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Widener University marks the sesquicentennial of its iconic Old Main

Old Main

Old Main turns 150 this year.

Widener University’s iconic Old Main building turns 150 this year, and the university will celebrate the milestone with a special public program tied to Homecoming/Reunion Weekend.

The media is invited and encouraged to attend the sesquicentennial celebration on Thursday, Oct. 11 at 4:30 p.m. on the 14th Street lawn in front of Old Main. Program speakers will include Widener President Julie E. Wollman, Pennsylvania Military College alumnus Ron Romanowicz ’68, and local historian David Guleke, on the role of Old Main within the Chester community, in the lives of cadets, and today. The public program will be followed by a ticketed reception, where attendees can walk the halls and view photo arrays of the historic building from its early days. Media cameras will be allowed inside for the ticketed event.

The building will be open for public viewing on Friday, Oct. 12 and the morning of Saturday, Oct. 13.

The Oct. 11 celebration will be a key moment in Widener’s Homecoming/Reunion weekend, which includes a multitude of special events leading up to 1 p.m. kickoff Saturday, Oct. 13 between the Widener Pride football team and Stevenson University at Leslie C. Quick Jr. Stadium.

Widener University was known as Pennsylvania Military Academy when the cornerstone of Old Main was laid in June 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War. Built for $125,000 to accommodate 150 cadets and officers, it opened its doors in September 1868 under the direction of Col. Theodore Hyatt, the first of three generations of Hyatts to run the school. Hyatt’s grandson, Col. Frank Hyatt, who presided for 22 years until retiring in 1952, was born in Old Main.

A contract with Edison Electric Light brought electricity to the building in 1886, and by then, the building had already been devastated once by fire and rebuilt. The fire broke out in a top floor chemistry laboratory in February 1882, while cadets were at outdoor drills. The entire structure was rebuilt in a matter of months while the school operated out of the Ridley Park Hotel. A new chemistry lab was housed separately from the main structure, connected by a metal walkway that still exists today. Steel fire doors – also still visible today, on the first floor – were added for protection.

Cadets attended classes on the top floor and lived on the second and third floors. The assembly room, officers’ space, visitor reception, quartermaster’s office and more were on the first floor. They ate and bathed one floor below. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Today, it houses administrative offices – including the president and provost – campus safety headquarters and a state-of-the-art boardroom.