Posted on June 5, 2018
Time brings many stories. The Wren Building, the oldest college building still standing in the United States, is testament to that sentiment. With a history dating back to August 8, 1695, the building was constructed before the city of Williamsburg was founded. Across three centuries and counting, the building has endured fire, war, and thousands of college students. A defining structure of the College of William & Mary’s campus, history, and culture, the Wren Building is a site of historical—and haunted—importance in Virginia, and in the United States at large.
The Early History of the Wren Building
The Wren Building was chartered on February 8, 1693 by King William III and Queen Mary II of England. It was intended to act as a grammar school, or, in more modern terms, a middle-to-high school equivalent, for adolescent boys. It was also set to be a philosophy school (AKA a college) and a divinity school. Six months later, workers laid the building’s first brick.
The Wren was first built by English contractor Thomas Hadley in what was then known as Middle Plantation, which became Williamsburg in 1699. Originally, the building was set to be a square or rectangular structure with an open quadrangle at its center, but this construction was never completed, as the construction team ran out of money mid-project.
The completed building housed all activities of the new college, with classrooms, a library, a faculty room, and living spaces for the president, faculty, staff, and students, in addition to a school for Native Americans. In 1723, the Indian School was moved. From 1700 to 1704, the Virginia General Assembly used the building while the state Capitol was under construction.
The building was first dubbed “the College,” and later, the Main Building. It was renamed in 1931 for Sir Christopher Wren, a British architect.
Despite Wren, the royal architect at the time, being the building’s namesake, it remains dubious how much of the building he personally designed. There is only one (dated) account that plainly states that Wren designed the building, by Reverend Hugh Jones, a former William & Mary mathematics professor in the 1700s. Scholars and historians have since questioned the validity of Reverend Jones’s account.
Regardless of its true architect, a famous student of William & Mary detested the building’s design. A student from 1760 to 1762, Thomas Jefferson wrote, in his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” that the Wren was a “rude, misshapen pile which would be taken for a brick kiln. […] The genius of architecture seems to have shed its maledictions over this land.”
In so many words, Jefferson found the building to be hideous, and an insult to the very concept of architecture.
A String of Fires
On the night of October 29, 1705, the Wren Building burst into flames near the personal quarters of the college’s first president, Reverend James Blair. The accidental fire raged into the morning, and damaged most of the building’s west walls, but no one was injured or slain. This fire was the first of a series that befell the building.
In December 1781, a small fire burned a significant section of the building.
Around 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. on February 8, 1859, another fire blazed, this time starting in the building’s chemical laboratory. The fire decimated the library and chapel. Then-president of the college and pivotal figure in William & Mary history, Benjamin Ewell, rescued students trapped on the third floor. Per an archival newspaper article from the time, there was “no fire engine in Williamsburg worthy of the name,” making controlling the fire’s spread that much more difficult.
The last fire was in 1862, when a group of Pennsylvania cavalrymen with the Fifth Pennsylvania Cavalry set the building on fire, because it once housed Confederate troops. Aside from that territorial legacy, the cavalrymen also wanted to prevent Confederate snipers from continuing to hide in its upper floors. This fire severely scorched the building. Union soldiers also gutted other buildings on campus. The remaining walls of the Wren became part of the Union line of defense, adding insult to injury for the Confederacy.
Each major fire changed the building’s appearance, as parts of the structure had to be rebuilt every time. The building’s outer walls were mostly undamaged, and are, astonishingly, largely the same walls as those built centuries ago. In 1928 through 1931, the building was restored to its original colonial look under the Rockefeller restoration of Williamsburg.
The Wren Building stopped its college activities on a few notable occasions: the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. During these wars, the building was a field hospital and barracks. In the Revolution, during the Battle of Yorktown, and for months after, the Wren was chiefly a French hospital, but also served American soldiers.
In the Civil War, the Confederacy first used the building for housing and hospitalization. Confederate troops under Brigadier General Jubal Early camped at the Wren before the Battle of Williamsburg. The Confederate hold on the building was followed by the Union, which overtook the campus (and city) in 1862.
Ghosts at the Wren Building
Because of its involvement in the war, there are many murmurings about who may reside within the Wren’s hallowed halls. Though the building is filled with the living, as classes, official events, church services, weddings, and a museum exhibition are still held inside, the Wren Building is also thought to be filled with the dead, both above and below the building’s foundations.
Ghosts of soldiers who perished in the hospital are said to dwell in the building. They are typically assumed to be Revolutionary War soldiers, although, given the building’s history, it is also probable that some of these apparitions are from the Civil War. As these ghosts are commonly heard, in eerie footsteps that echo through the building, more than they are seen, few have been able to look closely at the ghosts for identifying uniforms or other regalia.
Ghostly legends are embedded in the culture and tradition of William & Mary the college, from a statue that is said to grant good grades to students, to a bridge that either rewards loyal collegiate sweethearts, or curses them.
Some students have seen ghosts in the Wren, including one described as a soldier patrolling. He roams on the third floor, near a room known to be where a soldier died from injuries sustained during the Revolutionary War. Some have noted that this soldier seems to visit students attempting all-nighters. Whether or not his presence is a good or bad omen for exams depends on the student.
Sir Christopher Wren is also rumored to pace the building on foot, as if to appreciate his purported design, his footsteps faintly reverberating throughout its versed walls.
No examination of the Wren Building is complete without confronting what is at its foundation.
In early 1729, contractor Henry Cary Jr. built the Wren chapel. Below, he built a crypt.
This crypt became the resting place of Governor Botetourt, Sir John Randolph, Peyton Randolph, and a host of other remarkable Virginians.
However, this resting place has not been wholly peaceful.
In the Civil War, when Union forces seized the city and the William & Mary campus, the Wren was ravaged. In addition to burning the Wren itself, Union soldiers looted the crypt, robbing silver, and other precious items, from the coffins. The litany of ghosts that are frequently spotted on the campus may very well originate from these burial vaults.
Perhaps they stir from the vaults to simply retrieve what has been taken from them. It is also entirely probable that some ghosts seek revenge, however possible, on the Yankee soldiers who defiled their resting places.
Visiting the Wren Building
The Wren Building, a National Historic Landmark, is one of the several sites on our Colonial Ghosts tour. On the tour, you will learn (and experience) even more about the history and hauntings of the Wren Building and William & Mary campus. You might even encounter a soldier (or more) from the Revolutionary or Civil Wars, bringing a new meaning to the term “living history.”
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Special Collections Research Center, et al. “Wren Building, Constructed 1695-1700.” TribeTrek, tribetrek.wm.edu/items/show/1.
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