Northwestern, Way Back When


No one can deny New Year’s is a time for looking forward (or, for some, drinking to forget the year before.) But it can also be a time for looking back. In honor of this other aspect of New Year’s, The Chron, in collaboration with Head Northwestern Archivist Kevin Leonard, is giving our readers a short look into a few small pieces of Northwestern history. In each picture shown, take a look at not only the subject, but also at the scenery around it. You might be hard-pressed to recognize the Northwestern you pass by every day. But stop for a minute and try to understand the people and the sentiment behind each photograph; you may find yourself closer to home than you first thought.



 To begin, one activity which will likely find its way into most students’ winter quarters is a round of ice skating (click on photo to enlarge), though sometimes it can be hard to find a place for it. In the past, this was less of an issue as students found entire frozen lakes on the north end of campus that could be put to good use for a game of hockey. Just as interesting on the turn-of-the-century Evanston campus was the prominence of non-frozen water. The waters of Lake Michigan were visible from a number of different venues in Northwestern’s past, as the campus shoreline ran a much different path in those days.



For instance, if you visited Dearborn Observatory back in the early 1900’s, you could certainly get a closer look at the stars above.  However, you would also be close enough to observe the waves on Lake Michigan, as the building was originally situated on the beach of  orthwestern’s pre-lakefill shoreline. But the shore wasn’t the only thing that moved. The observatory itself was completely uprooted in 1939 to make room for the construction of the Technological Institute. “It was moved about a hundred feet or so,” according to Leonard. “They had to separate it from its foundation, and used a winch and horses to drag the building to its new location.”



Moving south, if you  thought that Northwestern’s animal life was always limited to the skunks, rabbits, squirrels and raccoons that skitter and roam around campus these days, you might have been surprised in the early 1900s to see the campus cow grazing on the grass of what we now call Deering Meadow. “There’s your milk delivery system,” said Leonard, only half-jokingly. According to him, “at least one of the presidents had a cow,” and it sometimes wandered its way onto the minutes of the Board of Trustees. It may seem odd to find a small pond where Harris Hall and West Fairchild stand today.



Before Harris Hall was constructed in 1915, Lake Atwell sat murkily in its place. Named after Charles Beech Atwell, a science and botany professor here, “it assumed that name at some point in history and has since been drained away.” “There wasn’t much to it,” continued Leonard. “It would be a site, if you ever did this in high school, where you’d go out and get some pond water and look at it under a microscope.”



The Rock, originally a gift of the class of 1902, also sits in its original location in this picture. Once a fountain incorporating a small retaining pool of water, after the construction of Harris Hall, students couldn’t walk straight out of Harris and into University Hall without running right into the Rock. But the Rock was shifted to its current location, a fountain no longer, and the trees around it continue to change colors nearly as much as the Rock does. The footprints, however, are a thing of the past. When you enter the west side entrance to University Hall, you might see something else that has been moved. An old, engraved board that reads “Old College” rests in the side vestibule of the main entryway, leading many students to believe that University Hall once went by a different name. Not true. “I don’t know who did it, I don’t know where it was kept over the years,” Leonard said of the sign. “It has nothing to do with the building in which it now reposes.”



Old College was actually the first structure ever built on Northwestern’s land, and yet another participant in the grand NU tradition of uprooting entire buildings (and fountains) and moving them somewhere more convenient. Originally located on the site of the Davis Street Fish Market (you can find a plaque on the wall marking the exact location, the next time you feel in the mood for North Shore seafood), the building moved first to the current location of the Fairchild dorms, and finally settled near where the the McCormick Tribune Center stands today.

Old College ended with a lightning strike and a sprinkler malfunction in 1973. “It was not meant to last,” Leonard said. “It was a modest wood-frame structure when the university was a new institution. When Northwestern had the money to build more grandly, it went with stone.” This grander style can be seen, somewhat poetically, just outside the display that holds Old College’s most iconic remnant: in the white stone architecture of University Hall.

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