Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Early Days of Union College

West College at corner of Union Street and College Street, looking north down College Street.
Photograph from the Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.
This blog entry was written by Frank Taormina, one of the Society's trustees and a frequent researcher here in the library.

We learned recently that Liberty Street was named after a Liberty Pole which had been erected in 1771 at the point where it was destined to make its eastward trek in 1802. Union Street, parallel to Liberty, got its name 4 years earlier in 1798 when it was changed from the Road to Niskayuna to Union by Schenectady’s first mayor, Joseph C. Yates. Yates was among the several citizens of Schenectady at this time who played a role in obtaining a charter from the New York State Regents for what was to be the second college in New York State, following Kings College, which came into existence in 1754 (Kings College was renamed Columbia University after the American Revolution). The process of obtaining a charter from the New York State Regents to permit the erection of a college in Schenectady took from 1779 to 1795.

Union College seal, which
features an image of Minerva.  
In 1795, Union became the first college founded in the United States that did not have a link to a specific religious sect.  Its name signifies that it was the “union” of several different religious sects then in existence in Schenectady that shared an interest in the creation of an institution of higher learning. Its symbol, a depiction of the Roman Goddess Minerva (who is usually also designated as the Greek Goddess Athena) and its motto, in French, “Under the Laws of Minerva, we all become brothers” was not associated with any religious sect.

Union’s first domicile was at the northwest corner of Union Street and Ferry Street, in a building erected in 1785, which had served as the “Schenectady Academy” until until Union occupied thie building in 1795.
Nine years later, Union moved to a location one block west, at the corner of Union Street and what became College Street, into a structure built especially for it which was called “West College.” That site today is the parking lot for the Van Dyck Restaurant.

From 1804 to 1814, this site, before the Erie Canal was dug along its eastern edge, was the location of Union College. In 1814, the college moved again, eastward, following the street which bore its name, Union, to the top of a hill generally called “Prospect Heights.” There, after erecting the stone wall we have since called “the Terrace”, were erected the two buildings, still very much like they were in 1814, and still called “South College” and North College.” 

Postcard depicting North College on Union College campus. From Grems-Doolittle Library Postcard Collection.
These buildings formed the beginning of the first planned college campus in America, still bearing witness, after nearly two hundred years, to the imagination and architectural skill of Jacques Ramee, and to the wisdom of Eliphalet Nott, the President of Union from 1804 to 1866, in hiring Ramee to plan the campus. 

The purpose of this blog is to introduce you to your surroundings on Union Street and to provide a brief account of Union’s existence in this neighborhood. There is so much more history of Union College – and much of it, for any one interested, on the net, accessible through a Google search.  In the meantime, as we walk down Union Street, let us listen - can we can hear the voices of all those associated with Union College as they strolled up and down the street named after their college between Ferry Street and Nott Terrace during the last two hundred years and seventeen years?

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