20 Most Impressive Historic College Campuses in the U.S.

Key Takeaways:

  • Historic college campuses in the U.S. offer beautiful and inspiring environments with intriguing historical significance and remarkable aesthetics.
  • University of California Berkeley and Utah State University ranked as the most impressive historic college campuses.
  • Ranking criteria includes historical intrigue, architectural style, natural landscapes, and student engagement potential with historical resources.

History buffs are in their element when surrounded by the mystique and intrigue of a great historic site. Who frequented this spot? What were their names? What was their business?

And U.S. history buffs can’t do better than to study at a college with National Historic Register sites. But let’s be honest. Some historic areas are more impressive than others — more beautiful, well-kept, and inspiring to the spirit. So for our ranking, we took the extra step to find you the schools with multiple historic sites that also prided themselves in a remarkable campus aesthetic experience.

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Methodology

Our initial pool of 50 colleges had to have at least three historic buildings, landmarks, or historic districts according to the National Register of Historic Places Listings at Colleges and Universities in the United States on Wikipedia. From there we narrowed the pool down to 20 finalists based on the 10 criteria below. In the case of a tie, the school with a greater number of these criteria was ranked higher, with a rare further tie being broken by the school judged to be of greater historical intrigue.

  • Intriguing historical circumstances or figures: 5 points
  • Uniformity of architectural style: 5 points
  • Mountain views: 4 points
  • Remarkable green spaces: 4 points
  • Exceptional climate: 3 points
  • Adjacent bodies of water: 3 points
  • Varied campus terrain: 2 points
  • Arboretum: 2 points
  • Other impressive flora: 1 point
  • Student enjoyment potential of campus natural/historical resources: 1 point

Interestingly, beautiful historic campuses were found in all regions of the country. Our finalists include large public universities as well as small liberal arts colleges, from the Midwest to the deep South, and from New England to the Pacific coast. Campus images reflect both beautiful historical structures and natural surroundings.

Ranking the 20 Best College Campuses in the US for their History

20. Yale University

New Haven, CT

Website

Yale University logo

Points: 6

Yale’s largely Collegiate Gothic campus includes several beautiful 19th-century mansions along Hillhouse Avenue. Charles Dickens called this row “the most beautiful street in America.” Of special interest for sports enthusiasts is the Yale Bowl (1913). It was named a National Historic Landmark as the first bowl stadium in the United States, having a capacity of 61,446.

19. University of Oregon

Eugene, OR

Website

University of Oregon logo

Points: 6

The Eugene campus of the University of Oregon is itself an arboretum with over 3,000 trees of 500 different species. Located along the Willamette River, the campus is nestled between the Cascade Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The University’s first building, Deady Hall (1893), is one of the several National Historic Places on the tobacco-free campus.

18. Cornell University

Ithaca, NY

Website

The logo for Cornell University

Points: 7

Many historical buildings and a national historical landmark are found atop Cornell’s East Hill amidst the varied terrain of the Finger Lakes region of New York. The beauty of glacial Cayuga Lake inspires faculty and students. Its deep waters are used to air-condition campus buildings. Though officially discouraged, two gorges provide excellent swimming holes. The 2,800-acre Cornell Plantations offers the Cornell community:

  • an arboretum
  • botanical gardens
  • ponds
  • walking trails.

17. Carleton

Northfield, MN

Website

Carleton College logo

Points: 8

At this top-ranking and highly selective liberal arts college founded in 1866, Carleton’s 2,000 students enjoy their hilltop setting and arboretum overlooking the Cannon River. Students call the center of this hill the “Bald Spot.” It’s an ice rink in winter and an ultimate frisbee field in summer. One of Carleton’s several historic sites is the Goodsell Observatory. It was built in 1877 as the largest observatory in the state of Minnesota.

16. West Virginia University

Morgantown, WV

Website

West Virginia University logo

Points: 8

West Virginia’s downtown Morgantown campus boasts eight academic buildings on the Register of National Historic Places. The majestic Woodburn Hall (pictured) is the oldest building on campus and a well-known University icon. With the Monongahela River and National Forest located right next door, students have easy access to:

  • hiking
  • biking
  • skiing
  • whitewater rafting.

15. Western Kentucky University

Bowling Green, KY

Website

Western Kentucky University logo

Points 9

The Western Kentucky University campus offers a commanding view of the Barren River Valley from its vantage point on the hill known as College Heights. The campus then continues down the north, south, and west sides. New Deal-funded Cherry Hall serves as the center and icon of the University. It’s recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. A historic heating plant, completed in 1927 and still in use, is also on the Register.

14. Hampden-Sydney College

Hampden Sydney, VA

Website

Hampden-Sydney College logo

Points: 10

The motto of Hampden-Sydney, an all-male college founded in 1776, is Come here as boys so you may leave as men. A distinctly colonial feel dominates the campus. It’s unified architecturally by the Federal-style motif. A Civil War skirmish was one of only five times that classes have been interrupted since 1776. The College has two buildings on the National Register of Historic Places as well as a U.S. Historic District.

13. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Troy, NY

Website

Rensselaer Polytechnic University logo

Points: 10

Founded in 1824 Rensselaer is a technological research university with a long tradition of scientific excellence. It sits on a hill in the Upstate New York town of Troy and overlooks the Hudson River. Much of the campus architecture is unified by the Colonial Revival motif. Among its buildings are nationally registered historical places built to be devoted to scientific progress.

12. University of Wisconsin, Madison

Madison, WI

Website

University of Wisconsin-Madison logo

Points: 10

While one might not normally think of a large public research university as having a beautiful and historic campus, UW Madison is undoubtedly among the best by virtue of its:

  • natural setting
  • flora
  • historical sites

Located between Lakes Mendota and Monona, UW Madison has an impressive number of buildings that are National Historic Landmarks. The school also claims the most archeological sites of any American university. It has four distinct areas where effigy mounds are clearly identifiable. Nature lovers can learn about native ecosystems at the UW Madison Arboretum.

11. Emory University

Druid Hills, GA

Website

Emory University logo

Points: 10

Emory was founded in 1836 as a private research university. It offers an exceptional site heavily forested with:

  • pine
  • maple
  • oak
  • magnolia trees
  • a creek running through campus

A Spanish tile motif unifies many campus structures. The Carlos Museum boasts the largest collection of ancient artifacts in the Southeastern United States. Emory’s original campus core, now the site of Oxford College of Emory University, contains a historic district recognized by the National Register of Historic Places.

10. University of Oklahoma

Norman, OK

Website

University of Oklahoma logo

Points: 12

The unique architectural style of the University of Oklahoma’s buildings has been called Cherokee Gothic. It’s an offshoot of Collegiate Gothic informed by the Native American influences at play since the institution’s founding in Oklahoma territory in 1890. The Bizzell Library, a National Historic Landmark, was built in 1929 in this style and sits at the heart of the campus. The pride of the University community are:

  • stately trees
  • landscaped gardens
  • statues and sculptures arranged around campus ovals

9. Princeton University

Princeton, NJ

Website

Princeton University logo

Points: 14

Princeton’s picturesque setting between Philadelphia and New York City is highlighted by its predominantly Collegiate Gothic architecture. The stunning Princeton University Chapel is the crown jewel. Generous green spaces create a sprawling ivy-league feel. The oldest building on campus, Nassau Hall (1756), was at one time home of the New Jersey legislature. It was also the site of British capitulation to the American troops after the Battle of Princeton.

8. University of Virginia

Charlottesville, VA

Website

University of Virginia logo

Points: 14

Founder Thomas Jefferson wanted the University built around the Rotunda, now a National Historic Landmark, instead of the campus chapel, as was typical at that time (1819). The entire campus core, called the Academical Village, was designed around a series of green spaces. The Lawn is the largest and best-known. Opposite the Rotunda, the southern end of the Lawn was designed to extend to the fields of the south without the obstruction of buildings. It symbolized Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian-based society. The beauty of Jefferson’s design has since served as a model for many other university campuses.

7. University of Utah

Salt Lake City, UT

Website

University of Utah - logo

Points: 14

On the east side of the Salt Lake Valley, in view of the Wasatch Mountain Range, lies Utah’s flagship educational institution, the University of Utah. The varied terrain of the 1,534-acre campus calls for a division into upper and lower sections. Students enjoy the abundant sunshine and dry air of the region. One of the University’s National Historic Places is Fort Douglas (1862), which protected the Central Overland Route’s mail and telegraph routes when Federal troops withdrew to fight in the Civil War.

6. University of Arizona

Tucson, AZ

University of Arizona logo

Website

Points: 15

The University of Arizona campus is itself an arboretum, including hundreds of olive trees and the Crutch Cactus Garden. Visitors strolling down the spacious sun-drenched Mall notice the red-brick motif that unifies structures across the 380-acre campus. Old Main, completed in 1891, is one of the oldest educational buildings in the western United States.

5. Indiana University Bloomington

Bloomington, IN

Website

Indiana University Bloomington logo

Points: 15

A large public research university dating back to 1820, IU Bloomington offers nature lovers several notable attractions, including:

  • abundant green space
  • a stream flowing through campus
  • a university arboretum
  • hiking/biking trails connected to a 1,200-mile system

Many IU buildings carry the Indiana Limestone motif, built as a public works project during the Great Depression. The University also maintains several 19-century homes recognized by the Register of National Historic Places.

4. University of Arkansas

Fayetteville, AR

Website

University of Arkansas logo

Points: 16

Founded in 1871 on a hilltop farm overlooking the Ozark mountains, the University of Arkansas has 11 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Of these, Old Main (1875), built in the Second-Empire tradition, serves as the campus centerpiece. The University of Arkansas was the first major southern public university to admit an African-American student without litigation (1948). The campus community enjoys the natural area surrounding Old Main, which is an arboretum that contains many of Arkansas’ native trees.

3. Louisiana State University

Baton Rouge, LA

Website

Louisiana State University logo

Points: 18

LSU’s 650-acre campus core sits on a plateau along the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge. There the Italian Renaissance style unifies over 250 buildings built in the 1920s with walls of tan stucco and rooftops of red tile. Over 1,200 oak trees grace the campus, along with magnolias and azaleas. Ancient history buffs will want to check out the 5,000-year-old LSU Campus Mounds.

2. University of California Berkeley

Berkeley, CA

Website

UC-Berkeley logo

Points: 18

Berkeley students enjoy a number of the best features that nature has to offer in the Bay Area’s temperate Mediterranean climate. The 1,232-acre campus has:

  • an 800-acre ecological preserve
  • the University of California Botanical Garden
  • the Recreation Center in Strawberry Canyon

Tree lovers enjoy the many campus trees dating back to the 1870s, including the tallest stand of eucalyptus trees in the world. The campus core boasts a series of national historic places in the Beaux-Arts style.

1. Utah State University

Logan, UT

Website

Utah State University logo

Points: 18

Founded as an agricultural college in 1888, Utah State has a full range of majors at all levels of study. The campus is situated on a high point above the town of Logan in northern Utah. It offers amazing views of Mount Logan and the Bear River Range amidst abundant sunshine. Logan Canyon students have access to ample:

  • camping
  • hiking
  • water sports

During WWII, Utah State was one of only six colleges selected as a site of intensive US Navy training of elite students in electrical engineering.

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