The Nott Memorial: Centerpiece of Union College

The Nott Memorial: Centerpiece of Union College

Photography and text by George Cassidy Payne

During a recent excursion to the Capital District, I paid a quick visit to Union College in Schenectady, NY. Known as the “Mother of Fraternities,” as three of the earliest ones were established there, Union has grown to be one of the nation’s truly outstanding liberal arts institutions. Union is also unique because it started as the first non-denominational college in America.

At a time when rival schools such as Harvard and Yale were heavily influenced by the denomination of their founders (Baptist in their case) nearly 13 sects in this growing city on the Mohawk River came together to found a college free of any specific religious affiliation. For the time, that declaration of educational freedom was revolutionary in the United States. The school quickly became a bastion of free thinking, one that pioneered the teaching of science alongside and within the humanities.

No single individual better represents the core mission of Union than Eliphalet Nott, the school’s imaginative and illustrious president from 1804-1866. And no other building on the sublime campus is as splendid as the memorial named after him.

Situated in the center of Rugby Field, the 16- sided Nott Memorial is one of the most stunning Victorian buildings in the country.

“The Nott Memorial is 89 feet in diameter and capped with a ribbed dome. The dome is sprinkled with 709 small colored glass windows, or “illuminators.” Girding the lower portion of the dome is a band of red slates bearing a modified inscription from the Talmud. In its simplest translation, the phrase says, “the day is short, the work is great, the reward is much, the Master is urgent.” (Union website)

“The memorial is dedicated to Eliphalet Nott, president of Union College and pioneer of the liberal arts in America. Nott’s many innovations included a scientific curriculum and the first introduction of engineering at a liberal arts college.” (Union website)

“This National Historic Landmark is home to the Mandeville Gallery, which exhibits nationally recognized contemporary artists. The Wikoff Student Gallery (pictured above) showcases student works as well as the annual campus-wide LGBTQ+ exhibit.” (Union website)

“The Nott Memorial was conceived by President Nott in consultation with the French architect Joseph Ramée, who created the master plan for Union’s campus. His plan included a circular building originally envisioned as an alumni hall. Construction finally began on the building in 1858, based on designs by Edward Tuckerman Potter, grandson of President Nott.” (Union website)

The Nott Memorial makes an ideal setting for college addresses, lectures, speeches, seminars, and the like.

“The Nott Memorial is a living, breathing part of Union, a witness of our past, present and future. In the stillness of the Nott, you can hear your own thoughts, and with light shining through the stained glass windows, it is breathtakingly beautiful.” – Shayna Han ’15

Memorial Chapel: “Memorial Chapel was constructed between 1924 and 1925 to serve as the central College chapel and to honor Union graduates who lost their lives serving during wartime. The names of Union alumni who died in World War I and World War II appear on its south wall, flanked by portraits of College presidents.” (Taken from Wikipedia)

I love how the reflection in the ice came out in this photograph.

“Under the laws of Minerva, we all become brothers and sisters.” Union’s motto

Old Chapel: “The building now generally known as Old Chapel is located at the east end of South Colonnade / Hale House and was an element of the original campus plan by Ramée. It was built between 1855 and 1856 according to plans developed by College President Eliphalet Nott and Treasurer Jonathan Pearson (class of 1835) in consultation with Albany architect William L. Woolett.” (Taken from Wikipedia)

Schenectady City Hall

“In March 1953 Jimmy Carter began nuclear power school, a six-month non-credit course covering nuclear power plant operation at Union with the intent to eventually work aboard USS Seawolf, which was planned to be one of the first two U.S. nuclear submarines. However, Carter’s father died two months before construction of Seawolf began, and Carter sought and obtained a release from active duty to enable him to take over the family peanut business.” (Taken from Wikipedia)

Chester A. Arthur, 21st President of the United States, graduated from Union in 1848.

Map of Union College

Title work inside the Nott Memorial

Union is ranked 38th by U.S. News & World Report

Historically included among the Little Ivies, Union has a reputation for having one of the most selective admissions processes in the country.


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About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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