The only campus building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Old Main has been the centerpiece of the university since A.G. Freed and N.B. Hardeman joined forces in 1908 to build it. Over the last century, thousands of students have sung praises to God in Chapel Hall, learned the finer points of composition in Old Main's classrooms and walked its hallways with their friends. Old Main's bell tower, now incorporated into the university logo, welcomes alumni home and lights the way for the next generation of students.
Climb the stairway to the second floor, notice the grooves worn in the steps by those who've gone before and listen for the echoes. You may hear N.B. Hardeman, one of the church's finest orators, explain the distinctive nature of the church. Or, perhaps it will be the voice of H.A. Dixon reading "Old October" to a chapel audience. Certainly, you will hear the best congregational singing this side of heaven. You might even hear Kelley B. Doyle remind students, "It's not a sin to sing it the way it's written."
In addition to classrooms, laboratories and Chapel Hall, Old Main housed the administrative offices of the college. In fact, many alumni know the building as the "AD" building. Freed and Hardeman had their offices here; their desk is still in the building. Later, Dixon and E. Claude Gardner occupied the presidential office.
More than former presidents, the faculty or the staff, you will hear the myriad students who came here for a while, learned, loved and grew "in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man."
Important as Old Main is to the university, it is also central to Henderson and its history. It, along with the historical Chester County Courthouse, defines the downtown. It is inextricably tied to the community. Constructed by local craftsmen using local resources, the building bears the stamp of the Henderson community. Bricks were kilned on Mill Street and it is believed all timbers were processed on site. The building's early 20th century Italian Renaissance Revival and Italianate-style elements were designed by architect Hubert T. McGee, born in what is now Chester County and educated at one of Freed-Hardeman's predecessor institutions.
The 1908-09 school catalog described it as "the finest and the best" college building in the South.
"It is an elegant brick edifice, two stories with basement, finished in buff pressed bricks, trimmed with white dressed stone steps, belts, and keystones, modern in architecture, one hundred and twenty-five feet front by eighty feet deep, seventeen rooms, spacious halls and stairways, large lobbies, magnificent recitation rooms, especially designed for light, fine observatory. The Chapel Hall is one of the best auditoriums anywhere. It is eighty feet by fifty feet, with stage in the end…The entire College Building is practically fireproof."
Once this $5.5 million restoration is complete, more students will be able to have classes in Old Main. Faculty offices will be updated with the latest technology. Chapel Hall, that most revered of all places on campus, will feature a restored stage and seating returned to its original condition. The auditorium is expected to have a seating capacity of approximately 380.
New students will take University Foundations in Old Main, ensuring that every student is familiar with the building and the school's history. Chapel Hall will be used for devotionals, club meetings, reunions and other student activities.
Even the grooves in the stairs will be preserved. Throughout the remainder of the building, care will be given to return the public spaces to their original appearance while making offices and classrooms functional for 21st century students. Old Main is truly the bridge between Freed-Hardeman's past and her future.
In 1907, Freed and Hardeman boasted of 3,000 square feet of "the best Hyloplate blackboard." They went on to say "the very latest and most improved physical and chemical apparatus will be used; charges, globes, maps and surveyors' outfit; cabinets of weights and measures of all kinds, metric and mensuration." They promised, "The School will keep abreast of the times in modern appliances."
That vision continues today. While public spaces including Chapel Hall, lobbies, halls and stairways will be restored to their original state, offices and classrooms will be renovated to include the latest in technology, making them efficient workspaces for 21st century faculty and students. All floors of the building will be handicap-accessible, and a sprinkler system will be installed for fire protection.
"We are not building a museum," FHU President Joe Wiley said. "We want to restore Old Main so that it can be used for the next hundred years. We really see it as the bridge between our past and our future. It is imperative that it be preserved."