Wren Building

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The Sir Christopher Wren Building, circa 1850s (This image is a black & white print made from a daguerreotype in the collection of the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library)

Constructed: 1695-1700

Fires: 1705, 1859, 1862

Renovations: 1928-1931, 1967, 1999-2000

Map it for me

Generally referred to simply as the Wren Building or College Building at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, The Sir Christopher Wren Building is the oldest college building in the United States still in use. It was constructed between 1695 and 1700, before Williamsburg was founded, when the capital of the colony of Virginia was still located at Jamestown. Tradition has it that the building was designed by the famed English architect Sir Christopher Wren who designed St. Paul's Cathedral in London. [1]

Wren Building front
Wren Building rear


The Wren Building is joined in the Wren Yard by the Brafferton and the President's House. Together the three oldest buildings at the College of William and Mary form the Historic Campus. In the building, generations of William and Mary students have attended classes and lectures, enjoyed meals and attended chapel services. Classes are still held in the Wren Building, which also is home to the offices of the faculty of the department of religious studies. The northern wing holds the Great Hall and the southern wing holds the Chapel. Both rooms are often open to the public and are still used for various functions.[2]

According to the Virginia Gazette of 27 May 1775: "Monday last, in the afternoon, came on a heavy shower of rain from the N.W. accompanied with hail of a prodigious size, some weighing upwards of half an ounce, others an ounce. Great damage is done to the windows by the violence of the hail-stones, and particularly to those of the Palace and College, the former (it is said) including the out buildings, having lost upwards of 300 panes of glass. (Transcription in the Board of Visitors folder, University Archives Subject File Collection, Special Collections Research Center)


The Wren Building has been gutted by fire three times: in 1705, 1859 and 1862. Each time the interior of the building was reconstructed inside the original walls, and for more than three centuries, it has been "the soul of the College."

In the October 1705 fire, the College Building (Wren) and its library burned. One book from the library survived the fire and is part of the collection of Swem Library's Special Collections Research Center.

In the early morning February 8, 1859, the College Building again burned. The library contents were destroyed. A fragment from the bell survived the fire and is part of the University Archives Artifact Collection. (An image of the fragment is available in the box list of the finding aid.) Lectures resumed on October 13, 1859.

In September 1862, the College Building was burned by Union soldiers from the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry during the Civil War.

Thomas Jefferson's Addition

Lord Dunmore, royall governor of Virginia, requested Thomas Jefferson develop plans for the completion of the College Building around 1772. Originally planned to be a quadrangular structure, Jefferson's design almost doubled the existing building space.

Jefferson's expansion plans

An advertisement appeared in the Virginia Gazette newspaper on September 3, 1772, stating the Visitors and Governors of the College intend to make an additional building to the college. “Notice is therefore given, to all persons willing to undertake this work, that a plan thereof is lodged with Mr. Matthew Davenport, who will be ready at all times to show the same and to whom they are desired to send their estimates and proposals, sealed up, on or before the first day of October next.”

The contract was awarded to John Saunders, a local builder.

Entries in the Bursar’s Book for November 8 and 9, 1774 indicate materials were being assembled. It states an order being placed with a London firm and the money is noted to "By New Building". The foundations of the new west wing were laid but the Revolutionary War intervened and construction was suspended never to be completed.

By 1780 the assembled materials were being sold. The Virginia Gazette (Dixon and Nicholson) of September 13 and 20, 1780 indicates:

“The College has for sale, a considerable quantity of scantling, originally intended for an additional building. Any person taking the whole which cost about $500 [pounds] in the year 1775, may have it upon the most reasonable terms.”

A “scantling” is a small piece of lumber as an upright piece in house framing.

Wren materials for sale.jpg

The foundations were covered over and later re-discovered in 1940 by accident during planting of a row of trees. No further excavations were made until October 1950 by James M. Knight of Colonial Williamsburg and A. Edwin Kendrew, Vice President in charge of the Department of Architecture, after a conference on the subject of Jefferson’s addition held with College President John E. Pomfret. They discovered that the foundations for the side walls between the existing building and the Jefferson addition were never laid.

The foundations were again re-discovered in June, 1977, when a construction crew was digging a trench for pipe installation.

Wren Building Foundations


1967 Renovation

Details of a 1967 renovation can be seen in the September 22, 1967 issue of the Flat Hat on page 12. A number of publications produced by Colonial Williamsburg during this time period have been digitized and can be found searching the library catalog.


To prepare the Wren Building for its fourth century of use, the College has recently completed a comprehensive renewal and replacement project. The major components of the project were restoration of the architectural features such as floors and paneling; replacement of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems; safety upgrades; and conservation of the masonry walls. See the records of the Office of the Historic Campus for further information about recent renovations.

Statues of Lord Botetourt

Original Statue

Lord Botetourt was so revered by the Virginians that they erected a statue in his memory which stood first at the Old Capitol building and then was purchased by the College of William and Mary in 1801. Barring a brief period during the Civil War when it was moved to the Public Asylum for safety, it stood in the College Yard until 1958 when it was removed for protection from the elements, and then installed in the new Earl Gregg Swem Library in the Botetourt Gallery.

1993 Statue

A replica Lord Botetourt statue created in bronze by College of William and Mary alumnus Gordon Kray was installed in the College Yard in 1993. It is a College tradition to dress up the statue for the holidays and special events such as hanging a wreath on the statue's outstretched hand in December.



The two mortars flanking the east door to the Wren Building were among several captured from the British after the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. The initials "GR" stand for George Rex-George III, King of England at the time the cannons were cast and at the time of the American Revolution.

The cannon in the yard was taken from Fort Christanna, a trading post which was established by colonial governor Alexander Spotswood south of the James River in 1713.

Plaques Honoring War Dead

Revolutionary War

  • Men of the College who served in the American Revolution.
  • Memorial Table to French Soldiers who died in Williamsburg from wounds received during the siege of Yorktown, 1781, was erected October 18, 1931.

Civil War

  • Confederate volunteers plaque was erected in 1914.

World Wars I and II

  • World War I and World War II plaques were erected in May, 1948.
  • A temporary plaque of the WWII casualties was unveiled on Alumni Day in June, 1944.

The Catalogue of the Alumni and Alumnae For the Years 1866-1932 includes a list of alumni who died during World War I on page 178.

Korean, Vietnam, and Cold Wars

  • Erected in November 15, 1986.
  • One alumnus is honored on the Cold War plaque.

Burial Vaults

A crypt is located under the chapel in the Wren Building. The crypt is not accessible to the public. What is known about each vault:

A. Sir John Randolph (d. 1737) and Lady Susanna Beverley Randolph(?) (d. after 1754); tomb opened in 1858 and perhaps 1862.

B. John Randolph (d. 1784, buried ?); opened in 1858 and probably in 1862; repaired in 1929.

C. Peyton Randolph (d. 1775, buried 1776) and Elizabeth Harrison Randolph (d. 1783); opened in 1858, 1859 and probably 1862. Mrs. Randolph's remains placed in Mr. Randolph's lead coffin and both transferred to Vault G on May 30, 1929.

D. Lord Botetourt (d. 1770); opened and robbed in 1862 and 1969; opened by Lyon G. Tyler between 1888 and 1919.

E. Bishop James Madison (d. 1812) and possibly Mrs. Madison (d. 18?); probably opened in 1862. Remains placed in a lead box and transferred to vault G on May 30, 1929.

F. Grave of Chancellor Robert Nelson (?) (d. 1818); excavated 1858 and August 1928.

G. See Vaults C & E.

H. President Thomas R. Dew (d. 1846, buried 1939).

? Judge Thomas Nelson (d. 1813); burial place unknown.


Thomas Jefferson's Addition References

  • “The Sir Christopher Wren Building” and “Jefferson’s William and Mary” pamphlets from Office of the Historic Campus Records, Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library, The College of William and Mary.
  • Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 10, No. 3, October, 1951, pg. 28-31.
  • “Discovery of the Foundations” by Kocher and Dearstyne, in "Wren Building—1615-1799," University Archives Subject File Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library, The College of William and Mary.
  • Virginia Gazette (Dixon and Nicholson), September 13 and 20, 1780.
  • Virginia Gazette, July 15, 1977.

Plaques Honoring War Dead References

  • French Soldiers: see Plaques—French Soldiers in University Archives Subject File Collection.
  • Confederate Soldiers: see Plaques—Confederate Soldiers in University Archives Subject File Collection.
  • WWI and WWII: see Plaques—WWII in University Archives Subject File Collection.
  • Korean, Vietnam, and Cold Wars: see Alumni Gazette, May 1985, page 5.

Material in the Special Collections Research Center

  • Search the SCRC Collections Database for the many references to the Wren Building:
    • Office of the Historic Campus Records, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.
    • University Archives Photograph Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.
    • University Archives Subject File Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.
    • Office of the President, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.
    • University Archives Artifact Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.
    • For blueprints see the Facilities Management Records, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.
  • James D. Kornwolf, So good a design : the colonial campus of the College of William and Mary : its history, background, and legacy, Williamsburg, Va. : College of William and Mary, Joseph and Margaret Muscarelle Museum of Art, 1989. Swem stacks and Archives Books: call number: LD6051 .W53 K67 1989.
  • David Sacks, The history of the William and Mary campus, Thesis (Honors), College of William and Mary, 1984. Virginia reference and Archives Books: call number: LD6051 .W5m Fine A., 1984, S32.
  • For further material in Swem Library's book collection (including Archives Books, theses, and dissertations), search the Library Catalog using the subject heading "Wren Building (Williamsburg, Va.)" or "College of William and Mary Buildings."

In the News

External Links

Need help?

To search for further material, visit the Special Collections Research Center's Search Tool List for an overview of the Special Collections Database, W&M Digital Archive, Flat Hat-William & Mary News-Alumni Gazette index, card catalogs, and other tools available to help you find material of interest in William & Mary Libraries Special Collections Research Center.

Questions? Contact the Special Collections Research Center at spcoll@wm.edu or 757-221-3090, or visit the Special Collections Research Center in the Earl Gregg Swem Library at William & Mary.

A Note About The Contents Of This Wiki
The information available in this wiki is the best available from known documents and sources at the time it was written. Unfortunately, many of the early original records of William & Mary were destroyed by fires, military occupation, and the normal effects of time. Information in this wiki is not complete as new information continues to be uncovered in Swem Library's Special Collections Research Center and elsewhere. Researchers are strongly encouraged to use the Special Collections search tools for their research as the information contained in this wiki is by no means comprehensive.