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Oldest building on campus serves as residence hall

On-campus living is not only about convenience, there’s also a distinct historic aspect for those who live in the University’s oldest building.

Last year marked the 200th anniversary of laying the Cornerstone of what was then called the East Building by Gov. William Davie on Oct. 12, 1793.

Now, Old East residence hall stands as the oldest public university building in the U.S. It housed the University’s first student, Hinton James, when he arrived in 1795.

Most students learn this key piece of history when touring the University, but many don’t know the full history of the building.

Old East was originally a two-story structure containing a hallway and two rooms on both sides. It functioned as both the academic building and the residence where professors and students lived.

“It was literally the entire University, “ said Patrick Horn, Associate Director at the Center for the Study of the American South .

“Kemp Battle’s ‘History of the University of North Carolina’ relates stories about pranks being played on professors in Old East and students using trap doors to pass exam questions to underground ‘researchers,’” he said. “Student writing from the 1840s reveals that Chapel Hill was a pretty lawless place.”

It is this history that attracts students to live there today. Old East currently houses 67 students, and has been co-ed since 2000.

Freshman Zac Locklear lived in Old East during the summer of 2013 while participating in the Summer Bridge program. He said he enjoyed the history of the building.

“I liked to think about all the people who lived there before me,” he said.

Junior Isaac Warshauer lived in Old East as a sophomore and chose to live in the building again this year .

“I kept thinking I could live in a dorm that people have lived in for 200 years,” he said.

Besides the intrigue of the building, which interests history buffs, Warshauer said the biggest benefit of living in Old East is the proximity to classes.

The function and design of Old East have evolved over time, he said.

The third floor of the building was not added until 1823, to mirror Old West, built that same year . In 1848, the buildings received their north wings

After being condemned as unsafe, the building was gutted and refurbished from 1922-24. Further renovations in the 1990s added conveniences such as elevators and gave the buildings their present appearances.

The new rooms added to both buildings in 1848 served as the libraries and meeting places of the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies (Di Phi)—the oldest student debate and literary organizations on campus which still meet today.

The Philanthropic Society would meet in Old East and the Dialectic Society would meet in Old West, mimicking the fact that the former tended to select its members from eastern North Carolina and the latter from the west .

The Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies eventually amassed large collections that became the first donations to endow what became the University Library. The library was housed at Old East from 1853-69.

Today, there is a recreation of the original library in the same spot in Old East, which now functions as a study room and lounge. It was added in the 1990s, Warshauer said.

Warshauer, who is a member of Di Phi, also said that while the interior of the building doesn’t resemble what it was 200 years ago, the view from his dormitory window has not changed very much.

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“I like to stand and look out the window and I imagine someone looking out the same window 200 years ago,” he said. “Sometimes its nice to think about the history.”

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