While preparing his final drawings,Thomas Alexander Tefft, a prominent American architect who five years earlier had begun preliminary planning for Matthew Vassar's college, died in Florence, Italy. His successor, James Renwick, Jr, followed Teffts's original plan to house the entire college in a single building.

Renwick's Smithsonian Institution Building in Washington, DC, had been completed in 1852, and his design for Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City was currently under construction.