In the early 1800s, George Ramsay, the ninth Earl of Dalhousie and Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, had a vision: that Halifax would be home to a non-denominational college, where lectures were available to all regardless of religion or nationality (much like the University of Edinburgh, which was located near Ramsay's home in Scotland and the source of his inspiration). Using the revenue from customs duties collected during the War of 1812, Ramsay was able to fulfill his vision in 1818, when Dalhousie College was founded.
The building that housed this new institution -- known as "Halifax College" at the time -- was completed in 1824. It was located on the corner of Duke and Barrington Streets on the Grand Parade. Built at a cost of $29,500, this one-story stone structure represented a significant outlay of funds for the time. Soon, a second story was added, with plans to rent out the ground level as shops.
For many years, though, the building sat empty, a symbol of Dalhousie's faltering development in its earliest decades. Ramsay was appointed the Governor-General of British North America in 1820, and without his oversight the new college lost momentum. Strong religious and political tensions in Nova Scotia also created resistance between the new Dalhousie College and the two other colleges in Nova Scotia. Through much of the 1820s and 1830s, the Dalhousie College building was turned over to other uses. In 1830, for example, the building was occupied by a grammar school, a painting school and a pastry chef's shop. In 1834 a cholera epidemic struck Halifax, killing four hundred people out of a population of 14,000. During this time Dalhousie College served as a hospital. In the later 1830s, the Mechanic's Institute occupied a portion of the building, hosting public lectures and meetings.
Dalhousie College re-opened on November 1, 1838, with twelve students and three professors. There was no library and little equipment and by 1845 the small size, limited resources, and lack of support caused the college to languish and close. Nearly twenty years later, in 1863, Dalhousie College and University was revived with the Dalhousie Act, thanks to the determination of the region's Presbyterians (although the college remained officially unaffiliated with any denomination). The Faculty of Medicine was formed in 1868. Within a decade, the medical deans' desire for more authority and better facilities led to the Faculty's separation into the Halifax Medical College, but it rejoined Dalhousie in 1889. Dalhousie's Faculty of Law was established in 1883.
By 1885, it was clear that Dalhousie College needed a larger building. The City of Halifax wanted possession of the entire Grand Parade, and negotiations and property scouting led to an agreement. Dalhousie relinquished its building to the City in exchange for property at the foot of Carleton Street and $25,000. The original Dalhousie building was soon demolished to make way for a new City Hall, in whose foundation was included one original ironstone block from the Dalhousie College building. Dalhousie erected a spacious new building, now called the Forrest Building, on its new campus.