Chartered just days after the signing of the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution, Dickinson College is the first institution of higher learning founded in the new American nation.
Carlisle Grammar School, the forerunner of Dickinson College, was founded as a colonial Latin school in 1773. Soon after, calls for turning the grammar school into a college that could serve the Western frontier were championed by Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence and prominent Philadelphian physician. Although there are older colleges in the Americas that were founded under British rule, Dickinson College holds the distinction of being the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States, having been chartered six days after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
At first called "John and Mary's College", Dickinson was named after one of the first trustees of the college, John Dickinson, who was also a signer of the Declaration and the Governor of Pennsylvania at the time, and his wife. Because student demand quickly outgrew the former grammar school building, the work to build what was first called "The New College" began in 1798, but fire destroyed the brick building soon after its completion. College trustees charged Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Hugh Brackenridge with leading the project to replace the structure, and he turned to famed-Philadelphia architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who had recently completed the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
Latrobe, giving careful consideration of its location and use, designed what would become known as "Old West" in stone in an effort to help withstand the harsh winter weather of Carlisle and chose the Federal Style to impart a feeling of grandeur. The limestone for the main body of the building and the red sandstone used for its trim were both quarried near town. Keeping student comfort in mind, Latrobe also designed the three-story building to have the less-often occupied hallways, dining rooms, and classrooms on the north side of the building to protect the dormitories on the south side from the north winds.
Although some of the rooms were occupied as early as 1805, construction continued until 1822 due to problems with funding. Once completed, Old West housed all functions and offices of the college, including classrooms, chapel, dining, and dormitories. Over time, many more buildings were added to the campus, and Dickinson College today occupies more than four compete town blocks and many of the surrounding buildings. Old West was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1962 for its architectural style and association with Latrobe.
Today, Old West currently houses many of the administrative offices of Dickinson College and serves as the symbolic center of the school. At freshman convocation ceremonies each fall, newly-arrived students walk up the steps and into the doors of Old West, where they sign their names in the college register, officially entering the college. Graduation each May is held on the lawn outside of Old West, and seniors reverse this route, walking out the doors of Old West and down the steps to receive their diplomas, thereby exiting the college.
Dickinson College currently is a private, liberal arts college with a student body of approximately 2200 students, who hail from nearly every state in the union as well as many countries around the world. Visitors to the college should go to the Waidner Admissions Office, located at 272 West High Street, for campus tours and inquiries.
Visit our photo opp entry about Dickinson College's Commons.