By Matthew Shoen
St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York is a small private liberal arts college that recently found its way onto Best College Reviews list of the top 50 Historically Notable Colleges in America. St. Lawrence also happens to be where Derek and I went to school so now seems like a good opportunity to shamelessly plug the university and look at its early years.
For people who've attended St. Lawrence the basics of its history are commonly retold. The university was founded in 1856 as a theological school by the Universalist Church and became the first coeducational institute of higher learning in New York State. The Universalists who founded St. Lawrence believed that the illimitable love and goodness of God would triumph over evil in human society, and that God, irrespective of religious creed was a force of love in human life. Less concerned with theological differences and proper religious practices, the Universalists were eager to create a theological school to promote their views. Leaders among the Universalist community, whose members primarily came from New England, Western New York and the Finger Lakes Region eventually decided to build their university in Canton, a small town in St. Lawrence County. Those members of the congregation in favor of Canton argued that they had found, “a site of twenty acres of good available land, centrally and beautifully located on a gentle eminence.” The construction of what would become Richardson Hall, St. Lawrence’s first building, started in 1855 and in the course of its construction the citizens of Canton convinced the Universalists to expand the scope of their theological school to include a college of Letters and Science forming the base of the liberal arts education for which St. Lawrence is known.
The early years of St. Lawrence were difficult and the university nearly went under as it struggled to attract students and faculty to the remote North Country. Still the university managed to provide for its students and built out the campus starting with the Herring Library in 1869 and the Fisher Theological School in 1883. The addition of the Cole Reading Room in 1902 gave Herring-Cole its present form and marked the end of St. Lawrence’s challenging first phase of development.
|Image of Richardson Hall and the Herring Library taken from the National|
Register of Historic Places Nomination Form for Richardson Hall.
Where the nineteenth century had been challenging to St. Lawrence University’s Universalist founders, the opening decades of the twentieth century were far kinder. Between 1904 and 1911 the university was able to build many of the academic buildings that hold classes and offices today. These buildings include Carnegie, Cook, Payson, and Memorial Hall. Carnegie Hall became the university’s first science building after a donation of laboratory equipment from A. Barton Hepburn, a North Country native who became one of St. Lawrence University’s greatest patrons. The ability to hold science classes in Carnegie allowed the university to convert Richardson Hall into a lecture space dedicated to the humanities. In addition to private donors such as Hepburn, the 1910s saw New York State involve itself in St. Lawrence’s affairs paying for the construction of Cook and Payson Halls to serve as the first State School of Agriculture. The state would purchase a 63-acre farm and use the farm and new academic buildings to house dairy laboratories, horticultural devices, and plantings. St. Lawrence would later purchase both Payson and Cook Halls and the agricultural school would become SUNY Canton starting in the 1960s.
With its finances growing increasingly secure and with endowments coming from numerous sources St. Lawrence cemented itself as a top flight university in 1929 with the dedication of Hepburn Hall where Marie Curie the two time Nobel Prize winning physicist and chemist and pioneer of radiation research spoke. Curie was convinced to inaugurate the opening of Hepburn Hall by Owen D. Young, university trustee and internationally known financier. In addition to convincing Curie to come to Canton, Young was the mastermind behind the construction of St. Lawrence’s Gunnison Memorial Chapel, Sykes Residence for Men, and Dean Eaten Hall.
|Historic Image of Herring-Cole|
Taken from the National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form for the Library
With the building of Dean Eaton Hall and Sykes Residence the shape of St. Lawrence was effectively finalized. Expansion of the campus would continue as the university sought more students and a more diverse curriculum, but every building that came after the completion of Sykes in 1930 reflected the types of buildings already built, i.e. residences, libraries, common spaces, and academic halls. The university’s historic core, expressed in buildings such as Herring-Cole, Sykes Residence, Richardson, Carnegie, and Hepburn Halls trace the fascinating story of St. Lawrence’s first eighty years of existence. From a single brick building on the edge of Canton to a thriving liberal arts college hosting internationally renowned guests like Marie Curie the story of St. Lawrence is one of triumph. Importantly though, it is not the story of triumph over overwhelming odds or adversity, instead it is a triumph of ideals, a triumph of education and a triumph of a belief fostered by people ranging from the citizens of Canton who asked the Universalists to expand the mission of their college, to financiers like A. Barton Hepburn and Owen D. Young that knew education in this quiet part of New York could be something special.
|Marie Curie Comes to Dedicate Hepburn Hall October 26, 1929|
Taken from St. Lawrence University's Digital Collection
For additional information on the history of St. Lawrence University consider following these links:
 Cornelia E. Brooke, “National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form: Richardson Hall, 1974.” Section 8, Page 1.
 Brooke, “Richardson Hall,” Section 8, Page 1.
 Sadly Fisher Hall burned down in 1951. The building of Herring Cole continued the pattern of unity between St. Lawrence University and the local community as Potsdam Sandstone, a locally and widely sought building material was used to erect the building.
 Hepburn, president of Chase National Bank from 1904-1917 also endowed the university with the money necessary to begin an Economics program
 John Harwood, “National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form: St. Lawrence University Old Campus Historic District, 1981” Section 8, Page 1.
 St. Lawrence students will find amazing is that Dean Eaton is actually considered historically significant.