SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – Over the dramatic course of its 157-year history, Seton Hall has gone through many changes, starting as a seminary school with only a small group of male students, a handful of buildings and a multitude of strict rules, and  growing into a large, comprehensive university with thousands of students graduating from eight separate schools.

Now that the university is on the verge of another major rebuilding effort that will transform parts of the 58-acre campus, an examination of its past can offer clues to its future.

  • REBUILDLING SHU: Part 7 of 11. Seton Hall University embarks on the biggest campus renovation in a generation, hoping to make life better for students without making life worse for residents of South Orange. Read Part 6: Planning.

Seton Hall’s story began in 1856 when James Roosevelt Bayley, the first bishop of Newark, started a small school in Madison, N.J., naming it after his aunt, Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint. In 1860, Bayley purchased 60 acres of the 125-acre Elphinstone Estate in South Orange on behalf of the Archdiocese of Newark and moved the college there.

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Fewer than 500 students were enrolled then, and the college concentrated on graduating seminarians who took classes in Latin, Greek, theology and English. Tuition cost about $200 a year.  

Nearly a century after the move to South Orange, Joseph Wortmann, a lifelong resident of the village, enrolled at Seton Hall and entered the seminary to become a priest. Today, Wortmann is still a priest on campus, and his memory of the place is long.

He recalls that in the early 1940s, the current building known as Alumni Hall was missing its top floor. Instead, a balcony holding three university bells overlooked a small wooded area where the ever-expanding parking deck now stands. Wortmann reminisced about running up to the balcony at night with friends to ring the bells before scrambling away.

Seton Hall has changed vastly since that simpler time. Just before the outbreak of World War II, the then-president, Monsignor James F. Kelley, embarked on a 14-year stint of remodeling and reinventing the college. One of his first major decisions was to try to increase enrollment and improve the school’s reputation through its basketball team. To go along with that effort, in 1940 Walsh Gymnasium was opened.

When the war ended, enrollment exploded, going from 142 in 1945 to more than 3,000 a year later. Seton Hall quickly added onto the campus by creating WSOU, the first college radio station in New Jersey, opening the law school and creating four new college divisions: Arts and Sciences, Education, Business and Nursing.

At one point, Seton Hall maintained urban campuses in Jersey City, Newark and Paterson along with the suburban campus in South Orange.

Although all those satellite campuses eventually were closed (a new $37 million Law School building was constructed in Newark in the late 1980s), the university expanded throughout the 1960s and ’70s when it built five dormitories in South Orange. It also constructed a new building on what had been tennis courts to house the schools of Business and Nursing.

The physical changes were dramatic, but the university itself was also being transformed.  Although women had been enrolled in some classes since the late ’30s, the school restricted them to commuter status. The first dormitory for women, Aquinas Hall, was built in the early ’70s. Housing women on campus underscored the university’s commitment to co-education and advanced its conversion from a mostly-commuter institution to a residential campus.

A 172-bed expansion and modernization of Aquinas is scheduled to get underway this summer.

Seton Hall can look back on a long list of concrete and institutional changes as it enters this latest phase of improvements and renovations  As always, with change comes certain risks.

The risks that Kelley took more than half a century ago are similar to the current undertaking as President A. Gabriel Esteban begins a five-year rebuilding plan that seeks to make major improvements to the physical campus, while also raising the academic profile of incoming students and bolstering Seton Hall’s reputation.

Esteban believes firmly that bricks and mortar count because students sometimes make a snap judgment about a university based on their initial visit and the first impression that a campus leaves on them and their parents.

“In going through this process myself a few years ago, I remember when we visited one campus, I drove around once then I started to park, and I asked my daughter if she wanted to walk around and she said `No, I don’t want to,’” he recalled in an interview.

He said that first impression was enough to turn his daughter, Ysabella, away from that unnamed university. However, Esteban said her initial reaction to Seton Hall was quite positive and he is proud that she eventually enrolled at Seton Hall and graduated last year.

This series was reported and written by the Advanced Reporting class at Seton Hall University. This article was written by Brendan Borthwick, a May 2013 graqduate.