bailey” castle, the building also includes an undercroft, a Great Hall (dining hall), a library, and two chapels: the 1540 Tunstall Chapel and the 1078 Norman Chapel. The Castle was donated to the University in 1837, and today hosts more than 100 students, plus various special occasions throughout the year.
Royal Holloway College at University of London
The amazing Founder’s Building is the original building of Royal Holloway College, part of the University of London located in Ogham, Surrey. Built as a “gift to the nation” and officially opened by Queen Victoria in 1886, the Founder’s Building is a stunning example of Gothic Revival architecture. Indeed, the historic building has become so iconic that it has been featured in a number of film projects including Avengers: Age of Ultron, Downton Abbey, MasterChef, Midsomer Murders, and Howards End, among others. Interior gems include: the Picture Gallery, home to more than 70 priceless pieces from the Victorian era; the Main Lecture Theatre; a non-denominational chapel; and the library.
Georgian Old College
University of Edinburgh
Designed and constructed by Robert Adam in the 16th century, the Georgian Old Building is University of Edinburgh’s original and most iconic structure. The College’s imposing honey-colored exterior forms a beautifully manicured courtyard complete with a central grass lawn and paved terrace. Sitting atop the building’s symbolic dome is the Figure of Youth, a thematically appropriate sculpture added in 1887. Housed in the College’s interior are the notable Playfair Library Hall, the Talbot Rice Gallery, the Georgian Gallery, the University’s School of Law, and various classrooms and meeting spaces.
Indian Institute of Advanced Study
The Indian Institute of Advanced Study, located in Shimla, India, is the only collegiate building in Asia to make our list of amazing historical university buildings. Built in 1840, the structure was originally used as a home for the British Governors-General and, later, the Viceroys of India. The Institute’s impressive main exterior is an embellished masterpiece of stonework and wrought iron. Inside, elaborate woodwork (made from Burmese teak) can be seen in the paneling, pilasters, and staircase with its remarkably detailed handrails. Despite its colonial and governmental history, the Institute has been one of India’s foremost research facilities since 1965.
King’s College Chapel
The postcard-perfect image of Cambridge’s King’s College Chapel is often considered one of the prime examples of English Gothic architecture. This should be no wonder considering the Chapel boasts the world’s largest fan-vault, and an interior of the unique Perpendicular Gothic style characterized by long and straight lines. Some of the best stained glass windows can be found here, all of which date from 1515 to 1531, while an early Renaissance-style wooden chancel screen, added by Henry VIII in 1536, continues to separate the nave from the altar in an eternal celebration of the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. The Chapel has stood through many of England’s most turbulent historical periods, and continues to be used actively as a house of worship and the home of the famed King’s College Choir.
Queen’s University of Belfast
If you’ve spent any time in the United Kingdom, perhaps you recognize this amazing historic building from banknotes, billboards, or tourist posters. The iconic Gothic Revival facade, characterized by its red brick and Giffnock sandstone embellishments, was designed by Sir Charles Lanyon in the Gothic and Tudor styles, and was originally inspired by Magdalen College at Oxford. Over the years, a number of now symbolic additions have been made to the Building, including a marble statue of Galileo located in the atrium. The Lanyon Building was founded in 1845 by Queen Victoria as a non-denominational alternative to the Anglican Church-run Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.
University of Michigan
Celebrating its centennial in 2017 is the Michigan Union, one of University of Michigan’s most recognizable landmarks. Originally founded as a club (with yearly dues totaling a whopping $2.50), the Union today houses various student organizations, student services, conference rooms of all sizes, restaurants, and study lounges. Besides its iconic ivy-covered brick exterior, Michigan Union is well known for its two statues: an athlete facing Michigan Stadium and a scholar facing central campus. The Union has historical significance too. In 1960, John F. Kennedy chose the steps of the Union from which to announce his Peace Corps proposal.
When Princeton University’s Nassau Hall was constructed in 1756, it was the largest building in New Jersey and the largest academic building in all of the American colonies. Unfortunately, Robert Smith’s original building suffered severe damage during the 1777 Battle of Princeton. Since then, Nassau Hall’s interior has been reconstructed twice more, first in the Federal style and then with Italian Renaissance characteristics added. This amazing historic building even acted as capital of the early United States for a short time, as the Congress of Confederation spent a few months meeting on the Hall’s second floor. Originally, Nassau Hall housed classrooms, a library, a chapel, and Yale’s first Department of Psychology, but today consists of faculty and administrative offices, including that of the university President. Nassau Hall was made a National Historic Landmark in 1960.
University of Georgia
The 7th oldest building in the United States, Old College has been the center of the University of Georgia campus for more than 200 years. This amazing historic building was the first permanent structure in Athens, Georgia and was designed in the Federal architectural style as a replica of Connecticut Hall at Yale University. Despite the fact it was severely damaged during the Civil War (after which it was close to collapse), Old College has been lovingly restored over time and protected as a historic building. Over the years, the building has taken on a number of roles, including as a dormitory, classroom and office space, a dining hall, fortification, and even a “safe harbor” for the U.S. Navy.
University of North Carolina
University of North Carolina’s amazing historic building, Old East, can boast that it is the oldest public university building in the country that is still standing. Chartered in 1792 and constructed a year later, this massive structure originally stood as the University’s entire campus, housing both residence halls and classrooms. While the interior has been renovated a number of times throughout its history (today, Old East consists of co-ed dorms), the traditionally American exterior has been maintained with very few changes throughout the years.
The grand and imposing Old Library is undoubtedly the gem of Dublin’s Trinity University. This amazing historic building is most famous as the home of the Long Room, a bibliophile’s dream and one of the most popular tourist attractions in Ireland. Measuring 213 feet in length (65 meters), the aptly named Long Room was built between 1712 and 1732. It contains more than 200,000 of the world’s oldest books, including the wonderful illuminated manuscript of the Book of Kells, the Book of Durrow, and the Book of Howth, among so many others.
Standing proudly between a pair of modern structures is Old North, the oldest building on the Georgetown University campus. At the time of its construction in the late 1700s, Old North was one of the most impressive buildings in all of Washington D.C., but was unfortunately nearly forgotten once Georgetown’s more famous Healy Hall was built (1879). Old North was built in the Federal architectural style that dominated the 18th century, and is characterized by its stately towers and large front stairway. In fact, that stairway has played a solid role in history as a popular locale for presidential speeches. Indeed, Old North’s iconic stairway has hosted presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama.
Chartered by King George III in 1766, and completed in 1823, Old Queens at Rutgers University is one of the oldest remaining university buildings in America, and easily one of the country’s most impressive historic structures. Originally intended as a dormitory, Old Queens has housed everything from living quarters, to a chapel, to a library. Today, the building is used for faculty offices, including that of the University President. This amazing historic building is considered one of the best examples of the Federal architectural style, and its most famous features include Old Queen’s Bell (the climb to which constitutes a Rutgers student’s right of passage) and the big black wrought-iron fence that guards the building’s entrance.
University of Bologna
Still one of the most important buildings in the city of Bologna, Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio originally acted as the main building for the University of Bologna. The building’s exterior is dominated by its long porch and 30 sandstone columns, while the interior’s most stunning feature is easily its enormous heraldic complex, on which 6,000 coats of arms have been painted throughout the university’s history. Each coat of arms is reserved to honor students elected by their peers into leadership positions, and features the student’s name along with his home country or city. Today, the Palazzo is home to the Archiginnasio Municipal Library and the Anatomical Theatre.
Oxford University’s Radcliffe Camera is England’s earliest example of circular architecture. Designed by James Gibbs in the Neoclassical Palladian style, “Rad Cam,” as it’s sometimes known, was originally built to house the Radcliffe Science Library. Today, this amazing historical building is one of the most iconic sights in Britain. Holding 600,000 books in rooms that extend underneath the grassy Radcliffe Square, the Radcliffe Camera serves today as reading rooms for the Bodleian Library.
Rockefeller Memorial Chapel
University of Chicago
University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Memorial Chapel is a fabulous example of Collegiate Gothic architecture. Indeed, the Chapel’s patron, John D. Rockefeller, wanted his namesake building to be a “central and dominant feature” of campus. With a tower standing just over 200 feet — making it the tallest building on campus- it’s easy to say that Rockefeller’s vision became a reality. Designed and constructed between 1918 and 1928, the Chapel is chock-full of amazing ornate details. More than 70 figural sculptures, interior mosaic work, and detailed woodcarvings adorn everything from the organ to the balconies. Today, the Chapel is used for worship services, weddings, university convocations, guest speakers, and musical programs, among other things.
St. Catharine’s College
Though academically it is one of the more average of Cambridge University’s many colleges, St. Catharine’s College is easily one of Cambridge’s most stunning historic campus buildings. Located near the town’s historic city center, “Catz”, as it’s nicknamed, is instantly recognizable and notable for its open front court (as opposed to the more traditional closed quadrangle). St. Catharine’s impressive air seems to have rubbed off on more than one of the many scholars to have graced its halls over the years. Its long list of notable alumni include Sir Ian McKellan, film director Sir Peter Hall, actor Ben Miller, and actress Rebecca Hall.
University of Mississippi
The historic building known as The Lyceum is an iconic part of Ole Miss’s Circle Historic District. Its front facade is instantly recognizable, and is dominated by the columns and official university crest. At the time of its construction in 1848, The Lyceum was the one and only academic building of the University, and housed lecture halls, classrooms, faculty offices, a library, and even a geological museum. Now the oldest building on campus, The Lyceum is one of many university buildings and houses only administrative offices.
University of Virginia
The most iconic and recognizable university building in America is undoubtedly The Rotunda at University of Virginia. Located on The Lawn of the original campus grounds, the Pantheon-inspired Rotunda is one of only three UNESCO Heritage World Sites in the U.S. (along with the Statue of Liberty and Independence Hall). If that doesn’t accurately suggest just how important this historic building is, consider this: The Rotunda was designed by Thomas Jefferson to represent the “authority of nature” and the “power of reason.” It succeeds as a lasting symbol of Jefferson’s dedication to education, love of architecture, and belief in separation of church and education.
Thompson Memorial Library
Frederick Ferris Thompson Memorial Library is the main library at Vassar College. This amazing historic building was designed by architects Francis R. Allen and Charles Collens, and constructed with Germantown stone and Indiana limestone. The Library’s exterior, dominated by a central tower crowned with battlements and pinnacles, is incredibly impressive, but the Library’s crown jewel is the Cornaro Window. Commissioned and installed in 1906, this stunning stained glass work features Elena Cornaro Piscopia, a young Venetian woman who is said to be the first woman in European History to earn a Doctorate in Philosophy. The Library houses over a million volumes, plus Vassar’s impressive collection of rare books and manuscripts.
University of Salamanca
University of Salamanca, which has existed at least as far back as the 12th century, is one of the oldest universities in Europe. Historically, this small walled city has been ruled by everyone from the Romans, to the Moors, to the Catholic Spaniards, and its impressive collection of architecture styles reflects this diverse past. The main university building is dominated by its stunning ornate facade. A variety of symbols, crests, designs, and figures are carved into the stone in the unique plateresque style — a term usually reserved for silver work, but which accurately describes the small ornate carvings. Tourists and students alike often spend hours staring at the facade to catch every minute detail. It is said that students who are able to spot the frog will have good luck in their academic careers.
Built between 1924 and 1928, Princeton’s University Chapel is perhaps the closest thing to an English Middle Ages cathedral on American soil. Measuring 277 feet wide at the transepts, it was the second largest university chapel in the world at the time of its construction (after King’s College Chapel at Cambridge). The Chapel’s interior is chock-full of impressive features, including an elevated choir, four stained glass “great windows” (one in each cardinal direction), and four stained glass “Christian epic” windows. Today, the Chapel hosts weekly Christian services, daily Catholic Mass, baccalaureate and commencement events, and other special events.
Brown University’s University Hall was constructed in 1771, just a year after an advertisement was posted asking for donated building materials. Originally, the Hall was used during the Revolutionary War as a barracks for American troops and a hospital for French soldiers. Only after the war ended did University Hall solidify itself as one of the most amazing historic university buildings in the world. Today, University Hall is used as Brown’s foremost administrative center, and houses the offices of the University’s President, Provost. various senior officers, and the Corporation of Brown University.
Waller Hall is the oldest building west of the Mississippi River still in use. Constructed in 1867, Waller Hall’s Renaissance style architecture is characterized by its unique shape in the form of a Greek Cross. The exterior is made of 50,000 locally made bricks, which many credit for the fact that the building has survived a number of fires and storms throughout its existence. Unfortunately, the building’s interior hasn’t been so lucky and has undergone a number of renovations and restorations over the years. Today, Waller Hall houses various faculty offices, including that of the University President, and remains home to the Cone Chapel, especially significant for its gorgeous stained glass windows.
College of William & Mary
Chartered by its college namesakes King William II and Queen Mary II, and built between 1695 and 1700, the Wren Building is the oldest university building still standing in the United States. To put that into perspective, this amazing historic building was standing before the town of Williamsburg was even founded and while the capital of Virginia was still Jamestown. The building’s stunning Renaissance architecture has been attributed to Sir Christopher Wren, the famed English architect, and its quality craftsmanship has helped the structure survive three fires over its long history, including a fire set by Union Soldiers during the Civil War. The building originally housed everything from dormitories, to a library, to a dining room, but today consists of classrooms and faculty offices. Not surprisingly, the Wren Building is considered to be the “soul of the College.”
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