Ohio University has been praised for its stately Georgian-style architecture and its idyllic setting. The location in Athens been compared to some of the country’s oldest and most beautiful college campuses and has been called “Harvard on the Hocking” on more than one occasion. When you see the Athens campus, in addition to the bricks—nearly 500,000 were used to build Baker Center and the outside plaza area alone—one can’t help but notice the tall, dome-shaped structures on top of so many of the buildings. These roof towers are called cupolas and Ohio University has them on 15 of its buildings.
What is a cupola?
The Trust for Architectural Easements Glossary of Architectural Terms describes a cupola as a small dome, or hexagonal or octagonal tower, located at the top of a building. Once built to hold a belfry or to provide a lookout, today, a cupola is mostly an ornamental architectural detail. Some barns have cupolas for ventilation (thoughtco.com).
Though we’ve lost a couple of cupolas from our iconic South Green beauty shot (Ulsom and Wolfe Street Apartments have been razed), it is still a breathtaking view. One of the cupolas I saw first on my tour as I headed towards South Green from my office in Scott Quad was the Wray House cupola. The white cupola has a clock on four sides, on one of which looks like two stacked blocks before reaching eight arched windows covered with shutters around its octogonal shape. It has a green dome on top. There used to be a silhouette of a Bobcat affixed at the end of its spire and round finial. This cupola juts out of what is currently a rich green backdrop (picture an even more dramatic view with fall colors) behind the newest South Green residence halls and to the left of Adams Hall. My son lived in Adams Hall one summer, which gives me a connection to the building. Additionally, this residence hall was named after OHIO’s first African–American graduate of the school of journalism, Alvin C. Adams, who after graduating in 1959, spent most of his career as a reporter and public relations professional in Chicago, my birthplace. While on South Green, I discovered that the square-shaped cupola on top of Nelson Commons, which has its own dining hall, is called a belvedere. The biggest highlight of my South Green cupola visit was the pleasant surprise of the Wray House cupola chimes at Noon!
After leaving South Green, I headed toward East Green and found one of the most dramatic cupolas on my tour. The cupola on the top of Jefferson Hall (yes, it was named after the third US President Thomas Jefferson) looks as if it has a tiny cupola on top of a larger one, both with a patina that glistened in the sun as I walked past it. This octagonal-shaped cupola has eight arched and paned windows. It is topped with a spire and three round finials. The cupolas on top of Bush Hall, Washington Hall (named for the first US President), and Tiffin Hall, with its green dome (Edward Tiffin was Ohio’s first Governor) completed my cupola tour of East Green residence halls.
Dense foliage made the cupolas atop Tiffin Hall and Kantner Hall (College of Fine Arts Theater Division building on North Green) the most difficult to see on first glance. My last stop on the North Green was to see the Hudson Health Center belvedere, which appeared to be the one that is in need of some tender loving care and repair because of its peeling and faded paint. Both of these cupolas have green tops.
Afterwards I headed towards Campus Green to see the cupola on top of Cutler Hall, which, like Wray House, has a clock on four sides. Realizing that many cupolas hold bells, knowing that there are chimes that play “Alma Mater, Ohio” isn’t surprising. What was unexpected was to discover that the timed recordings we now hear replaced a bell that had been rung by hand for more than 130 years to sound the hours and call students to class. Though its cornerstone was placed in 1816, damage from a fire delayed the opening of Cutler Hall until 1819. I was honored to be in attendance at the bicentennial celebration, which was attended by one of the descendants of Manasseh Cutler. On that day in October of 2016, it rained during the entire ceremony. Could that have been a sign of assurance that the building will be safe for another 200 years?
Galbreath Memorial Chapel has a cupola with a fairly large spire, weather vane, and arrow. It was not surprising to see a large spire on this building. According to the Trust for Architectural Easements, traditionally spires are on churches and have functioned to “proclaim a martial power of religion and to reach up to the skies.” This cupola is topped with a round finial, weather vane, and arrow at the very top of its spire.
Before heading down the street to see the largest cupola on campus, I discovered that the closest cupola to my office is the one on top of Bryan Hall. I would describe the cupola on this residence as a stylized belvedere. It has what almost looks like lattice work around its base, four finials around its four panels and other architectural details including columns, arched paned windows and a rounded top. This cupola also has three round finials leading up to a weather vane and arrow at the very top of its spire.
Still called “new” by some long-time employees, Baker University Center opened several months before Adams Hall, in January of 2007. This appeared to be the location with the largest cupola on campus and makes quite a statement upon seeing the building, even from a distance. The 183,000 facility replaced the old Baker Center, which was located in what is now called the Schoonover Center, home of the Scripps College of Communication. This building is a hub for student life and the entire community with a conference center, ballroom, theater, and art gallery among its ammenities. Baker University Center also houses the first escalator in Athens County! The cupola is similar to the Jefferson cupola, with two domes and windows. It is topped with a small spire and a round finial.
The last leg of my cupola tour was on West Green. I saw the small belvedere on Grosvenor West that is a square with round architectural details on all four sides topped with a green bell shaped “roof” and finished off with a small spire and finial. The more dramatic cupola on West Green is found atop Stocker Center. It is unique in that the foundation of this cupola is a brick belvedere with an ornate window, with a smaller wooden belvedere holding a clock stacked above the brick, then topped with a small octagonal shaped structure, with windows and a green dome. It is finished with a round finial at the base and a long spire.
I’m not sure what started my fascination with the cupolas on campus. Having worked much of the first 20 years of my career at large corporations in large cities, I consider it to be an amazing treat to be able to experience work in a location with so many dramatically beautiful spaces. If you haven’t taken a campus cupola tour, I invite you to walk a few miles around campus in my shoes.