Old University of Chicago

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The University of Chicago c. 1860

The Old University of Chicago was the legal name given in 1890 to the University of Chicago's original legal entity. Between 1856 and 1886 the university was simply referred to as the "University of Chicago" (or, interchangeably, "Chicago University"). The name change was necessitated when the university's original campus was badly damaged in a fire and it was foreclosed on by its creditors. Rather than continue operations under its existing charter, its trustees decided to change the name of the University of Chicago to the "Old University of Chicago" and allow the establishment of a new legal entity that would once again be called the "University of Chicago."[1] The university soon continued operations at its current Hyde Park campus.

Today the University of Chicago recognizes alumni from the Bronzeville campus as its own and maintains a number of other continuities from its pre-1890 origins.[2] The lone remaining stone from the older school's building in Bronzeville, which was destroyed by fire, is preserved on the present school's main quadrangle, where it is set into the wall of the arch between the Classics building and Wieboldt Hall.


19th Century Students of the University of Chicago

The land upon which the University of Chicago was established was originally part of a lakefront tract owned by Senator Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas had offered the 10-acre (4.0 ha) plot, worth $50,000 and located at Cottage Grove Avenue and Thirty-Fifth Street, to the Presbyterian Church for a seminary. When the church group failed to raise the $100,000 Douglas set as a precondition of his donation, he offered the site to a group of Baptists, who accepted. Douglas was not particularly religious but an avid promoter of Chicago; critics accused him of trying to boost the value of his adjoining lots.[3]

The school's 1856 charter required that most of the members of the Board of Trustees be of the Baptist faith. The school made no such restrictions on either faculty or students. Despite the title of university, in the early years, the tenor of the instruction was primarily collegiate and vocational in nature. Two hundred to five hundred students enrolled annually in preparatory, collegiate, law, and medical schools.

The new institution began almost immediately to encounter financial difficulties. Fundraising was hurt by Douglas' support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which was regarded by many northern Baptists and other abolitionists as a betrayal. The situation only worsened when Douglas's personal slaveholding became a public scandal in the run up to the 1860 Presidential election. [4] The financial Panic of 1857 further drained the finances of many of the university's principal investors, rendering most of their initial subscriptions worthless.

The trustees had proceeded with plans to build the university, including construction projects that were beyond the school's means because of the volatility of the market. With the university’s debt mounting rapidly, President J. C. Burroughs and the trustees sold a second wave of subscriptions. Key to this effort was James Hutchinson Woodworth, a former Chicago mayor who was also president of the Treasury Bank of Chicago. Woodworth served as a university trustee from 1857 to 1869, as well as treasurer for some time.

Burroughs, who remained in office longer than any of his five successors, established in 1859 the University's Law Department, the city's first law school. In 1870, Ada Kepley and Richard A. Dawson received bachelor of law degrees, likely the first woman and first African American, respectively, to receive degrees from the institution. In 1872, the faculty voted to allow women undergraduate students.[5] In 1873, the Law School became jointly associated with Northwestern University, as the Union College of Law and ultimately became today's Northwestern University School of Law.[6] Also, in the early years of the university, some students requested training for the Christian ministry and courses in theology were added. In 1867, this academic department was chartered as a separate institution, the Baptist Theological Union. In the 1890s, this seminary became the University of Chicago Divinity School.[7]

The university's finances deteriorated rapidly after Woodworth died in 1869. It was rocked by the huge costs of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and the Panic of 1873 decreased donations. In 1874, a fire damaged the university’s main physical plant.

Meanwhile, disagreements in the Board of Trustees flared up over fundraising, financial management, and faculty appointments, escalating into open conflict. Burroughs and his most vocal opponent, trustee W. W. Everts, left the board. To keep Burroughs affiliated with the university, the trustees created the post of chancellor and appointed him responsible for the school's financial affairs. But the new president and Chancellor Burroughs were quickly at odds. Other administrators were hired and departed in rapid succession; by 1886, six presidents had served the university.

The university's fifth president, Galusha Anderson, appealed to philanthropists John D. Rockefeller and Leland Stanford, but was unable to secure substantial donations.[8] Union Mutual Life Insurance Company, the university's chief creditor, brought suit in 1881 to foreclose the mortgage on the university's property. Anderson argued to keep the school open, but in January 1885 the court found for Union Mutual.[8] The university closed in autumn 1886, and the main building was razed in 1890.[9]

At the final meeting of its Board of Trustees in 1890, the university officially changed its name to the "Old University of Chicago". This was intended to provide a buffer between the university's outstanding debt and the new Rockefeller-financed location in Hyde Park, which was then being organized. Almost immediately after the name change the trustees created a new legal entity, called simply the University of Chicago, that would carry on the university's operations and its name.

Notable graduates[edit]


  1. ^ "Guide to the Old University of Chicago Records 1856-1890". www.lib.uchicago.edu. Retrieved 2017-09-21. 
  2. ^ "The University of Chicago Magazine, Volumes 5-6". p. 284. Retrieved 2014-02-06. 
  3. ^ Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas (1973) pp 558, 872
  4. ^ "Controversy", Integrating the Life of the Mind: African Americans at the University of Chicago 1870-1940, Exhibit September 2008 - February 2009, University of Chicago Library, web exhibit 2009, accessed 23 September 2013
  5. ^ "Advocacy", Integrating the Life of the Mind, 2009
  6. ^ Law School: 150th anniversary, Northwestern University School of Law
  7. ^ Goodspeed, Thomas Wakefield (1972). A History of the University of Chicago, Founded by John D. Rockefeller: The First Quarter-Century. University of Chicago Press. pp. 20–22. ISBN 9780226303833. 
  8. ^ a b "Myth of Openness", Integrating the Life of the Mind (2009), accessed 23 September 2013
  9. ^ Rudolph, Frederick (1962). The American College and University: A History. Knopf. p. 351. ISBN 978-0-8203-1284-2. 
  10. ^ "Lincoln Chronology". National Park Service. 

Coordinates: 41°49′54″N 87°36′41″W / 41.8317°N 87.6114°W / 41.8317; -87.6114