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The history of Old East Residence Hall, UNC's first building

Old East, UNC's first building and oldest residence hall, stood tall on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023.

Declared a National Historic Landmark in 1966, Old East Residence Hall is what University archivist Nicholas Graham calls “the most historically significant building on the UNC campus.” 

Its cornerstone was first placed on Oct. 12, 1793, now known as University Day. Old East is UNC’s first building and the oldest state university building in the nation.

Graham said an oral recollection passed down by the McCauley family described the cornerstone-placing ceremony. According to the retelling, an enslaved person named Dave lifted the building's cornerstone into place. UNC's founder and future North Carolina Governor William Richardson Davie, among other prominent people, attended the ceremony. 

While there is no official written documentation of this event, Graham said he believes that it was “entirely plausible” due to the history of enslaved laborers who were employed at UNC. 

“It's important to recognize that these histories don't just live in documents,” Graham said. “They live in the memories of family members passed down through the years. That's another important source of information about the people who worked on campus — even the people who worked on campus many generations ago.”

The building was home to UNC's first student Hinton James in 1795 — as well as U.S. President James Polk.  

Since it was opened to students 228 years ago, Old East’s yellowed walls have seen many changes and generations of students. While it mostly houses students, it has also served as both an educational and storage building. Renovations have developed the building into what it is now — a three-story residence hall that accommodates sophomores, juniors and seniors alike.

Students like Lindsey Hill, a senior who has been living in Old East for two years, witnessed some of these changes firsthand. Although Hill was intrigued by the building’s history, they said they appreciated the University’s efforts to modernize the building.

“Last year, they completely updated the kitchen; they replaced every single appliance,” they said. “So they're doing a really good job of making it not feel as old as it actually is.”

Old East was condemned as unsafe in 1922 and was remodeled in that year. Between 1991 and 1993, air conditioning and elevators were added to the residence hall. 

Sitting beside the Old Well, Old East overlooks McCorkle Place. Because of the historical significance of its location, Hill said they feel more connected to campus and its traditions — like drinking from the Old Well on the first day of class.

“It [had] just turned midnight and there [were] people outside cheering because it was the first day of class,” they said. “I didn't really realize that until I lived here, and I sort of felt like I was a part of it, even though I was up there.”

Close to Franklin Street and most classroom buildings, Old East's central location is appreciated by many of its residents, including senior Aden Laws. Laws said he doesn’t often think of the building’s historical context anymore because he has lived there since his sophomore year.

“For me, it's just home, I guess,” he said. “So really, I've sort of detached it from its own history and kind of made it my own place.”

Laws said his father, a UNC alumnus, told him that everyone wanted to live in Old East when he attended the University. 

But Laws said he believes the residence hall isn’t as popular anymore because of the old-fashioned building’s smaller capacity and lack of social opportunities. Still, he said he has enjoyed his three years living there.

“It's kind of like its own community in a sense because there's so few people in comparison to other dorms — you kind of get to know everybody's space and what role they play in the community in the dorm,” he said. 


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