Unknotting the Nott
An architectural icon captures the integration of engineering and liberal arts.
By Henry Petroski
I have attended meetings in many an interesting venue over the years, but few in as historic and tradition-bound a setting as Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., which was founded in 1795.
My keynote address for Union’s Tenth Annual Symposium on Engineering and Liberal Education was held in “the Nott.” Formally Nott Memorial Hall and dating from 1879, this iconic architectural centerpiece and engineering masterpiece also provided the theme for meeting paraphernalia.
Name tags in the shape of the Nott’s profile were very cleverly and attractively formed out of one-eighth-inch-thick plywood. The fine lines of the building were laser cut into the wood, and each participant’s name was burned through his or her tag. The process left the name tags with the pleasant aroma of freshly charred pine, which pervaded meeting rooms and break spaces.
Although appearing from a distance to be a relatively squat circular stone building topped by a prominently raised dome, in plan the actual structure of the Nott is 16-sided—a 90-foot-diameter hexadecagon. The interior is wonderfully open both horizontally and vertically, the 16 slender cast-iron columns that reach over 100 feet from floor to dome periphery providing a minimum of visual obstruction.
The exterior of the building screams Victorian architecture, but inside it is pure engineering from the heyday of cast-iron structures. The Nott, which has not always been respected for the treasure that it is, was lovingly restored to its original look and feel for the college’s 200th anniversary.
One side of the spectacular interior space is dominated by an enormous portrait of the building’s namesake, Eliphalet Nott, who was president of Union College for 62 years! For about 15 of those years he simultaneously served as president of what is now Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, located across the Hudson River in Troy.
The standard arrangement of the open floor space for a lecture in the Nott appears to be to place a lectern on a podium just inside the columns on the side of the building opposite Nott’s portrait, with as many as 400 chairs neatly arranged between.
Perhaps Union’s most famous faculty member was the electrical engineer and nonconformist Charles Steinmetz, who worked nearby in the laboratories of General Electric and in his canoe on the Mohawk River. With his presence still so prominent at Union, it is easy to imagine Steinmetz lecturing in the Nott.
Behind glass in one of the other campus buildings is an automobile said to have been designed and built around 1920 by the Steinmetz Electric Motor Car Corporation. Now beautifully restored, it is used annually to ferry the college president from his residence to the commencement platform.
As befits a school in its third century, Union is full of traditions, among the newest of which is Steinmetz Day. On that occasion, in lieu of classes, students in all disciplines make oral and poster presentations on faculty-mentored research projects, display their artworks, and give performances, many of the activities taking place in the Nott.
My lecture, which highlighted how many prominent engineers have integrated the liberal arts into their own education and accomplishments, naturally included a few slides on Steinmetz. His talents and interests were seemingly boundless.
Union now bills itself as a small liberal arts institution “integrating the humanities and social sciences with science and engineering,” but its history in engineering education has been mixed. It was among the earliest of U.S. colleges to offer engineering courses (in 1845), but it was also one of the more recent to cut back on them (in 2005), notably by eliminating its civil engineering department.
Nevertheless, on his eponymous day the spirit of Steinmetz—whose name was once synonymous with engineer—draws participation from across the Union campus, just as the symposium I attended had representatives from across the academic spectrum. It was a fitting venue for interdisciplinary cooperation that is in fact more common than not.
Henry Petroski is A. S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and professor of history at Duke. His latest book is The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure.
Image Courtesy of Catherine Petroski