Kemp Plummer Battle wrote of the University's first building, "The timbers are of the finest heart, the bricks carefully made on the University grounds and burnt hard as the imperishable rocks" (Henderson 1949, 14). Indeed, Old East has withstood over two hundred years of damp Carolina winters, the occasional hurricane and fire, and the dull ravages of constant human habitation. The cornerstone for Old East was laid on October 12, 1793, in a Masonic ceremony with William R. Davie presiding. The building was substantially complete by the time the University opened in January 1795. It stood two stories tall, contained sixteen rooms, and was two-thirds the length it is today. Its plan was virtually identical to those of the Yale dormitories designed by John Trumbull, the great American Revolutionary War painter. Through its early years it functioned as both dormitory and classroom building; today it remains a dormitory.
The trustees of the University originally envisioned Old East as the "North Wing" of a large three-part building that would face east. According to Kemp Battle, "Orientalization" was the architectural fashion of the day, and both the U.S. Capitol in Washington and the State House in Raleigh faced east. However, the trustees' original plans gave way to a more traditional design in which Old East was one of a group of buildings embracing a quadrangle that ran north toward the village of Chapel Hill.
The original cost of Old East is impossible to determine, but there are records indicating that by 1799 the University had paid out a total of $12,180 for work on Steward's Hall, Old East, Person Hall, and the President's House. This money came from a number of sources, including private gifts and a $10,000 loan, later converted to a gift, from the legislature.
James Patterson of Chatham County was the contractor in charge of the construction of Old East. His work may not have been of the highest quality because by 1804, the building required significant repairs. The building received new doors, window sashes, and ladders, and the roof was also repaired and repainted. In 1823, a third story was added under the supervision of Captain William Nichols. When the gifted architect A. J. Davis came to North Carolina in the 1844, the University Trustees hired him to lengthen the building by a third and create the new north entrance. The resulting addition, completed in 1848, included spacious new rooms for the Philanthropic Society hall and library. Davis added large north-facing windows, which he called "eyes," encased by graceful brick panels. Davis also added two brick porches to the east side of the building, reinforcing the idea that it faced east. Contractors for the addition were Isaac J. Collier and Kendall B. Waitt. The interior woodwork in the society rooms was done by Thomas Day, a skilled and respected free African American cabinetmaker.
Old East remained the home of the Philanthropic Society until 1860, when New East was completed. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, five-foot high sand-covered terraces were built around Old East and Old West. These were likely the work of John Loader or Thomas Paxton, the two landscape gardeners who served the University from the late 1840s to 1858. The terraces remained in place until the late 1890s. The Philanthropic and Dialectic Societies fined members who sat or walked on them.
According to Battle, the trustees moved the University library from Smith Hall to a room on the third floor of Old East for safekeeping before the Civil War. The library was probably moved back to Smith Hall before 1875. During the period 1871-1875, when the University was closed, Old East sustained considerable damage. A committee of the trustees, reporting in April 1874 on the condition of the buildings, noted, "The north gable has been damaged by the falling of a tree, and a portico on the east [. . .] is in a state of ruin [. . .] in many of the fireplaces the iron supporting the arch had been removed and carried away for other uses [. . .]" (Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina Records, Vol. S-7). The damage was estimated at approximately $600 and repairs were made in 1875.
Works Consulted: Alcott, John V., The Campus at Chapel Hill: Two Hundred Years of Architecture, Chapel Hill, NC: The Chapel Hill Historical Society, 1986; Battle, Kemp P., History of the University of North Carolina, Spartanburg, SC: The Reprint Company, 1974; Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina Records, 1789-1932 #40001, University Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Henderson, Archibald, The Campus of the First State University, Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1949.