Pennsylvania Hall's lofty cupola has always been a high-visibility symbol of Gettysburg College, but few have seen its interior or enjoyed the view from the top.
A video and a photo gallery, both shot this summer, provide total access to the circular structure perched atop the campus's oldest building.
Just how precariously the cupola was perched is surprising. For over 130 years, it was not actually attached to the building. Penn Hall opened in 1837, but it wasn't until a major renovation in 1969-70 that the cupola's untethered condition was discovered and rectified.
The cupola played a role in the great battle that swept through campus in 1863. Union signal corps officers looked out from the cupola on July 1, the battle's first day. Confederates later held the building, which was struck by projectiles but not significantly damaged. A professor claimed that he saw Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee using the cupola as a lookout post, but some have since disputed the eyewitness account.
Legend has it that a ghostly Civil War sentry can be seen atop the cupola as the bell in nearby Glatfelter Hall's tower chimes midnight. Not legendary is Penn Hall's role as a hospital for hundreds of wounded soldiers.
Just as it would have during 1863's battle, the U.S. flag that flutters above the cupola bears 34 stars. The flag has flown 24 hours a day for many years, aglow with floodlights by night. It is not true, however, that Congress passed a special measure permitting the flag to fly over Penn Hall around the clock. Despite a popular legend, no such authorization is legally required.
Other flags often join the stars and stripes above the cupola: each class's colors are hoisted when they arrive on campus as first-year students and again during their Commencement; additional flags fly on special occasions, such as the rainbow flag that marked Allies Week on campus this past February.
Of course, no one knows everything that has taken place in or on the cupola, which has certainly seen its share of hijinks. Supposedly, students once managed — somehow — to lead a cow into the structure. A member of the Class of 1881 reported that several people were trapped in the cupola for hours after someone filled a keyhole with molten lead. Graffiti of varying ages remains plentiful inside. At least one marriage proposal occurred atop the cupola.
If you have a cupola story of your own, please comment below or on Gettysburg College's Facebook page.
In 1848, a bell specially cast in Philadelphia was hung in the cupola. The bell was later moved to Brua Chapel, now Brua Hall.
The cupola is featured in the College's official seal. It is also the namesake of the Cupola Society, a prestigious circle of alumni, parents, and friends of the College whose leadership giving and enthusiastic commitment to Gettysburg College set an example and inspire others.
Pennsylvania Hall was known as the College Edifice when it opened just five years after the founding of Pennsylvania College, which became Gettysburg College in 1921. Initially the College's lone structure, it provided not only classrooms but also housing for students and, briefly, the College president and his family. Many generations of students resided in the building, which they called Old Dorm. Since the renovation of 1969-70, when the entire interior was removed and replaced, Penn Hall has housed administrative offices including those of the President and Provost. The American Greek Revival building's designer was architect John Cresson Trautwine.
Historical facts in this article are from A Salutary influence: Gettysburg College, 1832-1985 and Yonder Beautiful and Stately College Edifice: a History of Pennsylvania Hall (Old Dorm), both by Gettysburg College history Prof. Emeritus Charles H. Glatfelter '46, who offers a brief history of Penn Hall in a video.
Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college, which enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students, is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
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