Initially the Steward's Hall was the site of the Commencement Ball. In 1833, the students petitioned the Trustees for a new campus building. This building, they asserted, would be a regular meeting place for Trustees and the newly formed Alumni Association. Its unofficial function, however, would be a once-a-year ballroom. The first plaintive letter urged that a ballroom at Commencement would give "very much to the gratification & pleasure of the adored Fair who honor us with their company on that universal jubilee" (Alcott 1986, 36).
The students' 1833 petition was rejected by the Trustees; but in 1848, when they again petitioned, the Trustees accepted their plan and added another use for the new building: library. The University contracted renowned architect
A. J. Davis for the design. The new hall, with one story and a basement, would flank South Building on the east as Gerrard Hall did on the west. It would be named for General Benjamin Smith, special aide to General George Washington during the Revolutionary War and North Carolina state senator and governor. Smith bequeathed land in Tennessee to the University. The sale of this land, plus the sale of Steward's Hall, funded the building.
The bricks for Smith Hall were provided by William Mercer Green, the rector-turned-brickmaker of the Church of Atonement, later the Chapel of the Cross, in Chapel Hill. The builders were Captain John Berry, a longtime North Carolina state senator and representative, and Henry Richards. Work was started in the summer of 1850 and completed in 1852, and Smith hall truly became the crown jewel of Davis's work on the University campus. Facing east, it is an elegant, classical structure made to resemble a Greek temple. Its wide portico is held aloft by four Corinthian columns. Davis's brilliance is in the capitals, for they sport not acanthus leaves but ears of Indian corn and sprigs of wheat. The capitals give Smith Hall an American touch, despite its classical structure. The total cost for Smith Hall, according to Archibald Henderson, was $10,303.63, surprisingly inexpensive for such an elaborate building.
Smith Hall functioned primarily as the University library from its completion until 1907, when the books were moved to the Carnegie Library (now Hill Hall). In 1853, the basement was turned into a reading room and meeting room. Since the reading room was open for only an hour a week, however, this service was discontinued a year later. The space was then renovated to house a chemistry laboratory. According to Kemp Plummer Battle, the library was moved 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. In 1871, the University closed and did not reopen until 1875. During this time Smith Hall sustained some damage, and repairs were made prior to the reopening.
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; Henderson, Archibald, The Campus of the First State University, Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1949; University of North Carolina Papers #40005, University Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.