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University Hall marks 150 years as a Northwestern icon


University Hall Postcard

1869 was a rather big year for Northwestern.

This fall, the University is set to commemorate the 150th anniversary of one significant event — the June 1869 decision to admit women students — but there’s another that occurred just a few months later: the dedication of University Hall.

Before the Weber Arch and Deering Library became postcard-perfect symbols of Northwestern, there was University Hall, projecting a steadfast and grand image for a fledgling school eager to burnish its national reputation. The hall opened its doors on Sept. 8, 1869, as part of the inauguration of new president Erastus Haven. Newspaper reports counted 5,000 people in attendance for Haven’s inaugural address, in which he laid out his vision for admitting women to Northwestern.

University Hall, undated

University Hall was built in a style called High Victorian Gothic by Gurdon P. Randall, a well-respected Chicago architect known for his design of courthouses and churches.

University Hall — nicknamed “U.H.” through at least the middle of the 20th century — was the first permanent building on campus. Previously classes had been held in an 1855 wooden frame structure always meant to be temporary. (So temporary, in fact, it was moved 200 yards to campus from its original location at Hinman and Davis streets; after U.H. opened, this older building would take on its own nickname “Old College.”) University Hall’s construction had been delayed for years while financial struggles, the Panic of 1857, and the Civil War kept trustee ambitions at bay. When construction finally received board approval in 1865, it represented a new confidence of the trustees not just in University finances, but in the prospects of Northwestern as a whole.

University Hall library

Northwestern’s first library held about 3,500 books; it was supplanted by Lunt Hall in 1894, which held 100,000.

University Hall was designed to do a bit of everything. When it opened it held not just classrooms, but a chapel, a 3,500-volume library, a natural history museum (home to a 42-foot whale skeleton among thousands of other specimens), a dormitory, and the residence of at least one faculty member,  Latin and Literature Prof. Daniel Bonbright, who had provided the first conceptual sketches of the building. Since then, University Hall has also played home to a basement cafeteria, a petroleum chemistry lab, multiple faculty offices and departments, and, thanks to a student prank in 1879, a cow in the belfry, if only briefly.

It’s not just modern observers who hold the building’s ornate exterior in high esteem; contemporary commenters were just as effusive. A Chicago Republican story after the dedication announced: “It is surmounted by towers, turrets, mansards, etc. which add much to its picturesqueness… The building is admirably constructed of brick and stone—the latter being rock face, which gives it a rich, massive and substantial appearance, comparing notably with any university structure in the land.”

Words like rich and substantial were music to Northwestern’s ears, according to historians and faculty members Harold Williamson and Payson Wild. In their book, Northwestern: A History, 1850-1975, they surmised that those words announced to the world that Northwestern had “left behind its early struggles and was here to stay.”

University Hall, then, had already achieved its purpose on its first day of operation. It provided more than classrooms and library shelves; it provided legitimacy to a young University looking to make a mark.

Lithograph from Harper's Weekly, Sep. 20, 1873

Lithograph from Harper’s Weekly, Sep. 20, 1873