Wish You Were Here reflects the value of postcards as tools for learning about the past, with images drawn from Manuscript Group 213, Postcard Collection, Pennsylvania State Archives.

General View of Westminster College, New Wilmington, Pa.


Founded in 1852, Westminster College in New Wilmington, Lawrence County, is one of the oldest coed colleges in the country. Its original academic quadrangle is made up of buildings dating from 1893 to 1952. Other well-preserved historic buildings remain on campus as well, most notably the 1884 Thompson House, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and the nearby 1885 Hillside Ladies Dormitory.

Both of these buildings are outstanding examples of Victorian-era architecture with distinctive style and elaborate decorative details. The Thompson House was built as a residence for one of Westminster’s most successful 19th-century graduates, Samuel R. Thompson (1833-96). After graduating from Westminster Collegiate Institute in the 1850s, Thompson had a distinguished career in college education before he returned to his alma mater in 1884 to serve as a physics professor. He also left his mark on the academic quad by providing funds for the 1893 construction of the Mary Thompson Science Hall, named in memory of his daughter. In the postcard, Thompson Hall is the building with the red roof. A Westminster College historic district made up of buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries was determined eligible for the National Register in 1999 by Pennsylvania’s State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). This designation recognizes both the college’s historic significance and its stewardship of its heritage.

Architecture has always played a symbolic role for colleges, serving as a physical expression of both mission and aspirations. From the 1890s to the 1940s a distinctive architectural style, Collegiate Gothic, developed and became popular on college campuses. Collegiate Gothic was an adaptation of the 19th-century Gothic Revival style. It used sturdy masonry construction to suggest permanence and substance and borrowed heavily from medieval forms, using pointed arches, towers and crenelated parapets to create an atmosphere of revered antiquity. By design, these impressive buildings appeared as fortresses of knowledge or even cathedrals of learning and were inspired by authentic medieval universities at Oxford and Cambridge in England. Many of America’s most prestigious colleges embraced Collegiate Revival, including. Bryn Mawr, Duke, Princeton, Trinity, University of Pennsylvania, Yale and, to a lesser degree, Harvard. Other colleges and public and private schools followed suit as the style grew to symbolize educational excellence. Westminster’s 1929 Old Main, with its imposing tower, is an example of Collegiate Revival style.

Iconic college buildings are often recognized individually in the National Register, but may have an even greater impact when they are part of a historic landscape. Pennsylvania is home to a wide array of colleges and universities, many of which have cherished and well-preserved historic buildings at their core. Outstanding examples of college architecture evaluated by SHPO include Bryn Mawr, Cheney, Dickinson, Franklin & Marshall, Gettysburg, Haverford, Penn State, Swarthmore, University of Pennsylvania, Villanova, Washington & Jefferson, West Chester and Wilson. Retaining and maintaining those ivy-covered walls as part of the college’s image is a smart investment. Historic buildings offer a timeless appeal and are valuable marketing aids for prospective students. As colleges make physical changes to adapt to modern needs and preferences, historic buildings still have an important role to play on campus by providing a focal point of identity and a visual reminder of a longstanding commitment to education.


Pamela W Reilly is a historic preservation specialist in PHMC’s State Historic Preservation Office.