Joseph Jacques Ramée Architectural Plans for Union College
The Ramée Architectural Plans for Union College is a collection of the surviving plans drawn for the College by French architect Joseph Jacques Ramée in 1813, presented here for the first time in a digital format. Ramée’s designs, drawn in collaboration with Union College President Eliphalet Nott, reflect an evolving vision for the campus. The scope of their plans was unheard of in the United States in the early nineteenth century, and in many ways their work laid the foundation for the school that Union was to become.
Joseph Jacques Ramée was a well-known architect and an itinerant designer in Europe, whose work could be seen in Belgium, Germany, and Denmark. The style which developed in his designs was a product of his nomadism: to the Neoclassicism of his training in France, he eclectically adopted elements from the architectural pallet of whatever locale he was working in. His tendency was to work with basic shapes and spare forms, suitable to versatile settings. However, Ramée’s eclecticism was not confined to design elements; he also learned the techniques of related trades, such as interior and furniture design, as well as landscape architecture. He would utilize all of these skills in the plan for Union College.
In January 1813, Nott came into contact with Joseph Ramée, as the architect traveled south through New York State on his way to Philadelphia. Nott had a unique vision for higher education, coupling a modern and practical focus in the curriculum with the ideal of a college community as an extended family. To embody this vision, the campus itself had to be more than just a functional space. Nott apparently found a practical match for his ideas in Ramée, whom he contracted to draw plans for the Union campus. Ramée must also have been pleased by the offer, as he continued to work with Nott while his plans for the campus evolved from a single central structure (referred to in the Collection as the “Central Building”) with adjacent North and South Colleges, to an intricate layout replete with a chapel, multiple dormitories, long colonnades and a central house for the president.
A beautifully wrought watercolor (titled “Plan of the Campus Grounds”) reveals what is believed to be the completed design of the Ramée campus. This image shows an open campus square flanked on either side by North and South College. Extending east from the colleges along the edges of the central square are two long structures, termed “Colonnades” by Ramée. A semicircular colonnade closes off the eastern edge of campus with the President’s house located at its center point and on either end two additional structures, thought to be similar in purpose as North and South College. In the center of the campus is what was known for some time as the “Round Building.” Although no complete plans for this building survive, the structural details and sketches in the margins of other pieces in the Ramée Collection indicate that this would have been a chapel modeled after a Roman Pantheon. A building of this kind would have been unprecedented in the United States, and was so striking that it is thought to have caught the eye of Thomas Jefferson, who featured a similar structure in his plans for the University of Virginia. Surrounding the campus is an extensive array of gardens laid out in the geometric patterns of the French style. With its broad scale and its incorporation of the surrounding environment, this campus design would foreshadow the work of renowned landscape architects such as Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted.
Ramée brings a sense of unity to his design by the repetition of patterns such as the white pilasters and arches set against the recessed, dark stucco walls, as well as the repetition of larger architectural features such as the pedimented pavilions on each end of North and South College repeated in the two structures connected by colonnade to the President’s house. With its neoclassical elements and its elegant layout, Ramée’s campus was the first of its kind in the United States. While Ramée’s vision is evident in the Union College of today, its influence was felt throughout the collegiate world in its time. The Union College plan became a model for what a campus could be and what kind of values a college could embody.
Turner, Paul. Joseph Ramée: International Architect of the Revolutionary Era. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Turner, Paul. Campus: An American Planning Tradition. New York: Architectural History Foundation; Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1984. Encyclopedia of Union College History. Compiled and Edited by Wayne Somers. Schenectady: Union College Press, 2003.
Images on this site photographed by Eric Seplowitz under the direction of Ellen Fladger. Digital project direction by Annette LeClair in collaboration with Gail Golderman; research, textual, and metadata support by Matthew Connolly.
Collection owner: Union College