Shiny Future, Blank Past

Northwestern’s nondescript campus has forgotten its history.

By Samuel Niiro

Northwestern University is a faceless campus. Most other universities in the United States have a face; Harvard has its “statue of three lies,” UChicago has a whole Midway Plaisance featuring equestrian and scientist statues, and even the University of Illinois has a massive bronze monument dedicated to learning and labor. Northwestern has nothing like those. As the University comes to grips with the history of founder John Evans, all it will need to do to remove him from campus is change the names of the Alumni Center and a room in Norris. No statue to remove, not even a portrait.

Northwestern gives no outward sign of its 19th-century beginnings. Barring a few exceptions like University Hall and Patten Gym, most of the architecture on campus dates from the post-war period. One hundred sixty-four years of history seem barely visible on Northwestern’s campus.

One hundred sixty-four years of history seem barely visible on Northwestern’s campus.

Yet for all of Northwestern’s constant changes, earlier generations of students and administrators hoped to create marks that would last on campus forever. One of the most notable and storied of those was the Avenue of Elms, a 75-tree-long path that culminated in a bronze boulder memorializing former Northwestern students killed in action. In June 1923, the Alumni News proclaimed that the memorial promised “to become one of the features of the campus that will live always in the memory of the men and women who go out from the environment of the University with certain ideals cherished above life itself.”

In reality, the Avenue of Elms lived for about 30 years following its 1923 dedication. Everything but the boulder was removed to make way for the expansion of the Technological Institute and the construction of Bobb-McCulloch.

The Avenue of Elms might be the most poignant loss from Northwestern’s campus, but it is hardly the only one. The original Patten Gym, which once played home to the first-ever NCAA men’s basketball tournament, was also removed when Tech was expanded. Old natural landmarks, like a stream separating the Garrett Bible Institute and the rest of campus that students called the “Rubicon,” have fallen prey to the University’s expansion. Two 19th-century stone pillars which used to frame the south entrance to campus were removed in 2011, when they were deemed incapable of bearing the weight of the Arch that has stood there since 1999.

Kevin Leonard, University archivist and an alumnus himself (CAS ‘77), has no single explanation for why the stacks of history that fill Northwestern’s archives don’t seem to materialize on its campus, but has a couple ideas why Northwestern doesn’t wear its history on its metaphorical sleeve.

The Avenue of Elms might be the most poignant loss from Northwestern’s campus, but it is hardly the only one.

For one thing, it might be that the University just doesn’t have history that old students and administrators wanted to commemorate. After all, Northwestern might be a notable school now, but Leonard notes that it has not been all that famous – or more importantly, rich – for much of its history. Add the fact that NU is, in the grand scheme of U.S. colleges, not that old, and there might just not be enough history.

“One hundred sixty-odd years is a long time, but it’s not as long as some of those schools out east,” Leonard says.

Northwestern is old and it has money now, but that doesn’t mean it has the same history as schools that have old money. Of course, there are alternate theories.

“It might also be that this is, really, a professional school,” Leonard says. “People come here, they focus on their studies, their careers.”

In other words, maybe the University’s approach to history is just a reflection of its students’ and administrators’ priorities. Who has time to worry about history when a glitzy new communications building will be better for classes and attract more applicants?