The two most remarkable things about South Building are its size (compared to other early University buildings) and the amount of time it took to complete. The cornerstone was laid in April 1798, but the building was not finished until 1814. Originally called the "main" building, South Building was the first University structure envisioned by the trustees. Princeton University's Nassau Hall inspired the first design for the Main building. Nassau Hall is very long, with two wings flanking a large middle section. The original design for the Main building was very similar, but included a dining hall and an octagonal projection in the middle. In fact, Old East was the first wing of this dream structure, with the rest of the building left to the future. The Nassau Hall inspired design was reluctantly given up in the early years of the University, however, and the campus design revised to favor a group of three buildings—the present day Old East, Old West, and South Buildings. The revised design for South Building is traditionally credited to Governor Richard Dobbs Spaight and did not include the octagonal projection or the dining hall.
In 1797, the Board of Trustees hired builder Samuel Hopkins to begin construction. The cornerstone was laid during a Masonic ceremony, over which William R. Davie presided, just as he had done for the similar ceremony at Old East. The building was to be three stories tall with rooms for eighty students, halls and libraries for the Dialectic and Philanthropic societies, rooms for the University library, and a prayer hall. At this time the United States experienced a flood of anti-Federalist sentiment. Davie was aligned with the Federalists, and he was unpopular among North Carolina Democrats for his "lofty bearing and aristocratic manner" (Henderson 1949, 73). South Building was called Davie's "Temple of Folly" in a newspaper editorial (Henderson 1949, 74), and the controversy did not abate until the building was finished.
Hopkins resigned in 1799, and Major Pleasant Henderson assumed the responsibility of builder. The foundation and one-and-a-half stories of exterior walls were complete by 1800. Work on South Building stopped, however, in the summer of 1801, after the General Assembly repealed an act that granted the University money from all escheated property. For more than ten years, the building lay dormant, a half-built shell silently overlooking the University. Students began to build huts in the unfinished building, using these makeshift shelters to escape their crowded dorm rooms. By 1803, the Trustees conducted two lotteries to raise money for the University. According to Kemp Plummer Battle, they netted $5,080.81, but not a penny went to finishing the construction. The money was instead invested in stock of the Bank of the United States. In 1809, a Committee of Trustees was formed to raise funds specifically for South Building. The committee drafted an address to the public, and President Joseph Caldwell was authorized to receive donations. President Caldwell traveled all over the state raising money, and by himself brought in nearly $12,000. In 1811, construction began again under contractor John Close. In 1814, South Building was completed, and tradition has it that the students fired a cannon to celebrate. According to Kemp Plummer Battle, the total cost for South Building was $26,689, most of which came from donations.
The new building was complete with a cupola and a large bell. Eventually the cupola developed leaks, and sometime between 1824 and 1826 it was torn down. To replace it, Captain William Nichols built a belfry that stood between Old East and Old West, north of the Old Well. In 1839 or 1840, South Building received a new tin roof. The Dialectic and Philanthropic societies moved out in 1848 and into the renovated Old East and West, and the vacated space was turned into more dorm rooms and classrooms. Eight years later the belfry burned, never to be rebuilt. Instead, Thomas Coates built a new cupola for South Building in 1860. In 1865, Union forces under General Smith B. Atkins occupied South Building. Though the troops left on May 3, a guard remained to protect the building. Classes were cancelled during this occupation. On February 1, 1871, the University closed and did not reopen until 1875. During this time South Building sustained approximately $800 worth of damage, and repairs were made prior to the reopening.
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; Henderson, Archibald, The Campus of the First State University, Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1949.