A Parthenon for the Plains

Following the university's founding in 1869, a campus was laid out on four city blocks and its first building, University Hall, was constructed. Built of wood and sun-dried bricks in what its builders termed the "Franco-Italian Style," University Hall was an impressive structure to young people visiting the capital city. One student, born and reared in a sod house, likened it to the Parthenon. This beacon of learning also dazzled young pioneer children, who would mount huge ash heaps in the back of University Hall to view skeletons in the state's first museum.

Attempts to impose a more civilized appearance on the campus landscape often were turned back by the harsh conditions of the prairie. Hundreds of trees were planted, only to perish, and the first flower beds were cut down numerous times by marauding hordes of locusts.

Even University Hall paid nature's toll. By the time the university erected its second building in 1886, old U Hall was crumbling back into the prairie.

But the spirit of higher education prevailed in great leaders like Chancellor James Canfield. In the early 1890s, during construction of the new library, Canfield stood over its builders, personally holding contractors to specifications. The completion of this building marked a new era for the university - its collection of books and artworks were declarations of learned civilization in a raw land.

Today the old library appropriately serves the College of Architecture. Its turrets, winding staircase, and owls of wisdom are reminders of the great aspirations of its builders.

The Campus Expands

As the university's mission grew, so did its size. A farm campus was established east of Lincoln in 1873. Separated from the city by an unbroken stretch of prairie, it was regarded by students to be a great distance from the main city campus. By 1904 the farm campus went beyond its own boundaries to establish an experimental station at North Platte, the first of many research centers that would serve the state in later years. NU made its first operational tie with the city of Omaha when that city's then-ailing Medical College merged with the university in 1902.

A New Century

The first decade of the 20th century saw enrollment at NU increase by a third, and by 1909 nearly 4,000 students were in attendance. That same year the university was admitted as the 18th member of the Association of American Universities.

The university began to outgrow its original four-block city campus, and in 1906 constructed a student activity center, known as the Temple Building. Matching funds for the construction of this building were given by petroleum magnate John D. Rockefeller, a friend of Chancellor E. Benjamin Andrews. The donation created an uproar among such Nebraska populists as William Jennings Bryan, who considered Rockefeller's oil money to be tainted.

A number of buildings from those early days survive today as reminders of this era, including Brace Laboratory, Richards Hall, and the first law college building.

university hall
UNIVERSITY HALL, the University of Nebraska's first building; ca. 1887.

architecture hall (original library)
ARCHITECTURE HALL, the University of Nebraska's first library; ca. 1890.