Norris at 50 – University Center Endures as Hub of Campus Life
Anniversary celebration will honor student center on Thursday
As the Norris University Center turns 50 this month, after half a century towering over Lake Michigan, the brutalist creation of architect Edward Dart remains unavailable for comment.
Simply put, you can’t interview a building.
But as an alternative, the Northwestern students who have worked at Norris over the years, from staffing the information desk to setting up events, are the next best thing.
“Nobody really wanted to sit all day at the information desk except for me,” Justin Barbin ’11, a Chicago- and New York City-based photographer who worked on the Norris house staff, remembered. “I loved greeting everybody and being there among the action when friends walked by.”
In his work as a photographer, Barbin is a familiar face to Northwestern students and a staple at campus events. But before he was behind the camera, Barbin was behind the scenes at Norris, where he experienced firsthand some of the moments he would later capture.
“There was one night before I was clocking out, this a Capella group full of my friends surrounded me at the desk and just started serenading me,” Barbin said. “There was also a freshman who came into Norris one summer looking for a job and I recommended a position. He got the job; I’ve known him for years, and I ended up photographing his proposal.”
Claire Cinquegrani ’15 and her husband Jake Druecke ’15 also worked at Norris as students.
Cinquegrani was a graphic designer for the Student Affairs Marketing team and now designs for the Schaumburg-based advertising agency Pinnacle. Druecke, who manages the curriculum for the IT development company Pluralsight, joined the Norris Mini Courses team as a senior.
“We realized we both worked at Norris when we were starting to get to know each other. There was that time when we were like ‘Hey are you going to text me? I gave you my number and we both work in the same building.’ It was definitely not awkward,” Cinquegrani quipped.
As their relationship continued to grow, Cinquegrani and Druecke experienced some of the seminal moments in the career of any Norris student worker, none more vivid than when the “LOF” call sign would go out across their radio sets.
“Left Over Food,” Cinquegrani said. “I worked on Tuesday mornings and that was prime time for some kind of Northwestern administration meeting where they would serve breakfast. It would come through on all the radios: LOF! LOF!”
"You can do it in Norris"
Both Druecke and Cinquegrani got to know the most consistent presence at Norris over the years, Assistant Director of Norris Programs Debra Blade.
“It felt like I was being inducted in the Hall of Fame, because I met Debra through my friend Katherine Krupinski who brought me into Mini Courses,” Druecke said. “She was like, ‘You have to meet Debra,’ and you get her whole vibe as soon as you meet her. She’s a legend.”
“When I was a freshman, she drew an X through something I made because she didn’t like it,” Cinquegrani said. “But it’s OK, because by the time I was a senior, I was her favorite designer.”
Blade graduated from Northwestern in 1979 and is one of the most tenured members of the Norris team. She will retire at the end of the 2022-23 academic year, but not without spearheading efforts to recognize and celebrate the history of the university center.
“We have alumni that have gone on to do some pretty amazing things,” Blade said. “I think Norris has always been this kind of lab where if students can’t do something anywhere else on campus, you can do it in Norris.”
When Blade was a Northwestern student, she said Norris was another hub for Black student life on campus. Norris hosted Black student events: Step Shows, student Theatre performances, FMO (For Members Only) Forums and Black Student Expos.
The Norris building itself has gone through many changes since opening on January 19, 1973, at one point adding a full-service bar called "The Gathering Place” in the 1980s. The Gathering Place was a popular space for students on Thursdays and Friday evenings and featured entertainment, plus food and drink specials.
The 1990s saw Exam Relief introduced at Norris for the first time, as the university center stayed open 24 hours for students to hang out and study, with free late-night snacks and breakfast during Finals Week.
Several more recent Norris additions have become staples of student life at Northwestern, including Willie’s Food Court and a Starbucks location, affectionally known as Norbucks.
This month, two new restaurants opened in the university center, with sandwich shop 847 Burger and Mexican restaurant Buen Día serving their first customers.
“Well before Norris opened 50 years ago, the campus was served by a number of vibrant programs, activities and facilities – and that continues today. Norris has specifically provided for the Northwestern Community a well-structured and intentionally programmed gathering space. A place where all may meet on common ground, where students remain at the heart of all that we do,” said Corbin Smyth, executive director of Norris University Center. “And that will continue as Norris looks to the future, with a new Starbucks, new food outlets, a renovated East Lawn and continued support for and investment in our satellite venues like Cahn Auditorium and the Guild.”
Norris 50th anniversary celebrations will continue this month, with a cappella performances, birthday cake and an address from President Schill on Thursday, January 19 from 12-1:30 p.m. on the ground floor of the university center.
The event will be as much about celebrating a building as the people who have passed through Norris over the last half century, making an impact that will last even longer.
“Working on the house staff was really a passion of mine,” Bardin said. “Those connections and activities really opened up all of Northwestern’s campus to me.”