and the City
A Centennial View of the
University of Chicago
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A City Builds a University
The Shadow of the Old
The founding of the Old University had seemed bright with promise. In 1856, Chicago Baptist leaders accepted an offer from Senator Stephen A. Douglas of "a site for a University in the city of Chicago." Douglas was a leading figure in the city and state, general counsel for the Illinois Central Railroad, and two years away from the critical series of debates with his downstate rival Abraham Lincoln. Though not himself a Baptist, Douglas was willing to give land to any group that would found an institution of higher learning and thus promote the continuing commercial and cultural development of the city.
Ten acres for a campus were set aside on the west side of Cottage Grove Avenue just north of 35th Street, directly across the road from "Oakenwald," Douglas's expansive lakeshore estate. University leaders confidently anticipated financial support from Douglas and his wealthy friends and hoped that he would deed them the remainder of his land as the institution grew.
The south wing of the Old University's main building was completed in time for the beginning of classes in 1859. Construction was then begun on the main part of the building, Douglas Hall, and on the Dearborn Observatory constructed on its west side, all of which was completed by 1864. In addition to college courses, a preparatory school was established along with medical and law departments. The newly organized Baptist Union Theological Seminary (BUTS) offered its first classes in Douglas Hall in 1867, and the next year it erected its own building adjacent to the campus. For any outside observer, the two institutions seemed ideally situated to reap the benefits of the increasing prosperity of the Baptist community and the steady southward growth of the city of Chicago.
Those inside knew better. Senator Douglas, who was named the first president of the Old University's board of trustees, died in 1861 without providing the institution a bequest. The financial panics of 1857 and 1873 eroded the prosperity of wealthy supporters, both Baptist and non-Baptist, and the great fire of 1871, while leaving the south side of Chicago unscarred, destroyed the commercial heart of the city. The Civil War also disrupted the lives and fortunes of potential donors, and its impact was felt directly when Camp Douglas, one of the Union's largest prisons for captured Confederates, was located just to the north of the Old University grounds.
Faced with growing debt, the BUTS accepted an offer of land from trustee George C. Walker and moved its faculty, students, and library ten miles south to suburban Morgan Park in 1877. The Old University was not so fortunate. Unable to meet its obligations, primarily the debt incurred in erecting Douglas Hall, the institution lost its mortgage to its principal creditor and was forced to close in the spring of 1886.
Baptist leaders in Chicago and throughout the Middle West were humiliated by the extent of the catastrophe. While the BUTS survived in its suburban refuge, the failure of the Old University left the denomination without an academic base to rival the nearby institutional successes of the Presbyterians at Lake Forest College or the Methodists at Northwestern University in Evanston. Resolving to re-establish a Baptist academic presence in Chicago was a group of determined ministers and laymen including George C. Walker, Henry A. Rust, Frederick A. Smith, the Rev. George W. Northrup, president of the BUTS; E. Nelson Blake, president of the Baptist Theological Union; and the Rev. Thomas W. Goodspeed, financial and recording secretary of the board of the BUTS. They shared, Goodspeed wrote later, an "inextinguishable desire and unalterable purpose" that a new institution should emerge from the old. Goodspeed pressed their case with particular urgency on two laymen with close ties to the situation in Chicago: William Rainey Harper, a professor of Semitic languages at Yale who had just left the faculty of the BUTS, and John D. Rockefeller, the Baptist oil magnate who was serving as vice-president of the BUTS board.
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