An early sketch of Russell Sage Hall by an unsigned artist. Many of the original details shown here have
since been lost to subsequent renovations: the square corinthian column, the geometric balustrade,
and the oval windows and large glass doors on the fourth floor have all been removed.

A Brief History of Sage Hall

Russell Sage Hall was opened in 1917 as a hall for junior and senior women. It was the third major residence hall to be built on campus, following the construction of Ormsby Hall (1889) and Brokaw Hall (1911). The process of raising funds for the hall dragged out for nearly a decade and included a colorful episode where a (supposed) heiress was wined and dined by campus officials after having promised a large donation towards the project. She was subsequently discovered, however, to be a penniless scam artist known to Milwaukee police by the moniker 'Kerosene Alice.'

It was several years after this incident that Mrs. Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage first approached the university with an offer of $100,000 to build the hall in memory of her late husband, the robber baron Russell Sage (1816-1906). The late Mr. Sage, a one-time U.S. Representative for the state of New York, had gained a large degree of notoriety during his lifetime for his seeming lack of concern towards the less fortunate. (Particularly bad for public relations was an well-publicized incident in 1891 in which, after a dynamite-wielding attacker had burst into his office, Sage allegedly shielded himself from the blast by grabbing a young clerk who happened to be nearby.) After Russell Sage's death, Mrs. Sage, a school teacher prior to their marriage, dedicated a great deal of her time (and her late husband's money) trying to restore some honor to his name through various philanthropic pursuits. The donation of this sizable quantity of money towards the construction of Sage Hall was part of this larger project, as was the foundation in 1916 of Russell Sage College for women in Troy, New York.

With this generous gift (worth about two million dollars in today's currency), Lawrence was able to build what was then (and arguably still is) one of the most elegant structures on campus. Compared with its more functional predecessors (Main Hall, Ormsby, and Brokaw), Sage Hall was designed with a much higher degree of ornamentation. The building was faced in limestone quarried from Eden, Wisconsin, and features a quasi-colonial style unique among campus structures. (Former University Archivist Carol Butts often compared the front of Sage Hall—with its double-height porch, originally adorned with square corinthian columns—to the eastern façade of Mt. Vernon.)

Among Sage Hall's many innovations was the first elevator to be installed on campus, a significant novelty in 1917. Unlike Ormsby and Brokaw before it, Sage featured a concrete frame (which explains why the floors remain perfectly level to this day, something which certainly can not be said about Ormsby!).  The structure was lauded for being "fireproof" at the time it opened. (See Item 4 below.) Sadly, many of the decorative details which adorned the building in its early years have since been lost to subsequent renovations, though much of its original charm remains.

Sage hall was extensively renovated in 1972, at which time several major changes were made. The large dining room at the south end of the basement, no longer needed after the opening of Jason Downer Commons, was converted into the study lounge space present today. Additionally, a large recreation space on the north end of the fourth floor was converted into student rooms. The central hallways, previously straight, were transformed into the slightly maze-like situation we have today, in part to accommodate the installation of new four-person suites, but also (according to the renovation proposal) as a way of adding interest and minimizing the "institutional" effect of long, straight hallways. At the same time, the grand staircase (formerly located at the top and just to the right of the small half-flight of stairs leaving the lobby) was removed in order to provide space small lounges on the upper floors. The current north staircase was added at this time. Finally, the university chose to remove the hardwood floors, presumably in order to avoid installing sprinklers throughout the building (which would have been required by fire code), replacing them with rather more institutional flooring. Sage remained a women's dorm until the 1970s; it was later the first dormitory on campus to allow mixed-gender floors.

Pictures and Documents

1. 1918 Ariel. The 1918 Ariel, which would have been going to press just as the building was finished, features an artist's rendering of what the completed Sage would look like. As is often the case, the building's design was changed several times over the course of its construction and the rendering, though recognizable, looks quite different from the finished hall. (Note: Sage Hall never actually looked like this.)  That said, the landscaping and gardens in the picture are quite fantastic.

2. Sage Girls at Dinner. Circa 1945. Until the construction of Jason Downer Commons in 1968, all of the large residence halls had their own dining facilities. For many years, diners would be served restaurant-style at their tables by fellow students employed by the school. (This practice was discontinued not long after the second World War.) This picture was taken in the south-western corner of the Sage dining room.

3. Sage Life. Circa 1951. This picture, taken for a Lawrence view book from early '50s, shows four (obviously posed) female students doing what female students apparently were thought to do at the time. The picture was taken in one of the fourth floor corner rooms in Sage, as indicated by the beautiful large window in the background. The large windows were replaced in the 1970s with much smaller, more energy efficient (but decidedly less impressive) models.

4. “Russell Sage Hall Now in Use.” From the Lawrentian, Oct. 18, 1917.

5. The South Porches. Sept. 1917. This picture, which was featured in the Oct. 1920 issue of the journal Architecture, shows the tiered porches that once existed on the south side of Sage Hall. These porches was removed in either the late 1940s or early 1950s, mostly likely due to structural inadequacies and the high cost of repair. This picture also shows the elegant windows on the eastern side of the fourth floor.

6. From the 1919 Ariel. Heating a university campus through the long Wisconsin winter has always been a tricky thing, and the task was no easier in the early days of Sage Hall.  Soon after Sage was opened, it was discovered that, due to a miscalculation, insufficient radiators had been installed on the fourth floor of the building resulting in some rather chilly residents. The problem was quickly (and more than adequately) addressed, as this cartoon from the 1919 Ariel illustrates.

7. Pre-renovation Student Room. Before the 1972 renovation, student rooms in Sage looked remarkably different from their modern appearance. Each room featured hardwood floors, wooden moldings and trim (note the picture rail), and built-in closets. In this picture, the door on the left is the closet door and the door on the right accesses the hallway. The room shown is almost certainly on the fourth floor, judging from the multi-level ceiling.

8. During the 1972 Renovation. Taken October, 1972. Sage Hall was taken off-line for the 1972-73 school year in order to be extensively renovated. As part of the project, the interior of the building was gutted down to its cement skeleton before being rebuilt. This photograph, taken for the Lawrentian, shows the interior of the third floor. The photographer is standing roughly in the center of the building, facing the north-western corner. The remains of former front stairs are visible in foreground. This stairway was removed during the renovation and replaced with the current front stairs which were built onto the side of the building. (The second window from the left edge of photo has two wide black lines on either side of it; these mark where the door will be cut for access to the new front stairs.)

Created by Edmond Johnson
Last revised: Sept. 24, 2002