Sheldon Hall: A History

The building now called Sheldon Hall was the vision of Isaac Poucher, who succeeded Edward Austin Sheldon as principal of the Oswego Normal School. (See historic photos)

Poucher dreamed of a larger building on a site allowing for growth to replace the old and outmoded normal school building on Oswego's westside. After a few years of funding delays and debates on where to place it, parties settled on purchasing 27.5 acres of land which included Shady Shore, the home built by Sheldon, the college's founder. In 1909, the state legislature approved $340,000 in funding for construction.

To design the building, the state offered its renowned architect, Franklin B. Ware. His plans called for an H-shaped edifice of two wings and a central section.

The final look was determined by a kind of focus group, as Poucher and various officials viewed three sketches "and all present were most pleased with the one showing large fluted Corinthian columns across the entire front of the building, which gives a massive Colonial appearance," the Oswego Daily Palladium noted in 1909.

For the grounds, the state tapped Samuel Parsons of New York City, "one of the best known landscape gardeners in the country," the Daily Palladium explained, who had worked on Central Park and designed and laid out the grounds surrounding Vassar College.

Performance in front of what is now Sheldon Hall, c. 1950s

Great expectations

When hosting its first normal school classes in September 1913, the new edifice was viewed as a beacon for future growth. Thomas Finnegan, the State Education Department commissioner said, "the State planned to make the Oswego Normal not only the largest institution of the kind in the State, but in the world."

While World War I provided a challenge for enrolling male graduates, Oswego and the building hosted an army training corps, where young men would perform drills and take classes.

The building remained the only one on campus until the Industrial Arts Building -- today known as Park Hall -- opened in 1932. The original building housing the college became known as Old Main.

A serious fire caused major damage on Jan. 18, 1941, gutting the building's auditorium. With Old Main one of only two academic buildings on campus, then-principal Ralph W. Swetman and other administrators contacted local officials, alumni and friends of education to arrange meetings and start conducting letter-writing drives to state officials for funding for eventual reconstruction.

A suspected arson in 1950 caused $5,000 to $6,000 in damage to the second-floor library. Firefighters found spent matchsticks on one side of the 100-foot library, cushions set ablaze on the other end and the curious disappearance of a large, expensive oil painting of Swetman.

With the addition of new buildings, college operations began to move out of Old Main. The Oswegonian, for example, detailed an April 1961 brigade moving some 32,000 books to the new Penfield Library (now Rich Hall).

Old Main was christened Sheldon Hall during the college's centennial celebration in 1961.

Sheldon Hall with its purgola prominently displayed
 

 

Decline and renewal

By 1980, the building faced the challenges of an old structure with expensive upkeep. Attempts to repair the front stairs in the 1970s failed, leading to closure of most of the steps in 1977. "Tiles, draperies, lights and fixtures are only some of the deterioration that has infected the decrepit building," Oswegonian reporter Sue Bower wrote. "One can’t help but wonder [what] Edward Austin Sheldon would say if he came back to our campus and saw his namesake as it is today."

Amid the ensuing budget crisis, the college decided it could not afford to renovate Sheldon Hall and closed it in 1983.

The building transferred to New York State’s Office of General Services, which leased it to a developer that began renovating with a plan to convert Sheldon Hall into a hotel and conference center. But a prevailing wages lawsuit halted conversion, and by 1991, the project stalled.

The silver lining was that, with a significant amount of renovations completed by the developer, ownership of the building reverted to SUNY Oswego. On the eve of Deborah F. Stanley's 1998 presidential inauguration, the college held a rededication ceremony, and the building slowly returned to life.

Today the ballroom gutted by the 1941 fire hosts college musicians, touring performers and special events. The offices of Admissions, Development, International Education and Programs as well as the Children's Center base their operations in the building.

Starting in spring 2006, its west wing again started hosting courses in rooms that retain the building's traditional charm while incorporating high-technology learning. More recently, students have had the opportunity to live in the east wing of the historic building because of the high demand for student housing.