Old Botany Building has been witness to much of Penn State's history

July 19, 2010

A peculiar little structure nestled in the shadows of Burrowes Building and Schwab Auditorium on the University Park campus, Old Botany Building has been witness to much of Penn State’s history. Built in 1887-88, this building was designated as a historic landmark by the University’s Board of Trustees in 1962 and has the distinction of being the oldest building on campus whose exterior has not been significantly altered since its construction.

Old Botany was the original home to what was then the Pennsylvania State College’s botany department. In its heyday in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the building had an attached greenhouse where students conducted their studies on exotic plants. Students also kept a botanical garden which was arranged in a series of geometric patterns in front of the building along what is now Pollock Road. A photograph taken from Old Main in 1901 shows the “college yell” spelled out in white flowers in a garden along the sidewalk: “YO HE HEP RAH RAY BOOM RAH!!”

Though the building’s size can lead it to get lost among the others now surrounding it, Old Botany’s architectural features give it a look that is unmatched on campus. The building, designed by Frederick L. Olds, features semicircular windows, four eyelid dormers (two on each side) and is topped by a decorative terra cotta crest. Some who have written about the building have said Old Botany was designed after the “Richardsonian Romanesque” style of 19th century Boston architect Henry Richardson,(1) though the building lacks several key features that would put it firmly into that category.(2)

Through the years, Penn State has grown up around Old Botany. When it was constructed, a stand of pine trees, which lined a path known as the “ghost walk,” stood directly to its north, where Burrowes Building now stands. In 1929 the Department of Botany left the building, which had been outgrown by the program. The botanical garden and greenhouse were removed by the end of the 1930s.

Since the departure of the botany department, the building has been occupied by numerous units, including zoology, the ROTC, a wing of the Department of Psychology and the music department. Currently, the building is home to Penn State’s Asian Studies Program.

Old Botany, then and now: To see a series of historic and modern photographs of Old Botany, visit http://live.psu.edu/stilllife/1693 online.

To read a 1977 account of Old Botany’s history, used as a reference for this article, visit the University Libraries digital archive by clicking on this link.

1. For more information about Old Botany’s architectural history, visit http://www.sts.psu.edu/About/bothisty.htm online.

2. Read a second piece on its architectural history at http://www.sts.psu.edu/About/OldBotany.html online.

  • This photograph, taken from Old Main in 1901, shows the college yell spelled out in white flowers in a garden along the sidewalk. For more images of Old Botany, click on the image above.

    IMAGE: Penn State University Archives
Last Updated November 18, 2010