The Three Lives of Kissam Hall

Situated on what is now Alumni Lawn, the original Kissam Hall was the first large, “modern” dormitory on campus. Crowned with two cupolas, the impressive building was funded by William Kissam Vanderbilt and finished in 1900. It served the university 57 years.
Situated on what is now Alumni Lawn, the original Kissam Hall was the first large, “modern” dormitory on campus. Crowned with two cupolas, the impressive building was funded by William Kissam Vanderbilt and finished in 1900. It served the university 57 years.

When Vanderbilt opened its doors in 1875, there were no dormitories on campus and no plans for any—ever. On the contrary, the initial catalog specifically stated that dormitories were thought to be “injurious to both morals and manners” of young men. The catalog went on to say that it was “far safer to disperse young men among the private families of an intelligent and refined community.”

Actually, a few students enrolled in the biblical department were allowed to live on campus in a former residence that stood on land purchased by Bishop Holland McTyeire in 1873. It came to be known as “Wesley Hall” and stood on what is today Library Lawn until it was razed to make space for “new” Wesley Hall, which opened in 1880, thanks to a generous donation from William Henry Vanderbilt, the eldest son of the university’s founder, Cornelius Vanderbilt. That grand building served the biblical department/theological department/school of religion (now known as Vanderbilt Divinity School) with classrooms, a library, reading room, chapel, parlor, cafeteria, and rooms for students and faculty.

After Wesley Hall burned in 1932, the university purchased the YMCA building across 21st Avenue (present site of Wesley Place Garage) to house the school of religion. The building was renamed “Wesley Hall,” with the former Wesley referred to as “Old” Wesley.

By 1886 the administration’s attitude toward dormitories had changed, and with a legacy left to the university by William Henry Vanderbilt, six cottages were built to house students. Each two-story cottage contained eight rooms (four over four), each with its own outside entrance. In order to discourage intermingling, no interconnecting doors were constructed.

A corner fireplace heated each room, with coal stored in the basement. Oil lamps provided lighting. Each room was supplied with a large bowl and water pitcher for students’ grooming—shaving and face washing. A community pump, centrally located in front of the cottages, provided water.

Other “conveniences” were found just south of the last cottage. Showers and indoor toilets were located in the basement of the gymnasium (now part of the Office of Undergraduate Admissions) several yards to the east. West Side Hall was built the next year to provide dining facilities. (Part of that structure remains today as a portion of the undergraduate admissions building constructed in 1992.)

These Spartan facilities, known as West Side Row (five remain standing today), served 96 occupants each year. But more housing was needed with modern conveniences longed for by students.

William Kissam Vanderbilt
William Kissam Vanderbilt

On April 3, 1899, Chancellor James H. Kirkland informed the Board of Trust that W.K. Vanderbilt had offered to erect a new dormitory on campus. The April 7 Vanderbilt Hustler headlines announced: “Mr. William K. Vanderbilt Makes a Magnificent Gift to the University; The University Gets One Hundred Thousand Dollars; A New Dormitory of Modern Design to Be Built on West Side Row; Richard H. Hunt Is Drawing the Plans; Work to Begin Very Soon.”

William Kissam Vanderbilt, a son of William Henry and grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, was making possible the first large, “modern” dormitory on campus. The renowned New York architectural firm of Hunt and Hunt, employed by the Vanderbilt family to plan some of their opulent residences, was chosen to design the building. Richard Howland Hunt, the junior partner, was the son of Richard Morris Hunt, who had been chief architect for such Vanderbilt family mansions as Biltmore House, The Breakers and Marble House.

Sited on the south end of today’s Alumni Lawn, the four-story dormitory built over a daylight basement was an imposing structure of brick trimmed in stone. Built in a “U” shape that faced University Hall (now Kirkland Hall), the dormitory was crowned with two impressive cupolas. Four firewalls, positioned to prevent the spread of fire, also provided privacy to smaller sections of the building. Most of the building was arranged in three-room suites consisting of a study flanked by two single bedrooms. Single rooms also were designed to accommodate one or two students. The building was heated by steam radiators, with fireplaces also provided. Electricity supplied the lighting. Bathrooms “fitted up with every convenience” were located in the basement.

The dormitory itself was built to house 175 students, both professional (law) and undergraduate. The dormitory’s dining room accommodated 300 students, including residents of West Side Row.

Construction delays prevented the dormitory’s opening as planned in the spring of 1900, in conjunction with the university’s 25th anniversary. The celebration was delayed until that fall’s meeting of the Board of Trust. The building was formally presented to the university in October by W.K. Vanderbilt (in absentia) as a memorial to his mother, Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt, who had died in 1896. Positioned in the middle of the front wall of the building was a large engraved, gilded memorial plaque of Tennessee marble.

Now displayed at the northeast corner of Tolman Hall, the plaque reads: “Kissam Hall erected by William Kissam Vanderbilt in memory of his mother Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt MDCCCC.” Married to William Henry Vanderbilt for 44 years, Maria Louisa Kissam was the mother of nine children, some of whom continued to take an interest in the university founded by their grandfather.

“Kiss ’em all!”

A few students were admitted as residents in February 1901, and the first full admittance followed in the fall of that year. Total cost of the building given by W.K. Vanderbilt, according to Board of Trust minutes, was $144,339.02.

“Old” Kissam Hall served the university well for 57 years and became a legend in its time with countless stories of its residents’ shenanigans. The correct pronunciation of “Kissam” places the accent on the second syllable, but many residents enjoyed calling their dorm “Kiss ’em all!”—pun intended. A familiar cry heard up and down the halls of Kissam was “Heads out!” when coeds passed along the sidewalks below.

After World War II, with an influx of young men returning to their educations, Kissam Hall was stretched beyond its capacity. In an attempt to make it safer, wooden fire escapes were erected around the building. Two new dorms, McGill Hall and Tolman Hall, were built in 1947 just a few yards behind Kissam. Cole Hall was added in 1949, and Barnard and Frederick William Vanderbilt halls followed in 1952.

During its May 1955 meeting, the Board of Trust decided to raze the venerable old Kissam rather than put an estimated $1.5 million into renovation. A new committee, Campus Planning and Architecture, was appointed to investigate possible sites for a new dormitory to replace Kissam.

The Board of Trust approved construction of a six-dormitory complex to begin in the spring of 1956. Plans specified that the location was not to interfere with Curry Field, the open green space just to the south. Originally, the dorms were to be arranged in two groups of three, with colonnades connecting so that one house mother could serve three dorms. The three-story structures each were to include about 100 single rooms, with special sections for law students, medical students, other graduate students and undergraduate students. They would accommodate approximately 300 male students who had been housed in Kissam and Cole halls, plus about 300 students who had been living off campus.

Edward Durell Stone of New York City, the university’s consulting architect in the late 1940s, was chosen as the designer. A native of Arkansas, Stone was world renowned. Educated at the University of Arkansas, Harvard and MIT, he had worked with other architects in designing Rockefeller Center in New York City.

The six residence halls making up Kissam Quadrangle have stood near the intersection of West End and 21st avenues since 1957. They will be razed in May.
The six residence halls making up Kissam Quadrangle have stood near the intersection of West End and 21st avenues since 1957. They will be razed in May to make room for two new residential colleges.

Estimated cost for the new quadrangle was $2 million. Application was made for two loans of $1 million each to the U.S. Housing and Home Finance Agency at 2.75 percent interest. On May 4, 1956, with loans approved, the Board of Trust announced that plans for the six dormitories had been completed and approved by the U.S. Housing Administration and that the project was to be put out for bids. The next month, the Board of Trust approved the demolition of “old” Kissam to proceed as soon as assurance could be made that the new dorms would be complete for September occupancy. Room rental for the new dorms was set at “not less than $270 per academic year and $70 for the summer quarter.”

Although the name was not officially announced by the board until Nov. 1, the Sept. 20, 1957, issue of the Hustler announced that “Kissam Quadrangle” had opened, leaving Cole and Tolman halls available for undergraduate and graduate women. Freshman women were assigned to McTyeire Hall, while freshman men were assigned to McGill, Barnard and Vanderbilt halls.

At that November meeting, Chancellor Harvie Branscomb reported to trustees that “the beautiful new quadrangle” had been completed on schedule and assigned to upperclassmen, with one dormitory reserved for graduate and professional students. The chancellor went on to describe the buildings as “modern and functional, but architecturally retain[ing] something of the flavor of Mobile or New Orleans.”

Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, a grandson of Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt who was chairman of the university’s Board of Trust from 1955 until 1968, provided funding for air conditioning for four of the buildings, leaving the remaining two “ready for installation when needed.”

Completion of these dorms allowed the opening of Cole and Tolman halls to upperclass women, many of whom had been housed on 24th Avenue in older residences that “were expensive to operate and fire traps.” Branscomb’s “proper and desirable answer” to the “problem of housing women” was “an area for women across 24th Avenue.” (Branscomb Quadrangle, which opened in 1962, originally for the housing of women, was named for Chancellor Branscomb and his wife, Margaret, a year before his retirement.)

In his report to the Board of Trust, Branscomb also recommended that “old” Kissam Hall, along with the Fine Arts Building, be razed immediately.

“No doubt many a baseball will be tossed in the open green and the grass will be worn, but we shall have fresh air, and green lawns, and attractive buildings, and a campus growing speedily in symmetry and beauty,” Branscomb asserted. “Perhaps a continuation of the parking problem is not too much to pay for these values.”

Thanks to Harvie Branscomb, Alumni Lawn was created, furnishing an ideal space for student recreation, concerts and Commencement.

Now, monumental plans are being made for future generations of students with construction of phase two of College Halls at Vanderbilt on the site of Kissam Quadrangle (see sidebar).

The original Kissam Hall served its all-male residents for 57 years. The second Kissam Hall and Quadrangle will have served its residents, both male and female, for 55 years when the last student moves out in May 2012. And the grand old name of “Kissam” will be preserved with the two new residential colleges to be located on the same site that has witnessed thousands of students at work, at play and at rest on the corner of West End and 21st avenues.

Lyle Lankford is senior officer for university history and protocol at Vanderbilt.