Situated to the north and slightly to the west of the eventual site of Old West, Person Hall was the fourth University building contracted. Person Hall was built to be the University chapel and village church. However, it quickly became a meeting house for secular activities as well. The Dialectic and Philanthropic societies held their debates in its spacious, ethereal interior, and graduating seniors gathered there for Commencement exercises. Person Hall also became a primitive civic center for the town of Chapel Hill, as Mrs. Cornelia Phillips Spencer described in 1884: "To that 'Old Chapel' all itinerant preachers, lecturers, showmen, ventriloquists, Siamese twins, and the like wended their way, and all Chapel Hill followed them" (Henderson 1949, 68).
Person Hall is named for Brigadier-General Thomas Person, Revolutionary War soldier and member of the 1776 North Carolina Constitutional Convention, who contributed $1,050 toward its construction. The turned earth for its foundation was apparent by late summer in 1796, as a letter from Charles Harris to Joseph Caldwell dated 24 July 1796 stated, "The Chapel is already contracted for, and will cost near 3,000 Dollars the foundation will be laid within two weeks" (Connor 1953, 2:42). When Caldwell arrived in Chapel Hill that fall, he observed that not much progress had been made on the chapel. He wrote to a friend that "the mason and his negroes have spent the favorable fall they have had in raising the foundation to the surface of the ground" (Connor 1953, 2:70). The date Person Hall was completed is a matter of some uncertainty. A letter from William R. Davie to John Haywood dated February 1797 indicates that the chapel was not yet finished, and that Hodges's work is unsatisfactory. Davie wrote, "I am fully convinced that man has no intention of compleating [sic] his contract without a Law-suit" (Connor 1953, 2:158). Another letter from Davie to Haywood dated August 1797 indicates that the building still was not finished. A lawsuit was eventually enjoined against builder Philemon Hodges, and thus it is hard to determine when the building was actually finished. Though the contract called for completion by July 1797, it was obviously not completed at that time, and the arbiters of the lawsuit sent to judge the quality of the building did not make a report until December 4, 1798. The total cost for Person Hall was $2,826, paid to Hodges out of gifts and other funds.
Person Hall hosted several prominent speakers, not the least of whom was scholar Archibald DeBow Murphey, who spoke on June 27, 1827. In 1832, William Gaston spoke on the abolition of slavery at Commencement. In 1837, Gerrard Hall became the new University chapel, leaving Person Hall to an uncertain fate. It was spared from demolition by petitioners who argued for its usefulness as a place for public prayer and beloved community gathering spot. In 1843, the interior was divided into four recitation rooms for Greek, Latin, Logic, Rhetoric, and Ancient Language studies, and a year later it received a tin roof. The building sustained some damage during the four years that the University was closed, and reparis were made in 1875 at a cost of approximately $125.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, all the brick campus buildings were covered in tan stucco, reflecting the Romantic art and architecture movement of the time. In the twentieth century the University campus underwent a Colonial revival, and Person Hall and South Building were sandblasted back to their original red brick color.
Works Consulted: Alcott, John V., The Campus at Chapel Hill: Two Hundred Years of Architecture, Chapel Hill, NC: The Chapel Hill Historical Society, 1986; Battle, Kemp P., History of the University of North Carolina, Spartanburg, SC: The Reprint Company, 1974; Connor, R. D. W., comp., A Documentary History of the University of North Carolina: 1776-1799, Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1953; Ernest Haywood Collection of Haywood Family Papers #1290, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Henderson, Archibald, The Campus of the First State University, Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1949.