When the third President of Williams College, Edward Dorr Griffin, took over in 1821 the school was in the midst of an all-time low. The preceding president, along with half of the student body, had just deserted the school to found the “Collegiate Institute” (now Amherst College) and Williams was in financial trouble. Among other things, President Griffin decided that a new edifice on the Williams campus might help fully establish the college’s permanence, and he decided to build a new chapel. Ultimately, the ambitious President raised all the necessary money (some $10,000) on his own
On June 27, 1827, the first cornerstone of the chapel was laid; then, in September 1828, President Griffin dedicated the newly completed building, with a rousing round of preaching. In this dedication speech, Griffin praised the building, describing it as a feat wherein “they builded better than they knew.” He closed his sermon by thanking the heavens for their help, declaring “If any building ought to be inscribed all over with Holiness unto the Lord it is this building. It has been erected by the Holy Ghost.” Finally, Griffin professed his determination that the building survive, saying that he “hoped the foundation of the building would remain unmoved until the last convulsion of nature.”
The new Chapel, determinably symmetrical in an older, Federal architectural style, was based on President Griffin’s design. It was built of brick with a symmetrical façade containing two doors. The interior contained three stories. The Chapel proper, complete with galleries, occupied two stories on the building’s west end. The southeast lower-story room was used as a senior recitation room, and the room above it as a conference or lecture room. The third story housed the “Cabinet of minerals” and the college library.
The library moved to Lawrence Hall, the newly built library, in 1847. About 1895, the history, government and literature collections returned to Griffin, residing in the former chapel space. The bookcases, which would mark this library space, were not removed from the building until the 1997 renovation.
In 1845, a new room for the Chemistry Department, which came to be known as the “Kitchen,” was added to the building at its east side. (It was removed in 1902.) And in 1850, the building underwent another change: its bell was removed from the cupola and sent to the American Missionary Board chapel in Sidon, Syria. At the same time, the name of the building was changed to Griffin Hall, as the college’s chapel services had been moved to the new Alumni Hall Chapel, now Goodrich Hall. In 1861, Griffin Hall was completely renovated, as new walls, floors, and stairwells were installed and, in 1873, the school’s first “water closet” was also added to the building. From 1883 to 1893, the Williamstown National Bank, the first bank in Williamstown, rented the southeast section of Griffin. This section also served as the office of the college’s treasurer.
In 1904, despite President Griffin’s hopes that “the foundation would remain unmoved,” Griffin Hall was moved 100 feet northeast, in line with the new, neighboring Thompson Chapel. That year too, plumbing and electricity were installed, paid for by Francis Lynde Stetson. Griffin Hall’s entrance was also altered with this renovation: the original two doors were replaced by the central entrance that exists today.
In 1928, the building’s exterior was sandblasted, removing its yellow paint. Twenty four years later, in 1952, the building was once again entirely renovated, with the addition of new florescent lights and, even more noticeable, a new two-tone, interior paint job. This was part of a campus-wide “renovation program designed to relieve classroom monotony for students and teachers.” Basically, the aim was to brighten the classrooms and thus the learning experience itself. Ceilings, too, were brightened?with asphalt tile.
In 1972, a restoration of Griffin was designed by Peter F. Welentz. In accordance with co-education, a women’s bathroom was installed at this time. A complete restoration with technological advancements was completed by the architectural firm of Childs Bertman Tseckares Inc. in 1996/7. The bookcases were removed from Griffin 3, restoring the room to its earlier configuration. The building was rededicated on April 11, 1997.
By Matt Speiser (Williams Class of 2001)
“The Story of a College Building,” Williams Literary Monthly. April 1902.
Adriamce, Dr. Vanderpoel. New Foundations. Williamstown, Mass., 1940.
Williams Alumni Review. October 1952.