reporter contentsalbright college


Selwyn Hall photo

It was a love story with a tragic ending.

Jonathan Deininger built the gracious brick manse on 13th Street in 1836 for his new wife, Mary Elizabeth. Called Linden Hall, the Georgian home with the impressive welcoming portico graced by classical white columns sat on three acres at the foot of "Penn's Mount."

Sadly, the Deiningers were not to enjoy their new home. In 1837, their baby daughter, Emma, died. A year later, at just 32 years old, Mary did as well. A heartsick Deininger abandoned the property. Although he lived to be 79, he never remarried.

Over the intervening 177 years, the building now known as Selwyn Hall South was to become a boy's school, and even briefly a beer garden, and, finally, a key part of the academic institution that was to become Albright College.

We pick up the story of Selwyn Hall again in 1872, when the Central Pennsylvania Diocese of the Episcopal Church began to look for a site for a college preparatory school for boys. Interest centered on the growing city of Reading, with its proximity to the railroad and (as advertised in school brochures), a climate free from malaria(!).

In 1875, the Diocese purchased the property for $14,800 and opened the Episcopal Diocesan School for Boys. Sometime around 1883, the school began to be called Selwyn Hall, in honor of George Augustus Selwyn, the first bishop of New Zealand, who had preached the sermon at the convention that first organized the Diocese.

Selwyn Hall offered a college preparatory curriculum along with practical subjects like bookkeeping for the business-minded. But despite the impressive uniforms of the cadets, enrollment at Selwyn Hall was small—only 43 at its highest. Un-endowed and tuition-dependent, Selwyn finally bowed to financial pressures, sending its remaining students home and closing its doors in 1895.

Sometime later, local entrepreneurs used the property as a beer garden, although details are sketchy. But in 1902, Schuylkill Seminary, one of two sister collegiate institutes established by the Evangelical Association, then housed in Fredericksburg, Pa., was looking for a new home and landed in Reading. (Union Seminary, the other institute from which Albright College dates its founding, was established in 1856.) The name Selwyn remained with the building.

Two decades later, Schuylkill Seminary had grown into Schuylkill College, and Selwyn Hall became the library of the new college.

In preparation for the 1929 merger of Albright College in Myerstown with Schuylkill College on the Reading campus, a new three-story wing, Selwyn Hall North, was constructed, with an arcade of arches connecting the two wings. Selwyn Hall North served as a dining hall and women's dormitory for the new Albright College.

1937 commencement photo

A commencement ceremony takes place on the lawn in front of Selwyn Hall, circa 1930s.

Restoration Restores Historical Charm

Over 177 years, Selwyn Hall always managed to retain its intrinsic charm, although there were many modifications, both interior and exterior, for its new uses. But wear, tear and repair eventually transformed the original main entrance, the portico facing 13th Street, into a mere approximation of the original. The elegantly detailed trim was gone, a flat overhang replaced the balustraded balcony, the raised porch disappeared and was replaced by concrete, and the brick pier supporting the columns had settled significantly. So when the portico recently needed repairs, President Lex McMillan and his wife, Dottie, both intensely committed to campus beautification and restoration, led the effort to restore the west façade to Jonathan Deininger's original graceful design.

The project team included Professor of English Richard Androne, Ph.D., whose expertise includes extensive knowledge of period architecture; College Archivist Sidney Dreese, who uncovered documents and early photographs of the building; and architect David Settle, AIA, of Aurora Architecture. Construction was overseen by Berkey Construction.

Androne calls the building a late-Georgian (English usage) or Federal (American usage) country house, "which would have represented a high-style house for Berks County during this period." He adds that the view from the top of the portico "would have been fabulous."

The design of the original portico was reproduced from photos dating to the 1880s. According to Settle, a more difficult challenge was to find durable, contemporary materials with the correct period look. While some trim had to be modified, the portico is 98 percent accurately replicated, he notes.

quote image

"Practical necessity does not preclude historical accuracy and beauty," says McMillan. "Our campus has so many historic gems, and I feel it is our obligation to maintain that history as much as possible. I am grateful to the talented craftsmen and carpenters who were so deeply committed to authentic reconstruction. Selwyn Hall is one of the first buildings visitors see on campus, and it now has a beautiful new face."

Over the years, Selwyn Hall South has served in various capacities, including a dormitory, the College dining hall, classrooms, the Counseling Center, the Health Center, Public Safety, the Accelerated Degree Completion Program, and the office of the Dean of Students. In 2012, the rear entrance of Selwyn Hall was renovated along with the addition of the new Founders Wall. Today, the building has become a new student services hub, consolidating the Registrar, Student Accounts, Financial Aid and Admission into one student-friendly location.

And so, the story of Selwyn Hall continues.

reporter contentsalbright college