Charles Nailen/The Hoya “Georgetown Forever” banners adorn the facade of Father Patrick Healy’s architectural accomplishment, Healy Hall.

If Georgetown University were a living body, perhaps the Healy Building would be its heart. When springtime comes and the Dahlgren Quadrangle is as beautiful as ever, sitting underneath the cherry blossoms never seems to get old. Time seems to fade away in such a peaceful setting, and passing enough hours to hear the long bells chime at noon and 6 p.m. doesn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. There must be something special about that Healy Building.

The history behind the towering structure is just as fascinating as the man responsible for its construction.

Father Patrick F. Healy, S.J., president of the university from 1873-82, was as tough and determined as the stone walls of the building that would bear his name. In the tumultuous years of a society struggling to rebuild after a devastating war, Healy struggled to reform Georgetown into a school worthy of being called a university.

For Healy, there was a clear distinction between a college and a university. A true university advanced its students in all academic areas – in other words, beyond the classics – and encouraged them to seek knowledge beyond the classroom. A true university had proper facilities for housing its students, allowing them privacy and an environment suitable for studying. A true university had a library and adequate materials for research. Georgetown did not have these things in 1873.

Healy’s perception of the ideal university came from his own college experience. He received his advanced degree at the University of Louvain in Belgium. Studying abroad for Healy was not a matter of choice; it was the only choice available.

Healy was born in Macon, Ga. in 1830, to a mother who was a former slave and an Irish-immigrant father. Georgia laws did not permit the two to legally marry and stipulated that any children from such a union would be considered slaves. His parents married despite this, but their children were legally prohibited from attending school in Georgia. Both parents were adamant, however, about providing their children with the best opportunities for receiving an education, so they moved north and enrolled them in private schools.

Though his skin was very fair, young Healy was still considered to be black, and higher education for blacks was rare. Healy nevertheless completed some of his collegiate training at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. It was there that he joined the Jesuit order. To further pursue his education, Healy made his way to Europe.

There, he earned his doctorate degree in 1865, the same year that Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, ending the American Civil War. He was the first black American ever to earn a doctorate. A year later, Healy was sent to Georgetown to become a philosophy professor, and was quickly promoted to today’s equivalent of a Dean of Studies position. He then stepped in to serve as acting president. His capacity to lead proved to be more than promising, and the following year he was officially named president of the university.

When Healy took over Georgetown, it resembled a typical rustic landscape. Rolling hills and green pastures overlooked the Potomac River. A few small schoolhouses were scattered around the Hilltop. The students – all male – lived in crowded dormitories set up like barracks. This was the Georgetown campus of 1873.

Healy dreamed of making Georgetown “the great Catholic university of North America.” Using the University of Louvain as his model, Father Healy set out to build a university out of a college. He began a campus-wide beautification program, organized an alumni base and outreach program and restructured the medical and law schools. He saw to it that sciences were incorporated into the undergraduate curriculum and commenced work on the greatest of all his projects – Georgetown’s Healy Building.

Healy envisioned not just a building, but a great monument. He wanted the structure to contain a library and classrooms, as well as sufficient dormitory space to accommodate students, two per room. Most importantly, Healy wanted the building to stand out in the Washington skyline, giving the university a visible presence in the nation’s capital.

He commissioned Smithermeyer and Pelz, the same architects who designed the Library of Congress, to draw up plans for the massive structure. It was to be of Romanesque architecture, patterned after the buildings Healy had seen in Europe. There was also to be a tower extending 209 feet in the air. Excavation began in 1877.

The funding of the Healy Building proved a constant battle for Healy. The plans, materials and labor added up to a total of $300,000 – $300,000 that the university did not have. Healy began soliciting local community members for donations. When the building was half-completed, rumors began to spread about his black heritage and “illegitimate” background. Money stopped coming in, and many doors were slammed in his face. Healy then turned to alumni. Many of the later years of his life were spent traveling around the country visiting and requesting donations from alumni. This constant travel took its toll on his health, and he grew weaker.

Two years later, after using two million bricks and 3,000 cubic yards of stone, the Healy Building was complete. It was the first building on “campus” to face the city instead of the Potomac.

While in California visiting alumni, still trying to pay off the debt from the building, Healy grew so weak that doctors demanded he delay his trip home. This delay turned into a significant absence, and he was soon to resign as president. Though he was still active with the Jesuits after his resignation from the university, he never regained his strength. He died in 1910, and his body was brought back to Georgetown to be buried in the Jesuit cemetery.

The large debt incurred by the construction of the Healy Building has come to pay for itself many times over. The current replacement value is now worth approximately $35 million. Many in the Georgetown community now consider what the building symbolizes, however, virtually priceless.

Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988, the Healy Building’s towering structure stands as a testament to its namesake’s relentlessness in pushing Georgetown to new limits. Indeed, Healy has often been called Georgetown’s “second founder” because of his significant contributions to developing the identity of the campus almost a century after it was founded.

Today, more than 100 years after it was first built, the Healy Building still stands out in the Washington skyline, a prominent reminder of Georgetown’s presence in the city – and the remarkable story of the man behind it.

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