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An 1888 Harper's Weekly illustration of the now-razed Fayerweather Hall


From her house on the west side of Sheridan Road, Rosemary O'Neil used to look across what was once a two-lane street lined with towering elms and see Garrett Biblical Institute, Lunt Library, the School of Commerce and University Hall. Those buildings, along with Old College and a few others, constituted nearly the entire Northwestern University campus in those days.

"My parents moved here in 1927 when I was a little girl. Directly across from us was a cinderpath road called Willard Place just north of Lunt that ran down a steep hill to a long pier and a rocky beach," O'Neil says. "We used to swim there, and all the kids would play ball in the big vacant lot next door to us."

The beach, which older alumni may still remember, was at the bottom of a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan that ran much of the length of Northwestern's campus. The bluff is now a gentle hill leading down to the lakefill campus. The vacant lot is now the site of the Sheil Catholic Center, and the elms are long gone, victims of the Dutch elm disease of the 1950s and 1960s that wiped out the favorite shade tree throughout the country.

Those changes, along with many others that have occurred in the past 150 years, have transformed a tract of woods, bluffs and marshes into Northwestern's now well-developed campus. "A college campus is always a work in progress," says Ron Nayler, Northwestern's associate vice president for facilities management. "Universities are constantly reinventing themselves academically, and as a result, their needs for facilities change as well."

Northwestern's first facility was remarkably modest. On Nov. 5, 1855, the doors of the University Building (later known as Old College) opened to admit the eight students who showed up and the two faculty members who constituted the entire university. Located at the northwest corner of Davis and Hinman Streets (the present-day location of the Davis Street Fishmarket restaurant), which is several blocks south of the current campus, the wooden three-story structure consisted of six classrooms, a chapel, a small museum and halls for two literary societies. The cramped attic provided three rooms for students, who were allowed to live there in exchange for ringing the college bell.

Old College served as the sole academic building until 1869, when University Hall was built. With its soaring clock tower, the new building, constructed of solid Joliet limestone, symbolized both Northwestern's planned permanence and its aspirations. Like its predecessor, University Hall had to serve all purposes, providing classrooms, faculty offices, a chapel, library and a small dormitory space for students. Nevertheless, it was a huge improvement for the University, and when it opened, a Chicago Tribune article said the new building "compared favorably with any university building in the land."

Two years later Old College was moved to a location near the present-day Fisk Hall and was moved again to another location, also near Fisk, in 1897.

Meanwhile, the campus grew slowly with the addition of what was to have been the Evanston College for Ladies (1874), now the Music Administration Building, a gymnasium (1876), Fayerweather Hall of Science (1887), Memorial Hall (1887) -- originally a building for Garrett and later the home of the School of Commerce -- and Dearborn Observatory (1889). Of those structures, only the Music Administration Building and observatory still stand.

In the final decade of the 19th century, however, the University added four buildings that still serve the campus today, although most of them for different purposes than originally intended. Lunt Library (1894), now home of the mathematics department, was the first building on campus intended to be solely a library. It served as the main library until Deering Library opened in 1933. The Music Hall (1897) originally provided faculty offices, practice rooms and a recital hall on the top floor for the School of Music but now is the home for the University's Human Resources Department.

Designed by noted Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, Fisk Hall (1899) was built for the Northwestern Preparatory School, a key part of the University's early history. The early administrators knew that in that era of one-room schoolhouses and minimal public education, Northwestern would face a shortage of students ready for college. Therefore, only a year after the first university-level classes started, informal classes began for younger students. By 1859 the preparatory school was established formally. The school grew rapidly, providing an important source of revenue to the financially pressed university, and in early years the academy often had a larger enrollment than the undergraduate programs. But with the growth of public education through the high school level in the early 20th century, the need for the prep school diminished, and it closed its doors in 1917. After being used for a variety of purposes, Fisk became the home of the Medill School of Journalism in 1954.

Annie May Swift Hall (1895) stands as the exception among the remaining 19th-century buildings in that it has always been used for one purpose -- as the nerve center for the School of Speech. Funded mainly by a gift from Chicago meatpacker Gustavus Swift and named in honor of his daughter, Annie May Swift Hall was built to house the newly established School of Oratory. Annie May Swift originally included classrooms, an auditorium and even a basement for use as a gymnasium. Although it has undergone several interior renovations in its 106 years (the basement gym now houses the WNUR-FM business offices and the R/TV/F Media Library), Annie May Swift remains remarkably unchanged in its exterior appearance.

Those structures still standing from the 19th century may seem to be scattered randomly, placed at somewhat odd angles. Yet in reality they reflect the vestiges of the early campus, which was described by Harper's Weekly magazine in 1888 as "a beautiful tract ... on the lake shore, shaded by native oaks and dotted with spacious and appropriate buildings."

By 1900 the main buildings sat along a half-circle drive facing west on Sheridan Road. The drive was anchored at the north end by Lunt Hall, which is why Lunt faces southwest, at an angle to Sheridan. Close to Lunt stood Memorial Hall. Nearby were Heck Hall (a residence hall for students at Northwestern and Garrett that burned in 1914), Annie May Swift and University Hall. The circle drive then angled southwest near the corner of Sheridan and Chicago Avenue, where the arch now stands. Harris Hall (1915) later completed the arc. Along the east-west portion of Sheridan Road on the south end of campus stood Fayerweather and Fisk Halls, facing south and dominating the approaches to campus from Hinman Avenue and Sheridan.

The University quickly outgrew the main area, however, and additional buildings were constructed along the lake and on both sides of Sheridan. The biggest change came in 1914 with the construction of the men's housing quadrangles on the north end of campus, followed 12 years later by the women's housing quadrangles on the south end. Before these additions, many students lived in boarding houses or private homes in Evanston. But with the construction of the residence halls and fraternities and sororities, Northwestern became a much more residential campus.

The women's quadrangles and the Chicago campus (see sidebar) were designed by James Gamble Rogers, who was hired in 1921 as the University's architect. Rogers was a strong proponent of Gothic-style architecture, and his work, which also includes Deering Library, Scott Hall, Lutkin Hall and Ryan Field, reflects that preference. Both before and after Rogers, the University employed a variety of architects who favored widely differing styles. The result is a campus with much less architectural unity than other institutions.

"What really gives Northwestern's campus its coherence is the landscaping," says Jeremy Wilson (WCAS55, GSESP61, 71), who began his career at Northwestern in 1957 as a planning coordinator and served for many years as an associate provost for planning. "There is generally a common material, either limestone or precast concrete for academic buildings and brick for residence halls, but it's the relatively informal landscape system that pulls everything together. There's a coherence to the campus that results from the building materials and the plantings, not from the architecture."

Shortly after Wilson was hired by Northwestern, the University undertook its greatest engineering feat, the construction of the lakefill campus in the 1960s. Despite building several residence halls in the 1950s to accommodate the increasing number of students who wanted to live on campus and constructing Kresge Centennial Hall (1955) as a new main classroom building, the University was desperately cramped for space. However, purchasing additional land in Evanston was not only expensive, it undoubtedly would rekindle the touchy issue of taking land off the tax rolls.

As a result, Northwestern in October 1960 proposed a bold plan to move the eastern edge of campus a quarter-mile farther east by filling in 74 acres of Lake Michigan at a cost of more than $5 million. Actually, there was surprisingly little opposition; within 18 months the necessary city, state and federal approvals were in hand and the massive project was under way. By 1965 the University had the new land (another 10 acres at the south end were added in 1968) and the first building, Vogelback Computing Center, was completed.

The lakefill's blank canvas quickly filled in, most noticeably by the new University Library (1970), a sprawling, $12 million facility consisting of three round towers joined at the center. The library was designed by Chicago architect Walter Netsch, who also designed the Rebecca Crown Center (1968), the O.T. Hogan Biological Sciences Building (1972) and the Frances Searle Building (1972).

The library's radical design met with a less-than-enthusiastic response from some faculty members. But the building had strong backing from the influential Faculty Planning Committee and once it opened, it quickly became a favored place for students to hang out, meet friends and sleep, as well as do research.

The Faculty Planning Committee also was instrumental in developing an overall plan that to a great extent has shaped Northwestern's current campus. Science buildings are deliberately clustered at the north end and humanities and fine arts facilities at the south, with dorms, residential colleges and Greek houses in both areas.

Today Northwestern is in the midst of the largest building program since the lakefill facilities were added and the most rapid expansion in the University's history. "We've built on average seven buildings a decade. Now we'll build 10 buildings in about three years," Nayler says. The new construction includes two science buildings, a broadcast journalism facility, a major addition to Kresge, new residence halls on the Evanston campus and a large medical research building on the Chicago campus. Finding space for all those structures -- as well as the always-needed parking -- is a real challenge, Nayler adds.

"We're really landlocked. When you look at our peer institutions of about the same size, we have about 75 percent of the square footage in terms of building space," he says. "But what's more of a problem is that our campus is only about one-fourth of the size of our peers. That makes it extremely difficult in terms of siting buildings. We have to make the most of the land we have and still maintain the open space on campus."

Rosemary O'Neil now looks across Sheridan Road to the construction of one of those new buildings, a major addition to Andersen/Leverone Hall (1970). But she still has some curved bricks from the turret of the long-demolished "Little Red Schoolhouse" building (Memorial Hall) that used to stand on that site. "Sometimes when you get to be our age, you see things that used to be there as well as what is there now," she says.

Alan K. Cubbage (GJ78, 87) is Northwestern's vice president for university relations.