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Central Washington University

Barge Hall Commemorates 125 Years of Service to Central Students

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Central Washington University’s signature building in Ellensburg—Barge Hall—turns 125 this month. The brick and stone landmark, which is the oldest structure on campus, was completed in time for the start of classes in fall 1894.


Named after Central’s first principal (precursor to today’s university president), Benjamin J. Barge, the building has long played a key role in the school’s operations. In its first decade, Barge Hall was the only campus building and housed just about everything, including the school’s administrative offices, classrooms, library, laboratories, an auditorium, and a gymnasium.


More recently, it has served as home of the university’s executive staff, including the president, provost, vice presidents, and other administrative personnel.


“The history of Barge Hall is the history of CWU,” noted Shane Scott, associate vice president for campus planning and facilities management. “Barge has been the heart of the campus community from the time it was built to the present day.”


The Washington State Normal School (CWU’s original name) was established in 1891. During its first few years, classes were taught in borrowed classroom space in the community while students rented rooms from local residents.


In January 1893, Senator C.I. Helm of Kittitas County introduced legislation appropriating $60,000 to erect a campus building to house the Normal School (another name for a teacher’s college). The bill was signed into law and Ellensburg architect E.C. Price was hired to design the new school house.


Price’s neo-classic design incorporated a Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style, meaning it featured a combination of building materials (brick and stone) as well as thick walls, rounded arches over windows, gables, and round towers (or “turrets”).


To help keep costs down, the school’s trustees purchased 300,000 clinker bricks (a type of brick with a dark, shiny coating) to use in the construction. The contractor hired to build the project was H.A. Fossen and Company of Tacoma.


According to a history of Barge prepared by the Facilities Management Department (FMD) in 1993 to commemorate the building’s centennial, “Once begun, construction work on Barge Hall proceeded rapidly. Almost all materials were obtained in immediate environs: foundation rock from local basalt formations, brick from the A.O. Fowler yard in Ellensburg, and sandstone trim from quarries in Tenino.”


Records show that by late October the second story of the structure had been completed and, by January 1894, the main tower had been raised and was roofed and completed. Construction was completed in time for the fall classes in September 1894.


While the final cost came in at $59,996.69—or $3.31 under budget—the Board of Trustees did not allocate any funding to actually equip the school with furnishings. As a result, Senator Helm requested an additional $5,000 for furnishings and supplies.


The supplemental funding was reluctantly approved by the state, but the episode triggered a legislative investigation, which eventually concluded the school had done nothing wrong.


In the late 1920s, an earthquake damaged Barge’s tallest cupola, which was repaired. A larger quake in 1949 resulted in the removal of the hall’s main cupola several years later because of damage and fear that it might topple.


For the next few decades, Barge stood with a kind of neo-classical brick crown on its tallest turret. It was still Barge, office of the school’s administration and oldest campus building, but many felt the design change lessened the building’s visual impact.


“Following the structural inspection of 1954, in which it was found to be improperly anchored, the four-sided domical vault of the main tower was removed,” the FMD report said. “This was an unfortunate event because with its four ornate dormers, its crowning lantern, and flagpole, the vault was an extremely distinctive feature of Barge Hall.”


After Barge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, the university sought to restore the building to its original appearance. Finally, during the 1991-93 biennium, the state appropriated $6.3 million to update and seismically stabilize the building, including replacing the dome on its tower.


The restoration of Barge, completed in 1993 to coincide with CWU’s 100-year anniversary, provided the university with a modern, safe structure to house administrative functions while preserving and replacing the historic elements that have long defined the building.


“Because it has remained in uninterrupted service over the years, Barge Hall has figured prominently in the changing Central Washington University campus,” the FMD report noted. “As the institution’s original structure, the hall has participated, in a historical sense, in Central’s conversion from a Normal School to a full-fledged university.


“We anticipate that Barge Hall will stand for the next 100 years and beyond as a symbol of the foundation and history of Central Washington University.”


[A video history of Barge Hall can be viewed at:]


Media contact: Richard Moreno, Department of Public Affairs, 509-963-2714,

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