Washington Hall

Ever since the university’s earliest years, the site of Washington Hall has been associated in the minds of Notre Dame students, alumni, faculty and staff with music, entertainment and recreation. In the nineteenth century, Notre Dame was a small and very much self-contained institution. As early as 1846, the combination of a recognition that Notre Dame would have to provide its own entertainment and a French-inspired appreciation for the fine, dramatic and musical arts led the university’s founders to reserve a building for artistic instruction and performance.

The original music hall, which stood on the site next to the Administration Building now occupied by Washington Hall, was a two-story clapboard building. It housed classrooms and practice rooms as well as facilities for lectures, concerts and campus assemblies. The building played a major role in the life of Notre Dame throughout the early years.

An Early Cast

On April 23, 1879, however, the life of the university changed abruptly when a fire destroyed the five major campus buildings, including the music hall. Although the university literally stood in ashes, the Holy Cross fathers were determined to rebuild Notre Dame. Wiloughby J. Edbrooke, a Chicago architect, was commissioned to create a new campus. Two years later, the task was largely completed.

Among the new buildings was Washington Hall. Named for the political hero of the university’s founder, Father Edward Sorin, Washington Hall was built in the “modern Gothic” style so popular in the nineteenth-century Midwest and so much in evidence in Notre Dame’s oldest buildings. The placement, façade and proportions of the new building were intended to parallel those of nearby Sacred Heart Church. Because they do so successfully, Washington Hall from the beginning helped to define the boundaries of the main quadrangle of the campus. Thus, even today, Washington Hall remains at the physical core of the university.

View of Building

The new building retained its function as a music hall. One of its two components continued to provide classrooms and practice rooms for individual students, the orchestra and the marching band. Nonetheless, the octagonal-shaped theatre, which the building also housed, became synonymous with the words Washington Hall. This theatre, which was completely painted over in 1956, once stood as a fine example of the late nineteenth century décor. Frescoes and murals by Luigi Geogori and Signor Rusca included four emblematic figures of tragedy, comedy, music and poetry above which were portraits of Shakespeare, Moliere, Mozart and Dante. Over the proscenium, Washington loomed, flanked by Demosthenes and Cicero on either side. The theatre could accommodate 300 spectators in its gallery and another 400 on the ground floor.

View of House (circa 1882)

A Packed House

Over the years, the theatre has provided the Notre Dame community with countless hours of entertainment and intellectual stimulation. Numerous student productions have been offered on its stage, beginning with the 1882 production of Oedipus Tyrannus. It has served as a forum for speakers ranging from Henry James, William Butler Yeats and William Jennings Bryan to Tennessee Williams, Pete Seeger and Phil Donahue.

Notre Dame has often associated in the public mind with legendary figures but few Notre Dame legends have endured as long or lodged themselves as firmly in campus apocrypha as has the ghost of Washington Hall. Theories as to the ghost’s identity vary, with the most persistent hypotheses being that the ghost is either that of George Gipp, who supposedly slept on the steps of Washington Hall the night before he became fatally ill in 1920 or a Steeplejack who fell to his death while working in 1886. While they may not agree on the ghost’s identity, few students scoff at stories of doors slamming on windless nights, footsteps heard on the roof, or inexplicable noises heard during late-night play preparations. To them the ghost of Washington Hall is very real and very much a part of the respect for the tradition that makes Notre Dame, Notre Dame.

National Register of Historic Places

In May 1978 approximately seventy acres of the University of Notre Dame campus were entered as an historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register is the federal government’s official list of the nation’s cultural resources worthy of preservation. Inclusion of a district, site or building on the National Register is determined after both state and federal review boards have assessed the quality of significance of the nominated property in American history, architecture, archaeology and culture. Districts must possess integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association, and a) Be associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our national history; b) Be associated with the lives of significant historical persons; c) Embody distinctive characteristics of architectual and artistic design and construction; d) Yield important historical evidence. Listing on the National Register makes properties eligible for protection under federal preservation law and for federal grants-in-aid for exterior restoration.

Notre Dame’s historic district was assessed to be of significance particularly in the areas of architecture, community planning and educational and religious history. Washington Hall (1881), the seventh oldest extant structure in the district, was identified as a critical structure in both the original campus design plan and as an example of the University’s predominant architectural style. Its location at the very center makes its preservation essential for the maintenance of the district’s historical aesthetic integrity.

Related Links

Washington Hall Wikipedia Page

History of Theatre Performances

Indiana Department of Natural Resources- Historic Properties

National registry of Historic Places

Willoghby J. Edbrooke


Last Updated 10/31/09

Return to Washington Hall’s Home Page


Return to ND Home Page