The doors of Alumi opened, secrets revealed

Kerry Lester

One of the most charming tales told at Villanova is about its oldest standing building, Alumni Hall. Prospective students touring the campus often hear that this current dorm once served as a hospital during the Civil War. Along with the barn and St. Mary’s Hall, Alumni has the reputation of being haunted – by the screams of wounded soldiers.

So, what’s fact and what’s fiction behind Alumni’s legacy?

David Contosta, a former Villanova history professor, published a 150-year history of the University in 1992. He explains that since 1849, Alumni has served as a residence hall for students.

Originally named College Hall, the first part of the structure, the east wing, cost $11,958 to build. Even at that time, the Augustinians thought the building would later be enlarged.

The 1943 Centennial Belle Air Yearbook states, “after the commencement of 1857, hard times descended. The panic of ’57 forced Villanova to close her doors.”

The Augustinian Fathers hoped to resume classes within two years, but the Civil War and lack of finances forced the college to remain closed for eight years. “It was not until after the restoration of national peace in 1865 that Villanova once again opened her portals to admit students,” Contosta writes.

What happened in between? No one is exactly sure. The yearbook hints that it was indeed used as a hospital during the war years. Contosta, however, insists “that’s still conjecture.” Even Rev. Dobbin, knows no truth to the rumor, but explains that Contosta is the leading source on the University’s history.

In 1873, eight years after Villanova reopened, the west wing was added to the building. The center section, joining the east and west, has “a wide porch along the front with steps leading up from the lawn. On the roof gable there was a large clock, and capping central portion of the roof there was an octagonal lantern topped with a bronzed dome.” The 13-foot cross on top of the dome rose in a ceremony on Sept. 4, 1873. Villanova’s president at the time, Father Galberry, announced,

“We have all assembled for the purpose of seeing the emblem of our faith and salvation raised on this magnificent structure dedicated to the purpose of education.”

At one time, the College Building housed the entire schoo – containing classrooms, offices, a library, auditorium and dormitories. Both genuine college students pursuing bachelor’s degrees as well as boys of late elementary and high school age all studied and lived in the building. It was a very different way of life back then; young men were required to bring their own knives, forks and napkin rings to dinner.

Taking a look inside Alumni Hall today, one sees reminders of an earlier age. The staircase seems almost wide enough to bring a hospital bed across. Jim Croce, a singer who was tragically killed in a plane crash in 1973, allegedly carved his name somewhere along the stairwell. Furthermore, a glance up to the fourth floor ceiling reveals a pulley suspended from the roof.

Could it have been used to bring soldiers upstairs who could not make it on their own? Though it has been nearly 140 years since the Civil War, no one exactly knows. Want to know the truth? Camp out there for a night and wait and see what you hear.